Talking to Strangers: Walter

More and more I’m amazed to find that each and every one of us is walking around in a world filled with broken, hurt and damaged people masquerading as the happy and healthy.  I used to work at a job downtown – this was a place I was at for five years – and it wasn’t until my fifth and final year that I discovered a multitude of tragedies happening all around me in the secret and quiet places of people’s lives.  A woman I knew had become her parent’s caregivers half a decade ago, both mom and dad  becoming too sick to take care of themselves.  A man I knew, nearly forty years old but looking not a day over thirty, was trying to take care of his mother’s cancer treatments and medical bills from across the country.  Another man had a father that lived in Seattle, in a nursing home.  He would visit him twice a month, flying from LA to Seattle.  Sadly, his father had dementia and rarely knew that he was there or, if he did acknowledge his presence, he didn’t understand it was his own son.  This is the mentality we live in; come to work, act like everything is alright, keep pushing on, keep your head down, do your paperwork, check in, check out, go home and deal with your problems there.

It concerned me that I’d been working around these people so long, side by side with them, and I’d never bothered to ask, “How are you?” or, “How are you doing?”  I mean, obviously I asked them that but it was more in the, “Please don’t get too deep with me, did you watch Breaking Bad last night,” type of way.

After all, what could I do for them?  Could I help them?  Do I have the cure for dementia?  For cancer?  No… but I can listen.  You can listen.  We can take ten minutes, fifteen minutes and listen to someone get all those terrible things off their chest; venting.  We can dig deeper than we have, we can push harder than we do, we can attempt to be the people who warm the room.

It’s sad to live in a world where everyone seems happy but inside is dull and gray.  It’s sad to know someone for five years and not know that they fly to Seattle twice a month to see their dad.  It’s sad to be so oblivious.  And it’s these thoughts that are traveling through my head as I’m walking down the street to the local grocery store last Easter when I run into a middle aged black man on the corner, waiting on the stoplight for the red hand to turn into a walk signal.

I have my headphones in and am using them to talk to my mother via my phone in my back pocket.  I approach the corner and the man turns to me, all teeth and dreadlocks and says, “My man!” and I say, “Uh… hi…” and quickly avert my eyes.  This was back before I was making a point to Talk to Strangers and this man was really jumping into my bubble and I just wanted to get to the store and back home.  My mom, on the phone, says, “What?  Hi!” and I say, “No, hang on,” and the man says, “You got it!  I’ll wait!  What’s up?” and I say, “I’m talking to-” and the man says, “Happy Easter!  Praise the Lord!  He has risen!  Do you love Jesus?” and I say, “I love Jesus.”

In my ear, like my conscience, a female voice says, “I love Jesus too,” then, confused, “What are we doing?”

I pull out one of my ear buds and the black man with the dreadlocks says, “What you listening to?!” and I say, “I’m uh, I’m not listening to anything.  I’m talking to my mom on the phone,” and he says, “Oh, man!  Here you are!  Talking to your mom on the phone – God Bless Her – and you’re just going where you’re going and, oh man!  I’m keeping you!  I’m keeping you!  You can say it,” and I feel suddenly so… I don’t know… blessed to be around this man.  He had such a force of goodness coming from him that I wanted to soak it in.  I wanted to hear him talk.  My mom and the grocery store had suddenly and quickly become obsolete.

I say, “You’re not keeping me,” and he says, “Listen, tell your momz, tell her you love her for me,” and I say, “Uh… okay… I will,” and he stares at me and we sit in silence and the red hand turns to a white man but neither of us takes a step off the curb.  He says, “You gots her on the phone, don’t you?” and I say, “Oh, yeah… yeah…” and I lift up the mouthpiece and I say, “Mom?” and she says, “Yes.  Are you back?  What’s happening?” and I say, “I love you.  I’m glad you’re my mom,” and she says, “Oh, well, thank you John Lowell.  I love you too,” and then I say, “Hang on.”

The man that is all smiles and dreadlocks and loud voice and happiness, the man that is bottled energy; the man that appears to me to be the most genuinely positively happiest man I’ve ever seen in my life; this man who I am beginning to speculate of actually being a real life angel because of the way his presence is making me feel, bubbly, giddy, drunk on life; he gets very sober and he puts his face in his hands and he looks up and his eyes are watery and he says, “I lost my mom three months ago.  My mom is dead.  There’s nothing worse than losing your mom.  You tell your old lady you love her every day…” and I say, “Yeah.  I’m sorry… I will…” and then the red hand turns to a white man again and I step off the curb and The Man follows along side me, that broken part of him hiding again, he’s replaced it with his Public Self.  He says, “Easter is a fan-TASTIC time of the year!  I just love it!  Jesus has RISEN.  Do you believe that?” and I say, “Yes, I do,” and now, standing on the opposite side of the street, cross traffic moving again, he says in a huge, boisterous voice, “You are wonderful!” and I can’t help but smile.  He’s the type of guy that, even if he were houseless, he wouldn’t be homeless.

Is this guy houseless?  Mentally unstable?  I simply can’t tell… but I’m smiling again, this madman brightening my day.

