(Written in 2002, inspired by Ghost World and New York City)
It was a gray Wednesday morning in the big city and the dust that had settled overnight was just being kicked up by the early crowds of rush hour. Wednesday, equidistant from the weekends, were the most characterless days of the week. No excitement or lethargy associated with the beginning of the week. No anticipation or impatience of the coming weekend. Wednesdays were the bane of modern society.
And though most busy intersections of the city were monotonous in their diversity at this time of the day on Wednesdays, there was one particular intersection that was just a a little more diverse, and so a little more monotonous, than the rest. There was a bench on the side of this intersection and every day around this time you would find a middle-aged man sitting there. He sat there every day. With a beleaguered look on his face, he would watch the street. His presence was the one constant in the ever-changing city. He was dressed in his best Sunday suit and would adjust his tie every few minutes. He wore brown leather shoes, scuffed at the front, and white socks.
His name was Donald and that was one of the two things he knew for sure.
The other was that he was to sit there. This satisfied him and nothing else mattered.
He sat. He was satisfied.
When Donald was satisfied, he would rock back and forth in the bench as if he was sitting on a rocking chair. The more he was satisfied, the slower he would rock.
There was a smell of car exhaust and hot dogs in the air. The hot dog vendor on the street corner, an old man named Raz, knew Donald as well as anyone could, probably better than Donald himself. What he mostly knew was that Donald sat there every day with a blank look on his face.
Raz could not recall how many days ago it was that Donald had come to sit here the first time. He hadn’t even noticed him till he had been sitting there a few months. People did not sit on that bench, not in the mornings. Most people believed they did not have the time or the patience.
Everyday he would see Donald come and sit down on the bench at the peak of rush hour in the morning, all dressed up in his suit and tie. He would have a brown paper bag in one hand and would be fiddling with his buttons with the other. He sat there till evening, when the working public of the city returned home.
Most people who passed that way regularly knew of Donald, but chose not to acknowledge it to themselves. The city had three kinds of people- the people who mocked Donald in public, people who noticed him but avoided his gaze and people who refused his existence altogether. They were all essentially the same. They were all people who feared Daniel because he represented them all. He was them.
“Yai yai yai,” Raz would say, in one of his famous expressions of disgust. “People! They think the world is their restaurant and we are all their waiters. They forget that we are all eating in the same restaurant. Yes?” It was one of his many Raz-isms; endless, seemingly philosophical banter that brought his customers back.
Raz had never spoken to Donald until today.
“Hey maan, you want the hot dog?” he asked in an accent that was from no place in particular but from many places at once.
Raz was sure there was something different about Donald today; he couldn’t put his finger on it. Of course, Raz had no idea that the middle-aged man on the bench was named Donald– in his mind he referred to him as ‘loony, the kid’– but he felt he knew him.
If it was possible to decipher the look on his face, then today ‘loony, the kid’ looked sadder than usual.
“Yes?” Donald replied, now rocking back and forth a little faster than before.
“No,” said Donald, with such finality that Raz chose not to continue the conversation.
Donald continued to look at out at the street, his eyes looking for something. Raz wondered what he was looking for– a lost love, his failed life, or maybe just his sanity.
If the answer had been so simple Donald would be there any more.
“I had an English muffin in the morning, thank you,” said Donald under his breath, as if answering the question for his own satisfaction, quickly shooting a glance towards Raz as his rocking quickened in pace.
“You say something, kid? You say?”
Donald was now looking down at his shoes. He seemed to notice something as he pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket. He started wiping his own shoes with care.
Raz watched Donald as he worked on his shoes like a child, like someone who had invested much emotionally in the cleanliness of his shoes. Raz was overcome with a wave of mixed emotions– pity, revulsion, despair– and could no longer bear to look at Donald. He turned back to his hot dogs and avoided looking back towards Donald.
Donald was looking down at his shoes like a mother checking her son’s hands for stolen cookies, like a child giving her dolls a final check before the imaginary tea party. He gave his shoes one last obligatory swipe with the handkerchief before settling back in to his steady rock back and forth, looking out at the street. Blank.
The buildings on either side of the street stood as tall and proud proof of the possibilities in human endeavor. Everything in sight had a purpose. Everything in its place. The grays and whites of the city spoke of determination. Every person seemed to know his place in the world, his goal in life and was headed straight for it. It was the city at its best.
This is not what Donald saw when he looked out at the street. Donald saw everything but noticed nothing. Everything in sight had a purpose; except Donald, that is.
The city was economical, functional and durable, as Raz would tell his customers. The city pushes, shoves and humiliates, but it serves, he would also say.
Two girls, Kay and Cindy, dressed in bright colors, strutted past Donald.
“Look at that guy! Look’s like he’s been kicked out of his own wedding,” said Cindy, pointing unabashedly at Donald while Kay giggled uncontrollably.
Donald gave them a smile so slight and so fleeting that they stopped giggling, wondering if it actually was a smile and if it was meant for them. They stood there for a few seconds waiting for a follow-up reaction from Donald, but he had returned to his own world. Blank.
