I had passed by the grizzled old man on the street corner every day on my way to work for as long as I could remember, but something about him today was different.
The man – his long, unkempt hair flowing about him, blending into his scraggly beard – always sat huddled on an old overturned bucket, his body occupying an infinitely small amount of space for such a large frame; his body language screaming defeat. His battered, grease-stained leather jacket had seen better days at least a few years back, if not closer to decades ago, the once ornate crest frayed bare. The knees of his filthy jeans were barely able to contain his pattellae, shredded and slashed in the style that’s become vogue in high fashion circles, where consumers pay a premium to have their products undergo targeted structural destruction prior to purchase, not wanting to wait for time and elements to do their duty.
Today, even in his haggard state, with the untold battles and demons he was surely facing, he managed to look up and smile at me as I entered his space.
It was a genuine smile, offered without malice, authentic, with the corners of his eyes crumpling into a tangled web of lines. Breaking his face, a spiderweb creasing the grey, salty grime that coated his tired, weathered skin.
It parted his dry, cracked lips, showing off his broken teeth, their stories etched in their cracks and peaks, these solitary, defiant storyboards interspersed with empty gummy spaces where their others had gone missing, their stories complete, with denouement and epilogue.
It was an unsettling smile.
Not because of the disastrous dentition, far from it. But because of what it conveyed. The weight of its meaning struck me like a thunderbolt in the moment it took me to recognize it’s source.
It was a smile of recognition.
In all the times I’d passed him by, this fixture on the sidewalk, he had never asked for money. Nor did he have any signage requesting the same. There was no overturned baseball caps, no tin cans, nor containers with sharpie scrawled words entreating charity. He was not panhandling. He was begging for nothing.
“Excuse me, Sir…”
For the first time, I stopped cold in my tracks, halted by his words.
His voice was clear, strong, and purposeful. It broke through the hubbub of the busy street, cutting through the rattle of streetcars and jangle of buses as they prattled by, barely meters away, spewing fumes and dust into the air. It overrode the low rumble and murmur of the street talk, the voices of the passers by as they passed on by, preoccupied with their own lives.
And it was directed at me.
I turned my body toward him, an involuntary movement. My mind split, fighting my own being, my drive divided by the places I needed to be and the arrows of recognition that had pierced me from his luminous smile mere moments ago.
Our eyes met and there it was again.
That pang, that familiar feeling coursed through me, igniting every neuron in my memory bank. Dormant pathways lit up, dendrites seeking to answer the questions being asked. The same sensation that occurs when one’s eyes drift lazily across a crowded room and suddenly connect to the infinite windows of another’s soul; to someone known, but impossible to place.
The voice, louder this time, more sure now that I had halted my morning commute. The act of me stopping, in that manner, instilling confidence, clarity. It had confirmed, at a subconscious level, his belief.
“It’s Mark. Mark Hews. We went to school together.”
That thunderbolt struck again, this time with the intensity of a thousand camels spitting at once. And not the little spits. The big ones. It was like my face was covered. But in actuality, it was uncovered. Naked emotion dripping through.
This was a former classmate. We were the same age, but he carried the weight of the world. Haggard. Eyes sunken. This was not the man I had once known, but he was.
The memories flooded in. So many at once, a cascade of images and sounds careening into each other. The labs we’d worked on together. The exams we’d studied for. So many years ago. A different time. A different place.
We had traveled different paths.
“Mark…” my voice faltered.
It was obvious that the years had not been kind to him. But unlike all the other times I had walked past him, this time I saw him for who he was.
“Mark…” I repeated, softer, my voice drifting off, fading.
I was at a loss for words. The Wordonist, silent.
We know that silence like this often cannot survive for very long, that if present, it will quickly be erased, filled by those who can’t fathom its existence, who need to keep it at bay. And my silence was no different.
“Wordonist, it is you! I thought I recognized you. It’s been forever – you look the same! How’ve you been, buddy!?”
“I’ve been good! I almost didn’t recognize you…you look…different…”
“Yeah, it’s been a ride. Twenty years? You know fortunes lost yesterday become the fortunes for today? Anyway, listen, I’m just curious, are you open to making extra money working as little as 5-10 hours a week? I’d like to tell you about a fantastic opportunity that just fell into my lap. It’s ground floor and the possibilities are limitless. I got the inside scoop on this revolutionary health system. Do you have just 15 minutes to change your life…”