He raises both hands to the air, fingertips up, closes his eyes and seems to pull something in.  Then he opens his eyes and repeats himself, “You are wonderful!  You are a wonderful person,” and he’s not talking to himself, some bizarre mantra.  He’s talking directly to me and so I say, “Thank you,” and then I start to walk away, feeling like maybe I am a wonderful person; feeling like maybe this guy just unlocked all of my potential and set me free, feeling like– I’m halfway across the parking lot when he shouts at me again, somewhere near the top of his lungs.  People turn to look at him, then rotate on their necks to find me, the object that he’s pointing at.  He shouts, “BE.  WONDERFUL.  BEE.  WUN-DERFUL,” and the words simultaneously send warmth into my heart and a chill up my spine.  It was more than fortune cookie wisdom.  It was a command.

I get back on the phone with my mom and try to explain the incident that just took place but find that I can’t quite put my finger on this man.  I can’t quite explain him.  I can’t quite tell you what he was like, how happy he was, how pure everything seemed.  It was like the badness couldn’t touch him.

As I speak with my mother, I watch The Man walk down the sidewalk and begin to accost another individual who skates around him, eyes pointed at the ground, mumbling some excuses as to why he can’t talk… and I can’t help but wonder if that man just missed an opportunity to have his life changed by The Man with Dreadlocks.

Over the course of the following year I think about him often and his words regularly echo through my head.  “Be Wonderful.”  What does that mean?  How can I apply it?  Am I supposed to approach strangers to spread joy through madness?  Is Being Wonderful opening doors for people and buying meals for strangers?  Is it listening to those around you?  Is it trying to help?

I think the short answer… the shortest answer… is yes and no.  It’s not one thing.  It’s not, “Do this and you will Be Wonderful” instead it’s “Be Wonderful and all these things will be you.”  Side note: Being Wonderful is very different from Being Fabulous.

A year passes and I discover all of these things about people that I work with, the stuff talked about above, and I discover things about myself that I didn’t know.  I discover that I don’t engage with people; I don’t dig deeper with those around me.  I begin asking more questions, both to those in my inner circle along with complete strangers.  I want people to know that I’m listening to them.

My children grow, my new daughter is born, my mother arrives in town and I find myself walking down to the grocery store two nights ago to fetch some croissant rolls for a German dish we’d discovered online.  I purchase the rolls, make small talk with the busy cashier and, on my way home, ear buds in, Deliverance being read to me by a man with an impeccable Southern drawl, who do I see approaching me down the sidewalk but The Man.

I smile at the thought of talking to him again and I pull down my ear buds as he approaches me.  He says, “My man!” and I say, “Hey!” and he says, “You having a good day?  A good life?  You gotta let that all OUT INTO THE WORLD!  You gotta share it!  You can’t bottle it up inside of you!  You look like you’re bottling it all up!  LET IT OUT!  Tell me something GOOD!  Tell me something GREAT!” and I say, “I have a new daughter,” and he stumbles backwards and says, “GET OUT!” and I smile.  This man is more engaged with me in ten seconds than I have been since leaving his presence nearly a year ago.  I’m trying to take notes.

He says, “How old?” and I say, “One month,” and he says, “GET OUT!  And what is the little lady’s name?” and I say, “Bryce Allison,” and he says, “What-what-what-where-where did that name come from?  Is that a family name?” and I say, “Yeah… it’s my daughter’s name,” and he laughs and says, “There ya go!  Hey, I gotta hug you!” and he leans in and I embrace him and squeeze.  He says, “What’s your name?” and I say, “Johnny.  What is yours?” and he says, “I’m Walter.  Thanks for asking!” and I say, “Walter, I ran into you about a year ago and we spoke for a bit,” and he says, “Really?” and I say, “Yes.  We were on that corner,” and I point and I say, “You were so happy and you told me to Be Wonderful and it was great advice and you made such an impact on me that I’ve told a lot of people about you,” and he covers his eyes and sort of laughs but when he drops his hands, I see that they’re watering again.

He looks at me and says, “I forgot about meeting you.  I forget a lot.  It’s because I am a —” and then he looks at me, expecting me to fill in the blank.  He points to a juice bottle in his hand and shakes it and I know what he wants me to say.  He repeats himself, “Walter is a — it’s okay, you can say it,” and I just shake my head and shrug, playing stupid, so he finishes the thought for me, “Walter is… an alcoholic… that’s right,” and I grimace.  My angel just another person that I neglected.  Another person who’s so happy and shiny on the outside and broken and desperate on the inside.  Another person slipping through my fingers because I was so consumed with talking about me and my family and my stories.  Here’s a man I’ve met twice who seemed so happy that he didn’t even have problems… even after he told me his mother died I didn’t even ask how.  I didn’t even ask how he was.  I just said, “Sorry,” like some dopey twenty-five cent Hallmark knock-off card.

Walter says, “Listen, my man.  Next time you see me, you say ‘Hi’ even if I don’t remember you!” and I say, “Yeah, fer sher…” and then Walter turns and walks away, vanishing into the night and I turn and walk away, back towards my house, trying to decide how I can Be More Wonderful.

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