Monday, January 2, 2017

Home Before Dark

All the ordinary cliches are on display this morning: a couple awkwardly, enthusiastically swapping veiled miseries over coffee and scones; a handful of earnest progressives preaching to the small choir of themselves; the grizzled fallen man, reeking of wet wood smoke, sitting by the front window, head on a swivel in hopes of catching someone's, anyone's eye; the forty-seven year-old sham writer in noise-canceling headphones relentlessly playing solitaire on his laptop. It's been twenty minutes, and the woman sits up straight but deep in her chair, the smile now tight on her lips. The progressives are talking over one another, each of them desperate to be the one who voices the perfect argument. The homeless man does a brief inventory of his possessions. The writer unexpectedly types.

What does one call a date born on a website? Online dating, I suppose, but that phrase doesn't entirely satisfy. It's not, strictly speaking, a blind date, and yet their coming together was orchestrated by a benevolent third party that, based on parameters of geography and alleged interests and best-side profile pictures, decided they just might hit it off. This is what passes for a leap of faith these days: an eyes-open backflip off a third-floor ledge, into the warm embrace of a net made strong by algorithms and diminished expectations. But if I may rely on the evidence of appearance alone, I'll say the woman absolutely voted for Hillary and the guy without a shred of doubt not only voted for Trump but agrees with everything that polished turd purportedly stands for. He showed up for a date in a camouflage jacket, she's wearing a cashmere sweater and lipstick. I'm just not sure this one's a love match. I give them no more than twenty-eight months.

The progressives are rushing to slam shut the barn door now that all the horses have long since run away. None of what they're saying is fundamentally wrong, it's just that they're so determinedly myopic, it's like watching Mr. Magoo answer the iron when the phone rings and then grab the cat to smooth the wrinkled shirt on the ironing board. Like Magoo, their hearts are in the right place, and also like Magoo they'll always come through somehow unscathed, but there's no reason to believe they'll ever actually hit their mark.

Dana the homeless man is one of those people about whom everyone seems to think they know a little something. Once upon a time he was a lawyer, a prosecutor somewhere down on the coast. I've heard people speculate that he had a case go sideways on him, the sort of case that leaves a mark on everyone it touches, and in the aftermath he lost every last one of his bearings. I've also heard he was a functioning alcoholic up until the point when he was more one than the other, and it cost him everything he had. I've heard stories, that's all, and I don't vouch for any of them. I've never asked him his story, in part because I've heard him recount bits and pieces to passersby, and you can't trust anyone who insists he's the hero of his own extended suicide. Mostly, though, I've never asked because I'd only be doing so for the sake of cheap spectacle: to know something about someone without having to know him at all. I understand myself well enough to know that's where the road would end, and I get more than enough of that from Facebook.

I first encountered Dana on a regular basis the year I lived in the windowless office space from which this blog takes its name. Several times a day I'd stroll down Main Street to the park in the city square to smoke and stretch my legs and let my thoughts wander. I don't know if he didn't like smokers or if he didn't like me or if he didn't like anyone, but whenever I passed I could hear him muttering derisively in my wake. I knew he was cracked, and I understand almost nothing is personal when it's coming from someone whose mind has, in one way or another, gone mostly round the bend. In spite of the tone of his mutterings, I tended to think of him as no worse than a benign crank. I also felt the ignoble empathy of knowing that, while my circumstances were considerably better than his, they were nonetheless not at all great, and at the time I could lay claim to little more than being but a few steps back from the cliff's edge off which he'd long since fallen. He was, I reasoned, an effective cautionary tale. As the months wore on, though, he became as ubiquitous as my own shadow, drifting down the sidewalk in rough approximation of my own meanderings whenever I crept from the cave and into the light, and there were times I couldn't help but wonder if he was less a cautionary tale than an emblem of things to come. Sure enough, it's five years later, and here he is again, showing up in the bars I frequent, in the coffee shop where I sit now, and I realize it's circumstantial: it's winter, there's snow and ice everywhere, so a bench in the park won't suffice. I know it's not personal for him, there's no earthly reason it would be, and yet it haunts me just the same, which is how I know it's personal for me. It's certainly fair to say that there but for the grace of good friends and dumb luck go I, but that is a marginal truth at best.

Which brings us back to the writer. It's early afternoon now and the day has grown surprisingly warm beneath a mackerel sky. Almost five hours ago the writer cast his eyes around the coffee shop, wondering as he so often does where and how people manage to find the tiny shreds of hope that boldly compel them to meet internet strangers for coffee, or to gather over like-minded discourse and honestly believe they're going to change the world, or to carry their lives from place to place to place in a fistful of tattered shopping bags rather than simply lying down in the street and saying "Time to go." He typed, the writer did, and typed some more and some more and some more, until he realized he'd managed something a tick or two better than mere typing. A day and a half deep into a new year that promises bewildering and discouraging change, that's what the writer did, because that's all he has and all he knows, and sometimes complicated questions have the simplest of answers.

My shadow sits idly by the door, waiting for my next move. With a little luck, I'll be home before dark.

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