I think we should observe one-another more; and without judgment. Not much of a starting line to a story, but where to start anyway? With the obvious, I suppose.
I normally work around the town of Abbotsford. It’s there that I noticed him last year. At first I paid no heed, but as he kept appearing along the streets I normally drive, I began to wonder about him. He was in his early forties I’d say, of normal height, that is, about my size; dressed clean, not expensive. Jeans, sweat shirt, jacket, on if it was cool or off on warmer days and slipped in the lower straps of the pack he carried. He was usually clean shaven, but sometimes he’s sport a short beard and mustache. He had reddish hair, curly and cut fairly short, complemented by that cheap Irish skin, you know the kind that loves to turn bright red and peel at the mention of sunshine. He always wore a bone-head hat and I figured it was so the extended visor would keep the sun off his nose. He wore glasses, carried a faded dark blue back-pack and unless it was raining, he had a spiral bound notebook and a pen in his hands. And that completes my description of his general mien.
I’d see him at the intersection of Gladwin and South Fraser Way, then down by the Real Canadian Super Store or further down, past the Shell Station at the George Ferguson Way and Gladwin crossroads. Sometimes he’d show up further east, by the Chevron and McDonalds at Bourquin Crescent and South Fraser Way.
It wasn’t that he was usually at the crosswalks that intrigued me, but that he’d walk up to people, it didn’t seem to matter what age or gender, or whether there was but one person or several, and he’d say something, holding out his spiral-bound notebook and pen. The response was always the same: some kind of gesture, or words I couldn’t make out and he’d move on to someone else.
One day, I think it was a Wednesday if I remember correctly, as I waited for the lights to change on South Fraser Way I saw him approach an elderly man by the Toronto Dominion bank. I quickly rolled down the window of my service van hoping to hear what he was saying to these people. What I heard was unforgettable.
In a voice that carried well he asked: “What’s your story, sir? Would you tell me your story?” The elderly gentleman turns out not to be so gentlemanly after all. “Fuck off jerk or I’ll call the cops.” And to emphasize the point, he pulls a cell phone from his pocket. The spiral notebook guy backs off, turns away slowly, notices the lights have changed and proceeds across Gladwin to talk to a couple of young mothers with baby carriages. Again the gestures and the angry looks. Next he approaches three Middle School age young girls. They laugh in his face, say something and scamper across Gladwin as the walk light comes on.
I watch him put his notebook away and walk towards the next intersection. I remember it started to rain then and the wind was picking up. By the time I’d turned down Trethewey for the Husky station I’d forgotten about him. Slush machine issues require “Geek” level concentration and that particular Husky gas bar has three of them.
A few days later I remembered him again. I remembered suddenly that after months of his presence on the periphery of my life I had not seen him since the Friday of the week before. Well, you know what that’s like. You get used to something or someone just being there and take it for granted until suddenly they are not there and an empty feeling forms in your heart. I wondered what had happened to him. I knew he was well known in the neighbourhood so I asked the manager at the computer shop in the corner strip mall if he knew anything about him.
“Oh yeah, that idiot. The cops finally picked him up last Saturday. I guess someone had had enough of him going to people and asking for their story. Certifiable, if you ask me. You’d think they’d have places for people like that. Who needs that kind of crap around town?” Ok, so not the most compassionate person in the world here, but I’m trying to remain neutral. This is not my town, I just work here. I mostly just drive by on the streets so I don’t know what I’d done if the Note Book Man had come up to me and asked for “my” story.
I wonder. Do I have a story to tell that would be worth someone else’s time to write down? Would I ever get that chance? I did. My Note Book friend came back a month later. At first I wasn’t sure it was him. He was sitting on a bus bench, his back-pack lying next to him. On top was the spiral-bound note book. He was not accosting people, but holding his head in his hands, looking at the sidewalk. I had an idea. It was close enough to lunch time so I turned into West Oaks mall and parked by the Tim Horton’s in the corner there. I took my wallet, locked up, alarmed the vehicle and quickly strode to the sidewalk. I’d have to cross two lights to get to the Note Book Man. A bus came by and my heart sunk, but he did not get on. I made the lights and came to the bus stop.
“Hi!” I said. Not very original but one must start somewhere neutral with people. “Hi!” is usually safe. There was no response. I sad down beside the back-pack and looked at the note book. “Mind if I look at your notes?” I asked. He moved his head towards me, looking at my leg, I guess, then pointed to the notebook. I picked it up and opened it. I read the contents.
“What’s Your Story?” – an interview by Eugene Proulx.
I thumbed through the rest of the pages. They were all blank, except for those nice straight blue lines, like artificial veins under too thin and too white a skin. There was no story. There were no stories. No one had ever taken the time to give him one… or no one had thought that maybe they had one to give.
I felt a terrible surge of compassion for this man.
“I’ll tell you my story, if you want to write down some notes.” I said to him.
He looked up, not to my face, but as high as my shirt pockets this time. Then he took the note book, closed it softly, put it in his back-pack and closed that, slipping one strap over a slumping shoulder. I reached to him and put my hand lightly on his arm.
“I meant it.” I said.
This time he looked right into my eyes. Tears were welling up and rolling from his eyes. He stood up, turned and walked away.