“I don’t want to hear that,” says a complaining new mother to her friend while rocking her baby boy. “You have to tell her she needs to leave him,” says another lady to a group of young professionals on their lunch break. A med student questions his companion, “…His wife beat him up?” “I can help the next guest,” says a smiling cashier ready to help the next buyer of a bagel and coffee.
This shower of conversation and exclamations covers the dull roar of Classical music that occupies the background; only the musical soul will notice the occasional inflections drowned out by the shallow conversations, rotating bread ovens, and clinking silverware and dishes. Laughter and laptops compete as some have come to visit and some have come to work. Most people are by themselves. But none look as alone as him.
In the midst of the feeding frenzy he sits alone at a table in his faded black t-shirt with colorful cartoon characters dancing on the bottom as it tightly wraps over his enlarged core. The juvenile t-shirt doesn’t seem to match the age on his face. His mostly silver watch clacks on the table as he adjusts his arms for the 73rd time. His occasional glances don’t make it to the left and right, just up and back down so as to not bring attention to his acts of surveillance. He doesn’t want anyone to notice he is looking up. Sporadic head scratches break up the symphony of room surveillance and arm adjustments. He looks up past his glasses and the wrinkles reform in his forehead. The last resort seems to be when he picks up his pencil to write.
There is an old clipboard with a rusted metal clip holding about fifty sheets of white lined paper oddly distant from their notebook making their holes useless. His pencil and paper seem foreign in this coffee shop world of laptops, netbooks and smart phones. His neighbor types her third page in a word document as he pauses to remove the dirt from under his finger nails before writing his next sentence. Sudden inspiration forces him to raise the clipboard and begin writing. But what is he writing? Is he observing someone as I am observing him? Does he see the loneliness in the eyes of another as I see it in his?
Uncharacteristically he nervously looks to his right and locks eyes with me. He slowly removes his trash from the table and begins to leave. It is like he wanted to be invisible. As soon as he knew I noticed him, he left like a scared deer. The 35 lines already started on his clipboard notebook paper will have to wait until later to be finished. I wish I knew what his mechanical pencil was writing.
Loss and regret overwhelmed me when I thought my extended stare scared him away. I was wrong, he only momentarily left his position to carry out his duty as a good citizen and disposed of his trash. Upon returning, his life story was put on halt as he randomly flipped to a clean sheet of paper in the middle of the stack to begin a sketch. Curious of the subject of the sketch I got up and passed him under the guise of replenishing my coffee. I looked down to see a partial sketch of an action figure. The character was posed for battle as he drew flames encasing this cartoon warrior.
I wanted to say good afternoon on the way back but somehow fear of intrusion held my tongue and I returned to my perch and continued to perceive him from afar. I wish fear didn’t cripple me from interacting with people. Who knows what my hello could have meant to him… I will never know.
I wonder if the character he drew is as lonely as he appears; trapped in one dimension between blue lines on a single sheet of college ruled notebook paper. Sometimes our social fears trap us like that and we don’t fully tap into our humanity. We would rather interact with our computers and cell phones than look up from the technology and exchange even a common courtesy hello. The next time any of us has the chance to interact with the soul of another through the exchange of a smile and a simple hello – do it.
This invisible barricade we put up on a daily basis must come down before we are foreigners in our own communities.