In Presentation on September 14, 2011 at 9:37 am

In the paltry shade of the awning he sat waiting for a bus like the rest of us, on a bench outside the waiting room just like the rest of us. But he was not like the rest of us.

The rest of us; motley at first glance and insular – t-shirts and skimpy tops, flip flops and sandals, tans, sunglasses, headscarves and hats. We lounged and leant and waited – heads down or turned away – using our opposable thumbs to text someone or change an mp3 or merely to fiddle with tech. Closely guarded personal space and micro-managed eye contact – all summery ennui and sweat. A dozen or so people and a dozen or so different worlds. The usual bus stop suspects.

For all our detachment and informality, we were uniform.

Not him.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a Stetson in real life. It was a long time ago anyway and in America, where you might reasonably expect it. His was very large, gleaming white and kept in its box at home judging by its immaculate condition. It had that rigidity you don’t see in cowboy movie hats. Beneath it his jowled face was soft and old, wizened and proud. Very old, his grey straggle gathered in a pony tail, eyes beady, bright and calmly looking ahead; a long distance stare across space and time that none of the rest of us could hope to emulate. His posture was stiff and formal; confident but not comfortable.

A man who had lived and also perhaps a man who had not been out for a while.

His liver spotted hands rested on the handle of a white cane which he held at a jaunty, deliberate angle – the tip resting on the ground between his polished, white, laceless shoes. No toe tapping or crossing of feet here; his were still, sheathed in white socks, planted squarely and spaced at a sitting swagger.

He wore a pure white suit – tailored for his younger self and hanging a little now on his antique frame, but still a magnificent sight. In the midst of all these jaded singularities he alone inhabited not merely his own reality but ours too. We shared him as he disdained us. He was larger than we were; clearer and brighter.

And more fragile – one could easily imagine the pleasure an egged-on teenager might take in teasing someone who cut so fine a figure. We can be so intolerant of the individual – for all our talk of individualism – and none more so than the young. Thankfully, in this conservative and well-mannered town, he was left to himself.

I am not young and I admired him. If I had had my camera with me I might have mustered the nerve to ask him for a photograph. I could see the images in my mind already – colourless and still, the lines of his age thrown into relief by the afternoon sun, the suit shining, his unwavering gaze, the pupils of his eyes…but how does one ask for a thing like that, without risking offence, without inadvertently recalling for him unpleasant encounters with the uncomprehending?

His white tie was clipped and flawlessly knotted and I wondered where he was going. To keep what kind of appointment? I thought I could safely assume he wasn’t on his way to a funeral, though he must have seen a few. Off into Algeciras for a final tryst with an old love. A solemn engagement that he had carefully arranged because he had something to get off his chest. Something that, said, would help him sleep a little easier.

Or a defiantly dressed sortie to confront an ingrate son. Or a lovingly anticipated meeting to reconcile a squandered friendship. Or a ritualised expedition to the bedside of a wife nearly dead – the suit’s last outing. I had questions for this man and I felt like asking them. I wanted to play Carlos Castaneda to his Don Juan. But I didn’t – I kept to my own trajectory, as straight and narrow as the pristine crease down the front of his white trousers. Later, I regretted it.

His shirt was black.

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  1. I feel like I come across characters like this a lot in Spain, but fear that my randomness as a blonde American would throw them off should I start pestering them with questions. There’s this one old Spanish grandpa that I pass in the streets at least once a week. Sometimes he’s doing laps up and down the block, other times he’s just seated on a bench watching the world go by. So many times I’ve fought the urge to just sit down next to him and ask how he’s doing. But alas, I have that same notion that it might be received the wrong day. And one day, if I don’t see him anymore, I’m sure I’ll regret it. Perhaps next time I’ll at least join him on the bench.

  2. As a country it does seem to have more than it´s fair share of the unusual. You can´t just accost everyone you think looks interesting of course but sometimes I think I could stick my neck out just a bit more – the older I get the more willing I am, especially as a photographer, to ask for people´s permission, but I still let a lot of very interesting looking people slip by me. They´re like treasure, I believe: bastions against a boring world.

  3. I love the way you write! Great story of someone we have all seen somewhere in our life.

  4. Lovely writing Robin. If it were me, I would have probably just said ‘Hello’ 🙂

  5. I can understand your hesitation with saying hello- I don’t know if I would have said anything either. Great story though, and excellent details- I felt like I could see him in front of me.

  6. There’s an old dude that I see sometimes at my bus stop when I’m waiting to go to work. He wears boots, faded skinny jeans, a black t-shirt and an enormous orangey-brown mohawk. He’d be in his 60s, 70s or even 80s (I can’t tell the age of Chinese people very well) and he always causes such a commotion among the Singapore aunties setting off on their shopping expeditions. I’d LOVE to know his story, but like you, feel a bit intimidated.
    Perhaps your hat guy was heading off to meet my mohawk guy — what a grand cross-continental story that would be!

    • Now that sounds like a character – I wonder if they would get along. I’d never seen this guy before and who knows, maybe never again. That’s what made me think he hadn’t been out in a while. Yeah, if a meet-up between these two could be arranged I’m sure it would be interesting!

  7. I constantly look at people on the street and think “What’s their story?” When I’m bored and people-watching I’ll try to pick up clues to construct their life, but I know I’m probably not even close. People are just so complex.

    • Yes – that’s what makes it so tempting, despite seeming so forward, to just interrogate them; I’m sure whatever they had to say would be more interesting than anything I could dream up.

  8. I can just picture him, but I really wish you would have asked him where he was off too (now I’m really curious), even though I wouldn’t have had the nerve to do it either.

  9. Really enjoyed reading this. I make up stories about people, too – especially those who look like they have really lived! An inadequate substitute for the real story, of course – but fun all the same.

  10. Loved this. You wrote so vividly about him, that a photo would have been nice, but certainly not necessary! It really is interesting to think about what he was up to, isn’t it? I probably wouldn’t have said anything either, but would have wished that I had.

    • Thanks Cathy. Other people’s lives are endlessly fascinating; even if the story he might have told me had turned out to be rather banal it would have been interesting to me to get a glimpse of someone else’s life. That’s people for you – even when they’re boring, they’re not.

  11. I love to project my imagination onto people who look interesting but that I’ve never met as well – great post!

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