The old man opened the door to the coffee shop and took a step in my general direction. I looked up from the blank WORD document on my laptop and met his eyes as a stream of gibberish jetted from his mouth.
“Sorry, sir. You know the rules. You’re going to have to go outside.” From the demeanor of the barista who had come out from behind the counter (and who was probably no more than a college freshman) I could tell this was a regular thing. Despite the familiarity of the situation, I could detect a hint of cautiousness peeking behind his bravado. I wondered if the man, although probably homeless. had done something in the past to cause the trepidation the young man sought to hide from his voice.
The old man stared at the barista behind the counter, failing to comprehend the situation.
“C’mon, man. Don’t make me call the cops again.” The whiskers on his face hoped to project enough authority to defuse the situation before it escalated any further, as the citizens inside the coffee shop stopped what they were doing to watch the impromptu play put on by the actors.
As if a light bulb clicked on, the old man nodded and shuffled back outside to the familiar bench in front of the coffee shop.
And started to laugh.
He sat inches away from me, on the other side of the glass, laughing. A steady, machine gun stream of giggles that went on for such a period of time I felt like it had to be on a loop. I thanked God he had his back to me, sitting straight against the bench in front of the front window of the coffee shop. To witness such an example of lunacy would have invited me into the madness.
I had been coming to the local coffee shop to write for a couple of months now and saw the table next to the front window as my own. Here were the only two cushioned seats in the establishment, the rest of the tables and chairs nothing more than uncomfortable brown wood framed by a faded green something else. I would come in the early afternoon, before school let out and after the retired folks shuffled in to claim my spot and look out into the world. Writer’s block could not hold up to the world passing me by and I could always count on an interesting character walking by, the police performing official police matters or the weather as inspiration to shake me from my doldrums.
Today was different though, with the presence of the old man laughing. I guessed he was homeless, based on the amount of filth accumulated on black hoodie and the condition of the gray sweat pants he was wearing. I was in full knowledge of the condition of the man, because of my prime seating. Due to a cold I could not shake, I was surprised I was even able to hear the man; such was the congestion that had become an occupying force inside my head.
The laughter eventually sputtered out and I watched him as his head darted about, his eyes never settling on one object. Random tufts of white hair danced in the breeze he was creating and as his neck turned I noticed his right ear, specifically the amount of hair protruding from his right ear. If someone said an elderly squirrel had crawled into his ear for the upcoming winter I would have believed it on the spot. Wild white hair billowed about like the tentacles of a Kraken searching for its next meal.
A couple of years ago as I lay in bed with a former girlfriend, she absentmindedly commented on the random hairs pouring forth from my ear. I shot up in indignation, proclaiming I was too young to display such a condition. With a shrug that suggested a lack of interest in my words or my being, she told me I could think what I wanted, and the truth was in the mirror. I blew her off and concentrated on her literal reciprocation. The moment she left I retreated to the bathroom to face my fears.
Ever since I was a little boy I equated ear hair with old age. I can remember sitting next to my grandpa and looking with odd fascination at the bird’s nest residing inside. How could he possibly hear anything I was saying? As I grew older, my focus changed from my grandpa to my own father, watching him as he transitioned from a man to a senior. To me, the hair was the clock on which your time could be measured. The moment it arrived is the moment your clock started. Eventually the hair would reach its zenith and every second after would count. My grandpa had run out, my dad would be expiring soon enough.
I was no longer a boy.
The laughter started up again, spittle flying from his mouth with not a care in the world. He knew something, a secret that I did not possess. His age gave him insights, knowledge that one day I would have. The cost of which would be found on the calendar. My laptop remained open, an empty WORD document staring back at me. Not a thought could come to mind, only the obsession of watching this innocent lunatic laugh in the face of God knows what. For the second time that day the laughter died out and the man stood up. As casually as one can, I stared out the side of my eye and gawked at the insanity presenting itself to me.
The eyes nestled deep into his skull were larvae gray and his face displayed all the signs of a hard life. Grooves, scars, spots providing the atlas into his past. His lips were cracked, having been exposed to the elements far too long and the random teeth still claiming residence were a dark yellow. The skin hung loose from his neck and I had the feeling if I came across this man thirty years earlier I would probably recognize him. I suppose it was due to my staring that I failed to notice his staring back, alternating between the sight of me sitting and my laptop. My concentration was broken by the tapping of his crusty yellow fingers against the glass. With a jolt I sat at attention and looked at him. He tapped again and gestured for me to join him outside, on the bench.
I was once again a boy.
With great apprehension I looked around and found that no one else registered, or even showed a registration of the moment. The surrounding members of the coffee shop, drinkers and drinkees, were lost in their own world of reading, talking or working. Coming to my senses, I reminded myself I was not a little boy, I was a man and there was no danger lurking on the other side of the glass. I was a writer; there were tremendous gains for me in joining him on the bench. I stood up, confident in leaving my laptop where it was and opened the front door. With obvious effort the elderly gentleman slid to the right, providing me with more space than I needed.
For the first time in my life I thanked God for my stuffy nose. If I could smell him through my current condition I couldn’t imagine the reality of the situation. He sat, staring straight ahead as I my slender frame grew acclimated to the harsh angles of the bench. Finding a comfortable position, I looked over at my new found friend, who continued to look beyond what I could see.
And so we sat.
And I waited.
The temperature was dropping and I realized I came out here only wearing a hoodie. The chill making its way up my spine was too much to ignore and I decided that no amount of creative inspiration was worth pneumonia. Before I stood up I turned around and saw someone had occupied my chair. He was staring at me and his fingers rested along the bottom of my laptop.
What the hell did he think he was doing?
I tried to jump up and instead rose tentatively and become overwhelmed by a phlegm filled cough that took forever to fully arrive. After enough germs were spread, I spat out the remaining nonsense and opened the front door.
Immediately I felt the unease as all eyes were on me. I took a couple of steps towards my seat and went to ask the kid what he thought he was doing at my computer but instead only gibberish poured out of my mouth.
“Sorry, sir. You know the rules. You’re going to have to go outside.”
I stared at the barista, who had come out from behind the counter, failing to comprehend the situation.
“C’mon, man. I just told you. Don’t make me call the cops again.”
As if a light bulb clicked on, I nodded and shuffled back outside to my familiar bench.
And I laughed.