1/15/13 Down on His Luck

At dusk yesterday, coming out the door of the Winn-Dixie and into the parking lot at that time of the day when twilight can obscure how we see things, perhaps even what we see, before the time the parking lot lights have grown bright from the energy they consume, their feeble but surreal contribution in the twilight lending an unnatural sheen to what my eyes already perceived as unnatural, I spied what seemed to be a down and out vagrant standing near my pick-up truck. He seemed to be looking in the back of it as if he might be trying to decide if something in there might not really be his, as if he might have mislaid something valuable in the back of my pick-up truck by some accident. I decided not to approach any closer, but hailed him from a safe distance.

“You! Hey, you,” I shouted . . . he looked up at me, eyes empty, face dirty. “Get away from my truck.”

He took a couple of steps back, raised his hands shoulder height, palms out, to show me they were empty and backed up a couple more. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.” As the words left his lips, he seemed to relax and whatever tension he had had about him eased off and vanished up into the increasing intensity of the lights, which seemed brighter as they also consumed whatever energy he had released. I don’t know what was on his mind, but whatever it was, it was gone now.  He looked hungry to me.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

“I haven’t eaten today,” he replied, his eyes focused on the sack. I had some crackers and cans of vienna sausage in it mixed in with other items. I fished around in the bag for a can, whipped one out and approached him, my arm extended. He gently received them from my hand then I dug in the bag for the crackers. He opened the can immediately, drank all the juice in one long pull and started digging a sausage out of the packed can with what looked like a very dirty hand. Or was it the twilight? I couldn’t be sure. I set my grocery sack in the back of the truck, opened the tail-gate, opened the box of crackers and pulled out a tube and set them on the gate, seating myself next to them.

“Can  I sit, too?” he asked.

“Sure. Have a seat,” I said, gesturing with a sweep of my hand.

He attacked the sausages with a will, saying, “Man, these are good!”

I looked closely at him as I reflected on this. I wasn’t the one who was hungry. I watched him eat. After a minute I said, “Well, anything is good when you’re hungry.”

“Ain’t that the truth!” was his reply.

I said nothing else as he ate it all up, which he did in short order. He wiped his hands on his dirty jeans, a hole here, and rip there, not unlike what you might see on a brand new pair some teenager paid lots of money for, but these were worn-out the old-fashioned way, not as someone’s expensive idea of what a trendy fashion was supposed to be, but by being worn every day for days on end and being washed and rewashed until they were threadbare and thin, as delicate as tissue paper. The winter wind would hardly be reduced in velocity when encountering this thin barrier between it and his skin.

I was trying to determine his age. The more I looked at him, the older he seemed to be. At first, I thought he was in his mid-forties, but now it seemed I had missed it by a generation or two. “What’s your name?” I asked him.

“Common Sense,” he said.

“Well there’s a name you don’t hear every day!” I replied.

“No. There’s only one of me. And I used to get around a lot more, but I have fallen on hard times. No one takes me seriously anymore. They say I am old-fashioned.” He sniffed a couple of times and wiped his nose on his sleeve. I’m not sure after witnessing this whether he cleaned his nose or whether the grime on his sleeve transferred back to it, the sleeve being like a dishrag full of the rendered fat from a skillet, unable to possibly absorb any more, just able to move around what was already on it and in the skillet. He didn’t seem morose but just stating the facts as they were. There was no self-pity about him, just a slow, patient, persistent-seeming sadness that was observable but only mildly so.

“Want another can of the vienah sausage?” (vine-uh . . . that’s how we say it down here.)

“Yes . . . please,” he said, already peering into the bag.

“Help yourself,” I said as he reached into the sack in the deepening twilight, the yellow-glare of the now bright high-pressure sodium parking lot lights revealing the dirty sleeve in stark contrast to its white plastic. He popped the tab of the can, ripped off the top and again, drank the juice in one gulp. The finger sliding into the can to extract a sausage was repeated. This time, he talked as he ate, a bit slower, both the talk and the eating, the first can having taken the edge off his immediate hunger. He ate them as if they were the finest caviar, as if they might have been a sliced piece of a fat, marbled rib-eye, as if they were a not-too-hard fried strip of bacon with a lard biscuit wrapped around it.

“Man, these are good,” he said again as much to himself as to me, looking off into the distance, perhaps recalling better times when luxuries such as this were his to consume when he wanted. It was just a can of vienna sausage. He started talking as he ate. “ Years ago, folks seemed to want me around. I was consulted on all sorts of things . . . but there are so many experts now that I seem to have become redundant.” I was all ears, not knowing what to expect, really. Was his name Common Sense? Or was he portraying himself as common sense, itself? I wasn’t sure of his angle, and the eyes, less empty than I had imagined in the twilight, but still shielded in dark shadow by the light from straight above on the pole, seemed to have perked up, showing some of the dots of light we expect to find in things that are alive which may allow more light from inside out than they reflect from the outside, especially when vienna sausage have relieved a hunger that had buffed their surface like a coarse sandpaper dulls the varnish on a table. I thought I might be being played, but I was willing to go along. I didn’t have much of an investment here. This might be amusing.

