I had seen him several times at Café Central, a.k.a., Borrone, always vaguely associating him with someone else. There was, after all, another guy I met through my first wife and have long associated with the place. But he was clearly another guy. This guy was this guy. And what caught my eye, or my mind, was his frequent appearance at the café, coupled with his circumstances. He always sits alone. Frequently, he can be seen in the company of an iPod, or somesuch, wires dangling from his ears. Something about him is slightly shaggy, although I’m not observant enough to provide details. I would have to take a closer look, add up the haircut, any trace of beard and, of course, attire, before rendering an informed verdict. Most importantly, he is disabled. Not as much as I, let me be clear, but enough to be noticeable. He walks with a limp that is more than a limp…a stagger, actually. One side of his body curves and collapses with each step. There may be a pigeon-toed component to his gait. And his age? Less than mine. In short, he is physically better off than I, while noticeably afflicted. My confusion with this other guy, approximately the same age and equally thin of face, makes little sense when one remembers that he is a runner. As was the former wife. She has run far away, that is all that matters. What matters now is this guy. The one I see at Café Borrone.
What startled me to alertness was seeing him stagger out of an apartment down the street. We are neighbors. And on this particular morning while I was heading for the library to drop off a book, the fact of our proximity made a certain impression. And 15 minutes later we had both converged at the café. There he was, sitting alone, wires dangling. And what were we if not partners in middle-aged loneliness? Disabled partners. Driving me to the inevitable assessment and comparison. Which has to do with losers.
Who is the loser? Or who is the greater loser? Surely this value system, and it is not much of a system, either springs from something deep within me or my childhood. Whatever the origins, this construct or perspective has haunted me all my days. I began to slip into loser status long about the third grade. How could things go so terribly wrong for an eight-year-old? The answer had to do with my parents’ marriage. As it collapsed and their bitterness grew, I developed the desperate belief that my role was central. After all, I could temporarily brighten the mood of one or the other parent. And in my childish egotism, this represented a sort of control. It was up to me. As things failed between them, something failed within me. Which manifested itself in a simple fact of life. I had fewer and fewer friends. Moreover, I had fewer of the ‘right’ friends. Which meant popular. Well-liked, good achievers in either class or playground. Fewer and fewer friends. More and more of the few friends that remained being among the less popular. On and on it went. I was a loser, associating with losers, until….
Almost until university. In the final term of high school I actually made some friends. In the coming years I made more. No longer a loser, although the shadowy memory remained. And what remains today is a number of withering judgments of schoolmates. This one was stupid, that one disabled (yes), that one poor, that one from a violent household. Odd that it takes a lifetime to shake off such attitudes.
But there I was, St. Aubyn Trilogy in hand, rolling my way down Roble Avenue. And there he was, the limping iPod guy from the café. And there he was again in the café. Which presented an opportunity. For what, it wasn’t clear. There was nothing to lose by rolling over to his table and saying hello. Hello. At first, he seemed puzzled. Was I talking to him, and if so, why? Off came the iPod. Hi, I said, we must be neighbors. I explained that our paths had crossed earlier. Sorry, he said, had he forced me into the street? No, I assured him. It took major effort to make sense of this, but I vaguely recalled rolling down the middle of Roble Avenue, something I do from time to time…mostly liking the smoothness of the pavement, the freedom of not having to scan bumps in the sidewalk. I didn’t elaborate. What is your name? Michael, he said. I told him mine. I said goodbye and rolled off to order my cappuccino. No sense in making excessive chit chat. One never knows.
One never knows what? That I might get trapped. Though Michael hardly seems like the trapping sort. In fact, very much the opposite. He seems to want to be around people, while wanting something to fill up the emptiness…like an iPod. Perhaps I do much the same thing in bringing my latest printouts from Salon.com. The latter, I tell myself, look vaguely like work. Sheets of 8.5 x 11 full of printing. Maybe I am employed, have whatever status goes with that. I’m not wasting time just hanging around Café Borrone, not me. I am not a loser.
In my best moments, I am aware of the social context. If there was ever a nation based on winning, it is the US. No country for losers, be they old men or young men. Which is why one needs to create one’s own country for learners. Since as my deceased wife has shown, we lose everything, might as well pick up some knowledge along the way. Including some knowledge of Michael. What does he do? He seems to be in the café fairly often. Does he have a job? Did he? And all that is worthwhile knowing in these questions revolves around disability. I never found it easy being a member of the disabled workforce. Fulfilling in ways. Certainly a pathway to social confidence, feeling included. And learning about the world and its vicissitudes. Human nature. Losing a certain innocence. Surviving. Perhaps Michael and I can compare notes. I am not sure that in all my days this has ever happened…comparing the employment experience with another disabled person.
And what if he turns out to be someone I really don’t want to know? What if he crowds in at my table whenever I turn up here in the future? Well, that would be a risk. Also something to learn. Even in conjecture there is a lesson. That I value my privacy and I get tired of it. That boundaries can be difficult to determine. But maybe I am not alone in this difficulty. Maybe the important thing is to keep taking chances, the only way out the past.