Monday, February 13, 2006

“What’s Your Story?”

Yesterday it snowed in the Northeast, our first true snowstorm of the winter. Boston got whacked with about a foot or more of snow — light, powdery stuff for the most part. At about 4:00 in the afternoon, after pressing Daughters Number 1 and 2 into duty as snow shovel operators, we three went out and moved snow from one spot to another. My daughters had the comparatively easier task of clearing the front walk and steps and the portion of sidewalk that borders our property. My job was to dig out the back walk and driveway. Ours is not an ordinary driveway. It’s extremely wide and is reputed to hold five cars abreast — at least that’s what the realtor told us. It really fits four cars comfortably, which still means it’s pretty wide. Also, as the driveway happens to be on a one-way street with parking allowed on only one side, the snow plow, when it makes its run down our street, only clears a single swath on that part which is free of parked cars. So the gap in front of our driveway, where the queue of parked cars is interrupted, doesn’t get plowed — the snow plow just sails right on by, taking care, naturally, to deposit dirty, wet snow in its wake. I have to shovel that as well.

There are two physical chores I can honestly say I don’t mind doing: shoveling snow and raking leaves. I think the monotony of both tasks give them a meditative quality which acts as a balm to me. There is something almost restful or soothing about repeating the same action over and over. Often I listen to an audio book, as I did yesterday, and my absorption in the story is always complete as I, automaton-like, scoop up snow here and throw it over there. I have keys handy for all the cars and I juggle them around so every square foot of the driveway feels the scrape of my shovel. I invariably do a very thorough job.

When I was finishing up yesterday, putting the last touches on the back walk to make sure every centimeter of asphalt was once again clear to be trodden upon, I heard a ghastly, hacking cough coming from an apartment building that neighbors our backyard. It was the sort of cough a bad actor might do on stage, overdone to the point where the effect of pitiable sickness never quite gets achieved; instead, the result is unintentional comedy. It was a loud cough with an extra baritone groan thrown in there to give it good carrying power. You would think, if the cough were genuine, whoever it was must be in the last extremity. There should be an oxygen tank present, and a priest nearby to administer last rites.

I placidly finished up and put the shovels away, completely untroubled because the cough didn’t faze me in the least. Why? For the simple reason that I’m totally used to it. That cough has become as commonplace to us as a rooster’s crow is on a farm. We moved into the house to the accompaniment of that cough. It is the tune we listen to when we work in the yard, regardless of the season. Our visitors who enter using the back way are serenaded by it. That cough is to us what Old Faithful is the Yellowstone.

You see, there is a man living across from our backyard who is patiently and systematically smoking himself to death. His apartment has a little, covered balcony that might measure roughly four feet by nine feet and can be gained through a sliding glass door. There he keeps a small patio table and chair and, in good weather and foul, he sits on his white plastic chair and smokes and smokes and smokes. Sometimes, as I wait in the car for my wife to come out of the house (I spend half my life waiting), I watch him. He likes to sit slightly leaned over with his left hand on his lap and arm akimbo, while with the other hand he nervously works his cigarette, taking a drag, inhaling, tapping the ash into the ashtray, then cigarette back up to his lips for the next drag, never once pausing a moment to allow himself one breath of clean air. It’s nerve-wracking to watch him. And always the cough. If not a cough, then a mighty, mucous-tossed throat clearing.

Witty as I am, I came up with the name “Smoky” for him. Clever, right? I knew you’d think so. Believe it or not, it didn’t take me long to think that one up. Smoky is about my age, perhaps a year or two older, and is never seen without a battered, floppy hat on his head. He wears biggish, round, black-framed spectacles and has a shaggy, salt-and-pepper beard. His clothing is always drab. If you met him out on the sidewalk, you would assume he was homeless.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to fight down the urge to advise him that there are quicker, less costly and more efficient means available nowadays to kill yourself. But a stronger impulse than that is to ask him point-blank, “What’s your story?”

