There’s a crazy guy I used to see every evening when I walked down Henry Street on the way to the East Broadway F train stop after work.
He’s always stationed outside a particular tenement building — if it’s not too cold, if it’s not raining — fussing around in a storage shed right out front. It took me some time to figure out that he lives there. The building, that is, not the shed — though at one point, I did think maybe he lived in the shed. At first I thought he was a homeless guy who just sort of camped out there. I think he’s the building’s super.
I wonder what he does with himself all day. He seems to be outside from morning to night, just sort of waiting, sitting in a folding chair on the sidewalk, maybe talking to someone, maybe just standing there silent and still. Sometimes he lightly sweeps the sidewalk. Sometimes he’s not there at all.
He’s one of those people you see every day. They are part of your routine. They’re like landmarks. You can measure your commute by them. (OK, I’m at the crazy guy in the shed, so I’ve got about four minutes before I hit the front door at work. Enough time to get a bacon, egg and cheese from the deli?) Some of these people you greet. Some of them you don’t greet. Either way, you recognize each other. You have to. It’s every day.
This guy, I decided, I would not greet.
I’d see him from about a block and a half away. Eventually, because I’d be looking looking forward, I’d see him look up at me. I’d look down immediately. I’d usually have my iPod on, so there was no reason to speak; I couldn’t hear him anyway. Just maintain the pace, don’t run away, but don’t look up — and don’t speak.
I’d pass him, and that would be it.
It felt ridiculous to make eye contact with a person but remain silent and expressionless. I should just say hi to him one of these times, I thought. Just some non-committal gesture, like any neighbor. But what then? New York is rife with people for whom a simple nod of the head is an invitation to a conversation, a rant or an opportunity to ask for money.
I could feel him looking at me as I passed. He wasn’t longing for me to look at him, but rather, it seemed he was incredulous that I so studiously avoided looking at him. I could see him out of the corner of my eye aggressively watching me, his head turning slowly to follow me as I passed him. It was creepy and scary and totally justified.
Then I started avoiding eye contact altogether, hoping to discourage him. I’d time my pace with other people on the sidewalk so there would be someone between him and me just as I passed him. Usually he’d be distracted, talking in an excited, raspy voice to someone, always male: a teenager, someone his 20s, someone in his 50s. What could these people have to talk to him about? I assumed they were residents, too. Were these actual conversations, or was he just the annoying weird guy taking advantage of their lag time or their smoke break? He must be lonely.
One day, with no pedestrians between me and him, and no iPod to shield me, I decided I would say hi. No big deal, right? Smile and nod and continue. So, I tried it. We made eye contact from a ways back, and I looked away. As I approached him, I looked up again and met his stare. Maintaining my gait, keeping my hands in my pockets, I nodded and grunted, “Eh,” with a submissive little smile. He cocked his head to one side and, as I passed, he broke into an impassioned, incoherent rant. I seriously do not know what he said, but it was loud and it was angry and it lasted for at least a block.
A-ha! See? This is what I was trying to avoid. That’ll learn ya, I thought.
I convinced myself that he was yelling at me for being rude or stuck up or something, but for all I know he was just telling me about something he’d seen earlier that day.
So, I changed my route. I’d walk around the other side of the block to avoid him. (The unobstructed sun on Henry Street hurts my eyes, anyway, this time of year. And it’s a more direct route to the subway.) But sometimes I’d forget, and I’d find myself on course with the old man.
I tried it again. And this time, instead of lambasting me, he simply nodded back. But with a different expression that, to my mind, said Yes. Thank you. Thanks for looking at me. See? It’s not so hard now, is it?
I walked back around the the other side of the block the next day.