“Nothing is stranger or more ticklish than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who meet and observe each other daily – no hourly – and are nevertheless compelled to keep up the pose of an indifferent stranger, neither greeting nor addressing each other, whether out of etiquette or their own whim.”
― Thomas Mann
He always left work at exactly 5pm – no earlier and no later. He had no ambition to be promoted and yet, he had no want to work for free either.
5pm, it was and not a second more.
Each evening he would wait at the corner for the bus, which would take him within walking distance of his home. He always had the correct money and didn’t expect a ‘thank you’ for his consideration.
As he left the office there was always a little man who would sit on the sidewalk, just watching the world go by. Sometimes people would give the man an odd penny for his troubles, but he was never really sure what troubles it was that the little man had to endure. The man refused to give away hard-earned cash to a little man on the sidewalk who only watched and did nothing more. Yet this never put the little man off from wishing everyone who left the office, ‘a good evening’.
The man always sat on the same seat each morning and evening as he rode on the bus. Always the same folks would get on at the same stops each morning and get off on their return. If one hadn’t made it that morning, he would wonder where they were, ill, at a wedding, on vacation but he would never, ever think to start up a conversation with any of them.
He lived alone and although he saw his neighbors to say ‘hello’ to – that was as much contact as he courted. He had no need for anything more. At weekends he would watch the neighbours walk their dogs, or children, or partners up and down the neighbourhood.
If life had meant him to have acquaintances, it would have surely made it obvious to him which people he should engage. At the store, when he bought his groceries, he would only make eye contact with the staff when they had totalled his purchases and wished him a good day. He would smile, say ‘thank you’ and leave. And this was the man’s life. It was neither great, nor a disappointment. It just was.
Then one day as he was leaving the office, he tripped on a shoelace that had come undone in the elevator. As he lay on the sidewalk, no one stopped to help – after all, you didn’t talk to people who lay on sidewalks.
Yet the little man who watched – came over and asked him if he could be of help. The man said that wasn’t necessary as he had only tripped and could stand, but not one to be put off, the little man helped him stand and then asked if perhaps, he was hurt in any way. The man said he was fine, but the little man used some money that he had been given – but hadn’t asked for – to buy some water for the man to drink. The man said ‘thank you’ but it hadn’t been necessary. The little man said it was necessary – unless, that is the man belonged to some other place than Earth. As the little man said, we are all on this spaceship circling the sun, some get to ride 70 times around it, some more, some less but we are all astronauts.
And the man thought of that all the way to the bus stop. As he got on the bus, the driver whom he had never spoken to, asked if he was all right as their seemed to be blood coming from his forehead. The man touched his own head and saw that the driver was right. The man must have hit his head as he landed on the sidewalk. So the driver gave him his handkerchief to stop the flow, at least until he got home.
The man then thanked the driver and sat down. He was only five minutes from his dropping off point when he felt dizzy and seemed to black out. When the man came around, he found that he was lying on the bus floor, with his tie loosened and the folks (the ones he saw on the bus but never spoke to) were kneeling over him. One was cleaning his face, another had placed a jacket under his head, and one was holding his hand. When they got to his stop, he was able to stand but one of the passengers insisted on walking him to his house.
On the way there, two of his neighbours stopped to ask if he was all right. The one from the bus who was walking him home, told them the story and the neighbours said they could take it from there, and they would see he was all right.
The neighbours made him some soup and told him he should get a good night’s rest and he would be fine in the morning but if he wasn’t, he shouldn’t hesitate to call them.
And because of that shoelace untied, the man found that all those faces in the crowd that he had never spoken to, were only friends he had yet to discover.
bobby stevenson 2017