Haven’t you met odd, curious people that captivate your attention like that? Maybe they dress in a certain funny way or have habits that verge on the socially unacceptable. Wouldn’t you like to break through the barrier of conventional politeness, to thumb your nose at the rule of everyone minding their own business, and ask them, “What’s your story? What makes you like this? Everybody can see this makes no sense, so why do you it?”

Like that guy I saw in Kenmore Square one time, a normal enough looking fellow, walking along in clean, pressed, casual clothes and carrying a briefcase, who, suddenly incensed by a driver parked by the curb honking her horn to alert a friend in a nearby building of her presence, irrationally took to punching himself in the face, telling her he wouldn’t stop this self-abuse until she quit honking her horn. The sound of his fist hitting his face was sickening. How much I wanted to ask him, “What’s your story? What is it about you that makes you react this way?” And nearly every homeless person I see on the street, I want to ask, “What’s your story?” They started off as children just like everyone else, free of addiction and the base, wicked impulses that the weak have such a hard time resisting later on in life. What put them down the wrong road? Could they explain it? I would be very interested to hear their life’s story.

Who have you met that arouses this kind of curiosity in you? Do you feel compassion for them? In the case of Smoky, I have to confess I don’t really. Deep down, I feel it’s within his power to reverse this idiotic path he’s chosen. How about a co-worker? Or a relative? Someone who you can’t avoid seeing everyday? Who is it you’d like to ask, “What’s your story?”

22 Comments:

Blogger Flash said...

Both your stories (Puncher and Smokey) made me ponder on the musings I often acquire when I look at someone. The paper I used to work for had a woman who not only made you gag when you looked at her (Greasy stringy hair, tongue always hanging out, at least 400 pounds and smelled of cig. smoke so bad that when you walked by, you tasted it, and BO that would strip rust from a Ford Fender) Yet every day, she would consume so much fast food that it made people around her sick. When she went out, she would get those little motorized handicapped carts at Walmart and do her shopping from the comfort of her heavily padded ass.

And to think she was a reporter who had to do face to face interviews. And every time I saw her pounding down 2 of those Meat-normus sandwiches, or taking a 4 cig. break, I always thought "What's her Story?". And if she has one, it's bound in human filth.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Mrs.T said...

I have the same impulse with homeless people, and odd couples.

Also, I shoveled... we got 13 inches here at the border of MD and VA. MrT took a picture, because, well first of all I hate being outside, much less doing any sort of labor. So he of course captured the moment. I couldn't finish the driveway and I think we could only fit about three cars comfortably on it.

9:24 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

Snow: We got about 2 inches. Heh.

I don't know where the homeless are in my fair city so I can't really ponder what makes them the way they are.
But, in the apartment I am in now on one side of me was an elderly couple named "Old Couple". On the other side an elderly woman who was the sister of Mr. Old Couple. Her other brother lived a few houses farther down the street. I'll call him George, because that is what he used to call my cat. Georgous George. My cat, naturally, loved that man. Anyhow, George and Elderly Woman would go for a walk every day at 6:00 like clockwork, but niether of them would talk to Mr. Old Couple. I did wonder what was up with that a lot.

9:31 AM  
Blogger magnetbabe said...

There was a guy I would always see on the University of Minnesota campus who was completely nuts. He'd always walk around in a filthy jean jacket regardless of the weather and incessantly mumble to himself. He would walk with cup of coffee and a purpose and I always wondered where (if anywhere) he was going. One day I got stuck on a busy sidewalk walking behind him and I listened to what he was saying. He was reciting the Fibonacci sequence (the sequence of numbers where each number is the sum of the two preceeding it: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc.). It was after that I wondered, "Who is this guy?" Was he a homeless crazy person? An idiot savant? An obscure professor exiled from the department? I still think about him sometimes and wonder what his story was.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

In San Francisco it was the Walking Man. No matter what end of town I was at, the Walking Man was a possibility. He had long scraggly red hair, and almost always wore a new years party hat. I lived on Lombard Street, and every day he would wander by, meandering slightly, but always with purpose. A cabby once asked hollered out to him, "What's the word of the day?" He replied without pause, "Derision." Once he stopped in front of my two neighbors, and held out a pencil towards them, eraser first. "Is this important to you?"