“People used to rely on me,” he continued. “Fathers tried to teach me to their sons . . . to get them to first think of me, at least trying to get them to observe the obvious. Mothers taught their daughters to let me be their first resort. Great men in high places gave deference to the things I would whisper in their ear. But those days are over now. Everyone has advisers and gurus that prevent them from even noticing that I am around. I am no longer wanted, having outlived my usefulness.

“I was once in great demand. Now I just bum around. I still have a few who confide in me, but they seem to be fewer and further in between. So here I am, talking to you, eating your sausages in this parking lot, thinking I should also warn you that there is stuff in the back of your pick-up truck that others might be led to clandestinely appropriate for themselves.”

He finished off the second can, once again, wiping his hands on his pants leg.

“So, tell me. How did you get to become Common Sense?” I asked.

“I am older than I look,” he said, and I already stated that I had misjudged his age since he now appeared to be much older than I had first thought. He continued, “I’ve been around a very long time. I don’t really remember when I was born, but perhaps it was when someone observed that water flowed reliably down hill, or when the first person put two and two together and the abstract concept of math became a working, useful thing in a man’s head. That’s been a long, long time. I don’t really recollect. I suppose I’ve lost as much of my ability to recall as I seem to have lost in stature among people. I think TV was what finally did me in, since TV renders a man’s brain next to useless, unlike reading or even radio.”

“Folks had common sense long before they were able to read,” I observed.

“Sure they did. You don’t have to be able to read to have common sense. And there’s lots of folks who can’t read that can put two and two together. They may not be able to read, but they can count. They’ll sure know which end of a bargain is the best one. I’m the one who shows them that. They look to me for guidance. Lots of folks were simply born with me. Others acquired me through experience. A memory is one of the most reliable things about common sense. A man’s memory is how he learns not to make the same mistakes over and over again. A man’s memory instills what common sense he has that is not instinctive.”

“Many never seem to learn, though,” I said.

“Nope. Many never do.” He shook his head as he said this, sadly now. “I am always there for them, though, but for some reason, my voice has been stifled by the desire people seem to have for instant gratification. This causes them to ignore me altogether, even when I can get a word in loud enough to get them to turn their head, which seems to be less and less often.” The more he talked, the sadder he seemed to be.

“This makes you sad?” I asked.

“Sure does. But my sadness is not over my own plight, though I am a bit threadbare and hungry, but over my inability to help them in any way whatsoever. Whoever got their ear is doing a better job that I seem to be able to do at the moment, but people don’t understand that by serving themselves in this manner, they are not serving themselves. I am not here to be served . . . it is service that I offer. But its no longer the service people want. I am as useful now as a VCR repairman. There is no demand.”

“Some of us still want you around. I rely on you,” I said.

“You? The fellow who leaves valuable stuff in the back of his pick-up truck in a grocery store parking lot when you know better?” He gave a big chuckle. I laughed with him. He was right. I had nothing to stand on on this charge. I suppose we all miss it from time to time. I though I knew him, but I can see that we were hardly acquainted.

I don’t know if he was what he claimed to be. It is unlikely. Probably just a bum down on his luck, but it was a good story. It was worth the price of two tubes of crackers and four cans of vienna sausage just to get it, since I gave him extra crackers and sausage for the road. I watched him walk off into the darkness at the edge of the parking lot. I had asked him where he was going from here. He told me he wasn’t sure, that he had no specific plans other than to continue South to warmer climes for the winter. He said that Florida looked promising, that lots of the older folks down there still knew him and he usually got a decent reception. At least it was warmer.

I had asked him when was the last time he had been to Washington, DC. He replied that he had been run out of town there many years ago. He indicated a return visit there was not in his immediate plans. “I’m trying to help people,” he had said, “There’s no work for me in Washington. Too many other advisers, all of them experts. I’m just Common Sense.”

When I got home, I took all the unnecessary stuff out of the back of my truck and secured the rest in my toolbox. Now that we were personally acquainted, I would not want him to think I had neglected him. I thought about all the times I had neglected him in the past. I thought about all the times I was likely to neglect him in the future. I thought about how it might be to have gotten old-fashioned, perceived by a modern world as no longer capable of rendering useful service. I decided that I was not as far from him as I had thought, just a mere wisp away from being in similar circumstances.

“Doubly redundant,” I said.

I thought I heard a laugh. I’m sure I heard a laugh. I whipped my head around and looked in all directions. There was no one there but me. I laughed out loud at myself, but the laughter seemed to have a wide, stereo separation. 

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