People were honking their horns, the sounds of impatience. Here a traffic signal turned to ‘Walk’ and an erratic mob of people hustled in both directions with an unflinching sense of purpose, arrogance and order. The ears, the people, the streets, the sidewalks– dust and grime, impatience and decadence. It was the city at its worst.
This was also not what Donald saw. Donald looked sad, tired and lonely only because of his aged face and incongruous attire to the passerby. The world looked incongruous to Donald.
To most people Donald was so out of place that he fit right in. In a city that was proud of its oddities and diversity, Donald was a seashell in the sand. Something that would stand out any where else in the world.
The sun was nearly overhead, but it was not hot.
There was a group of European tourists passing by looking at Donald with much interest. A few of them were taking pictures of him.
People headed to lunch looked at the tourists in disgust. They shook their heads as they walked on. They did not understand the tourists. The tourists would just take the picture and show it to their friends back home saying, “See, that’s the city.”
Donald only looked at them with interest, waving as he realized they were taking pictures. Still, his face not saying much. Blank.
Raz’s customers would sometimes ask him why Donald sat there.
“Reasons? Does everything have the reason? Does every event have the one to blame? Always searching for the truth. Yes? Are you prepared for the possibility that there is no truth?” Raz would shoot back.
Of course, Raz didn’t believe in most of his Raz-isms. They were just things he said to keep the customers satisfied; they were a product that came free with the hot dogs. Raz did not like his own hot dogs. He did not believe his own Raz-isms.
He did think Donald had a reason for sitting there, so today he decided to ask.
“So why you sit here every day?” asked Raz, leaning over his hot dog stand trying to catch a glimpse of Donald’s eyes. Blank.
A few people walking along the sidewalk actually stopped to listen to Donald’s answer, though most pretended they were not paying attention.
“I don’t know. That it what I am trying to find out. That is why I sit here.”
Raz was not happy with the answer, but he was satisfied. It did make sense to him in a strange sort of way. In a way, did he not wake up each morning to live another day to find out why he lived at all? Was there any other more basic reason?
Raz lost the thought quickly in his pickles and mustard. He learned long ago that thoughts that lasted longer than thirty seconds resulted in unhappy customers. They also made for poor Raz-isms.
Raz returned to his hot dogs. Donald to his gaze. The city to being comfortably busy, comfortably oblivious.
At that moment, at that intersection, it seemed as though the city in all its atrocious glory went about its business only to avoid noticing Donald.
The sound of the evening city was much less urgent than the morning. It was more of a constant drone of shuffling feet and buzzing engines that blended into one sedative sound.
It was getting dark, and cold, as the city seemed to get grayer than it had been in the morning. There was something about the cold weather in the cities that made people hug themselves tighter. Something that made them go about their lonely business more diligently. Something that made it all more gray.
There was also something about evenings in the city and newspapers. Picture an evening in a big city in your mind’s eye and you will always see a flying page of a newspaper in some empty corner. It is inevitable.
So is Donald. He is inevitable too.
Donald sat at at the same bench on the same intersection. Raz was delivering hot dogs and his opinions on the bourgeois. People were headed home in as much of a self-involved hurry as they were headed to work in the morning. In short, things were as they always were.
Kay and Cindy were walking back from work, this time neither of them sparing a glance for Donald, as one of them commented on the increase in the number of homeless people on the streets.
Donald kept looking down at his shoes every couple of minutes until he was satisfied they were still there and were still spotless. He rocked back and forth slowly on the bench. Face still. Blank.
Donald’s ears suddenly perked up; something in the air had changed. There was something more playful, more innocent among the impersonal buzz. No one else on the streets that evening seemed to notice. Donald looked around to see what had changed, but could see nothing obviously out of the ordinary. As a signal turned to ‘Walk’ on his right, he looked at the oncoming crowd of people. There was a difference. It was not all busy. It was not all holding itself tightly against the wind. It was not all gray.
As the crowd passed by Donald, he looked at each individual carefully. A child, a little girl with her left pinky in her mouth, appeared from the mass. She was looking down at the cracks on the sidewalk, jumping irregularly to avoid them. She abruptly stopped as she found herself in front of Donald, looking down at his shoes. She smiled and looked up. Donald was smiling, not fleeting, not slight.
She looked straight into Donald’s eyes and giggled, her finger coming out of her mouth as she spread her hands to her sides in abandon. Donald stopped rocking back and forth.
The next morning, Thursday, began much the same as the day before, except with more enthusiasm and less lethargy. People were headed to work. The flying newspapers had settled down in their morning reverie. The horns were honking, the people were shuffling and the city was buzzing.
People everywhere in the city were much the same as they were the day before. Except for the people who passed by this particularly busy intersection.
The hot dog vendor named Raz spent an uncharacteristically quiet day at that intersection.
The thing was, there was an empty bench beside his hot dog stand.
The people who passed by still avoided looking at it, but they were definitely not the same as they were the day before.