10:22 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"And every time I saw her pounding down 2 of those Meat-normus sandwiches, or taking a 4 cig. break, I always thought "What's her Story?". And if she has one, it's bound in human filth."

Actually, I wonder if she herself has pondered what her story is. That's a sad life you just described. It makes me shiver.


"MrT took a picture, because, well first of all I hate being outside, much less doing any sort of labor. So he of course captured the moment."

Soooo, we can expect to see that on the Mrs. T site soon?


"Anyhow, George and Elderly Woman would go for a walk every day at 6:00 like clockwork, but niether of them would talk to Mr. Old Couple. I did wonder what was up with that a lot."

Now, my Inner High School English Teacher would assign you to write a story explaining everything. But, as my Inner High School English Teacher is just a substitute teacher, you'll probably blow it off.

But wouldn't it be fun to do?


"It was after that I wondered, 'Who is this guy?' Was he a homeless crazy person? An idiot savant? An obscure professor exiled from the department? I still think about him sometimes and wonder what his story was."

Doesn't that immediately make you think of "A Beautiful Mind"?


"A cabby once hollered out to him, 'What's the word of the day?' He replied without pause, 'Derision.' Once he stopped in front of my two neighbors, and held out a pencil towards them, eraser first. 'Is this important to you?'"

I think he's brilliant. He must be a prophet of some sort.

11:15 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

I would like to know the story of the Chicken Bone guy that was homeless and bought half a watermelon at the grocery store every day.

There was an old man who had a little shack not too far from where my mom lived. He was always really dirty and would never look you in the eye, but he would always mumble something unintelligible if he met you on the street. The city finally got on the beautification kick, and they ordered him to clean up his place or it would be sold. They ended up kicking him out and auctioning off the property. He died just a few weeks later. I think he had lost his will to live.

11:20 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

That's an interesting and sad story, Trina. It makes you wish the local paper would assign a reporter to find out as much about him as possible and write it up. Do you know why he was called the Chicken Bone Guy?

11:57 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

I think you are trying to assign us homework... hmmm?
Sneaky Schprock!

1:34 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I think you are trying to assign us homework... hmmm? Sneaky Schprock!"

Only to my most talented students, Nypinta.

2:02 PM  
Blogger LL said...

*whew* That leaves me in the clear...

3:52 PM  
Blogger Farrago said...

Thanks for the graphic description of your emphysemic neighbor. You ruined a perfectly mediocre New York Strip steak here in my room at the Walt Disney World Dolphin (UGH!) Hotel.

"Rock-n-Roll" was an old guy who used to roam the neighborhood where I grew up. I used to know his real name, but everybody called him "Rock-n-Roll." He quite obviously had a drinking problem, but I don't know if it was the cause of or the result of some other mental issue. It was quite easy to see how he got his nickname: he was always on foot, and when he stopped walking, say, to assess traffic from the corner before he crossed the street, he gently rocked from side to side, his shoulders slightly hunched, his arms bent at the elbows, his hands held in gently curled fists, and always this half-smile across his lips. And then he'd stagger on, his torso held in much the same position. I think he staggered, though it might have just been his rocking walk.

He was the subject of a funny/frightening family story of an incident that happened before I was born. My two youngest sisters had a friend who lived a couple doors down the block. She was always at our house, and it had become normal for her to just simply open the front door and come in. One day she came in, went to the kitchen where everybody was, and said, "Who's that man in your living room?"

The family freaked out a little, and my mother went to see: it was "Rock-n-Roll", passed out in my father's easy chair. The police were called, and it turns out that "Rock-n-Roll" was the father of my next-door neighbor's oldest son's girlfriend. He thought he had entered their house, but fell one property short and wound up in our living room.

I always wanted to ask him, "Hey, what's your story," but...he's dead.

