People Like Me

Until that day, I had never been closer than fifteen feet from Herman. All I knew about him was that he looked kind of like George Clinton without pants. He wore five hats at a time that created a Mad Hatter meets Abraham Lincoln look. Long, awry dread locks hung from beneath the bill of the bottom hat. His half zipped vest revealed that the curly hairs on his chest had turned green from lack of hygiene—or maybe it was the scurf of an exciting venture of dying body hair. There was more duct tape than shoe covering his feet. And of course the most noticeable feature and the least looked at was that tiny pair of spandex shorts.

I saw him frequently. He was always outside of that Starbucks we drove past on our way home, standing by the fountain with others like him. There’s something about living things and congregating around water—at beaches, by fountains, under bridges. I suppose it’s instinctual, because I too found a certain magnetism about that place. I found myself parking the car next to it, laptop in one hand and daughter in the other. I sat down inside the café near a window where I could see the many who smoked and yelled and slept around that fountain.

“What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen while working here?” I asked the cashier. I love asking cashiers that question.

“The strangest? Well, it’s kind of gross, but one man walked in here, dropped his pants, and just peed in the middle of the shop… and this isn’t as strange as it is scary, but one guy got his head busted open right outside our door.”

I paid on a card and sat down with my latte, computer, and sleeping infant. I opened a Word document and stared at it blankly, as usual. After watching the cursor pulse slowly for a minute, I noticed Herman standing at the counter. He pulled a small, plastic bag out of his fingerless gloves. After methodically untwisting it, he dumped out some pennies and nickels. There was no way it could have amounted to a whole dollar, but the cashier scooped the coins into his hand and prepared a coffee for him.

Herman walked to the fixing station next to me and held the sugar canister upside down over his coffee. As a steady stream of granules flowed, he watched, unmoving for nearly a whole minute, until he finally tipped the canister upright and set it back on the table. I’m not sure why I did it; maybe it was fear or distaste or maybe it was simply wondering what it’s like to have so many people feel repelled by you. I leaned over my computer and smiled.

“I like your hat.” I was sure to be loud enough to be heard. He kept his head down, but his eyes flicked up to see me. A whisper returned.

“What’s that?”

“I like your hat.” I repeated, pointing above his head. His eyes flicked up again and he nodded as he walked away toward the door. I suppose it was very grand of me to think that I was doing him a favor by saying hello. Maybe he didn’t care that people like me didn’t talk to him. It seems reasonable that he would have little interest in talking to a woman surrounded by the evidence of her comfortable life.

But then he turned around. After grabbing a newspaper from the rack, he sat down at the table next to me. He flipped through the pages and as I looked up at him, he began to speak. He spoke in such a soft whisper, I could hardly comprehend every other word: “nice of you,” “woman like you,” “what you do?”

“I’m here writing.” I spoke loudly, hoping he would follow suit.

“Real nice to see, working, so many people, out there, I say I don’t want trouble, good attitude, don’t do nothing, that’s why, I tell them.” There were entire sentences I missed, but I leaned forward and paid attention anyway.

“You have kids?” he asked me.

“Yeah, my daughter. She’s taking a nap here.” I patted the car seat on the other side of me.

“My son, I tell him, he, jail, caught up in, long time.” I responded when I knew what he was saying and just kept listening when I didn’t. He told me about the people by the fountain and the woman he called his wife. As he spoke, he ripped an ad out of the paper and slowly tore it into tiny squares. When he was done, he pulled his small plastic bag out of his glove, untwisted it, and placed the squares inside. He twisted it again, and placed it in one of his hats. The little bag moved from hat to glove and back to hat several times in the course of our conversation. Occasionally he added to the paper squares inside.

After an hour, he pulled a Starbucks card out of his glove. It had a promo code for a free song download on it. I have often wondered why he had it in the first place—what would he download it onto?  He asked if I had a pen and then proceeded to scribble onto the card for a few minutes.

“Made my day, woman like you, made my day.” He handed me the card and left the café. I looked down at the piece of paper. In a big, clumsy handwriting surrounded by meaningless scribbles it said, “HERMAN.” The man in a suit on the other side of my table looked at me over his laptop. I wondered what he thought of our conversation. I glanced down at my sleeping daughter and then at the blinking cursor. It had made my day too.