“What ya workin’ on?” he asked, trying to read the illegible scribbles on my notepad.
“Just … something,” I half-answered. I had wandered down here to the banks of Monocacy Creek to clear my head, not to discuss writing with a stranger.
“Personal, huh?” he concluded.
I didn’t bother to correct him. He was close enough, anyway. I’d been working for a week on a feature story for the newspaper where I work, and I still couldn’t get the first paragraph right. Frustrated, irritated, sapped of self-confidence as a writer — yeah, this was getting personal.
I suppose if I had wanted solitude I shouldn’t have picked a spot so close to a bench. He had plunked himself down just moments after I arrived, but I couldn’t think of any tactful way to get up and leave.
I had assumed he was a day laborer hired to take down the tents from the weekend’s Celtic cultural festival. He certainly looked the part, with his jeans, his faded red T-shirt and his worn, olive-colored cap overshadowing his grizzled face’s Irish-looking features. His goatee had sprouted a few white hairs.
“The smoke doesn’t bother you, does it?” he asked, several minutes after lighting up. I lied, shaking my head no.
He sprawled on the bench, watching two other men load stacks of folding chairs onto a truck. “About time you used your brains, ya knucklehead,” he muttered as the man on the truck finally figured out how to maneuver his hand truck. “I like watching other people work,” he added. “It’s so funny. It’s like free entertainment.”
He kept up a running commentary on their work, sympathizing with the man loading up the chairs and observing that the other guy, the one on the truck, was a crummy supervisor that he’d never work for, no sir. He leapt up from the bench as the man on the ground nearly toppled his stack of chairs. “Hold on, buddy — I’ll help ya,” he called, jogging over.
Crisis averted, he trotted back to the bench. “The things ya see every day … and ya don’t even stop and look,” he said, pitching his cigarette butt onto the ground.
I knew he was right; he had proved his own point. I had long since given up on my newspaper story and had spent the whole time observing him. He filled two pages of my notebook: his clothes, his speech, even snippets of his life story (“… And I’m only 41 years old. Forty-one! That’s it, I’m gonna go back on drugs. I want my teenage life back.”)
I eventually got up, offered a polite “see ya,” and hiked back to the office. My brain echoed with his advice, the first thing he had said when he realized I was a writer:
“Make it real, son, make it real.”
I will, friend. I will.