5:01 PM  
Blogger boo said...

answer: you.

happy valentine's day *hugs*

7:00 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"*whew* That leaves me in the clear..."

Lord Loser, your guidance counselor tells me you scored high on your SAT. Standardized testing doesn't lie.


"I always wanted to ask him, 'Hey, what's your story,' but...he's dead."

That was a fascinating story, Farrago. I wonder what Rock-n-Roll's daughter thought of him.


"happy valentine's day *hugs*"

You know what happens when a pretty young woman says something like that to an old guy like me?

She makes his day!

Happy Valentine's Day to you too, Boo!

4:45 AM  
Blogger LL said...

"Lord Loser, your guidance counselor tells me you scored high on your SAT. Standardized testing doesn't lie."

That is a remarkable insight, except I didn't take the SATs... I think I'd do pretty good on them now though.

6:42 AM  
Blogger :phil: said...

Growing up, there was a guy who used to walk around with a transistor radio to his ear all of the time. I was always interested in just what station he was listening to.

Snow count = 1 foot where I am. 2 feet in NYC where I had to go early Monday morning

5:46 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"That is a remarkable insight, except I didn't take the SATs... I think I'd do pretty good on them now though."

I wouldn't stand a chance on the math portion.



"Growing up, there was a guy who used to walk around with a transistor radio to his ear all of the time. I was always interested in just what station he was listening to."

In my hometown there was a guy we called Radio Ed who was that way, too. Do you sometimes wonder if these types are happy? Perhaps happier than we are?

5:42 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

I don't ponder other people like that. I'm not a watcher and I don't like to dehumanize the plight of others. Smoking is a serious addiction. Studies show it is more addictive than heroin. So, if you've never done either, how can you judge?

I just won't. Same with weight and a plethora of other things.

Do I feel bad for people though? Only the elderly who need extra help and don't get it.

9:45 AM  
Blogger LL said...

"I'm not a watcher and I don't like to dehumanize the plight of others."

Well what the hell do you do for fun? :P

12:24 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"I'm not a watcher and I don't like to dehumanize the plight of others."

A long, long time ago, someone told a friend of mine and myself: "Don't choke on your arrogance." I won't bother explain the situation, but boy did we deserve it. However, at the time, my friend and I looked at each and said, "Huh? What the hell?"

And do you know what? When I read your comment, I said, "Huh? What the hell?"

Beth, I'm just a bad, bad man…

1:02 PM  
Blogger Claire said...

It's not just the people who catch our eye who have a story to tell. Every person walking the earth has a story. THe question is---is it one they want to tell, and is it one anyone will stop and hear?

I used to tape the CBS Evening News a few years ago just to watch the Steve Hartman pieces. The series was called "Everyboydy has a story" and the premise was simple. Steve threw a dart at a US map. Then he and his crew drove there, pulled up to a pay phone, opened the phone book to a random page, and stareted calling numbers. They would call and call, each time explaining who they were and asking the person who answered if they would consent to have them come over for a few hours.

Some people were prepared to tell their story outright, but the ones I remember, the most touching and poignant ones of all...are the ones that Hartman had to extract from his subjects. I'll never forget the four year old who went to his grandmother's grave every Sunday and released a helium balloon up into the sky so Grandma could have a balloon in heaven. Or the quiet cattle rancer who served in Desert Storm whose letter is in the presidential library. Or the family where father and son lived just blocks away from each other but didn't know it until he went on a search for his biological father.

That was an amazing series. I wish it hadn't gone away.

8:41 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Excellent point, Claire!

Many years ago, a cab driver was shot and killed during a robbery attempt. Just a random guy like you or me, the kind of sad story that usually gets only a paragraph or two of ink. However, the Boston Herald, one of the two major Boston papers, dedicated a whole spread to this guy with photos. Suddenly he wasn't just a name or statistic, he was a life. For a day, I was very favorably impressed with this Boston equivalent of the New York Daily News.

Unfortunately, not every murder victim can get a spread in a newspaper . . . although they all should. you're right: everyone has a story.

5:13 AM  

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