There used to be this guy who came to the park in a business suit with a thin black tie and his straw hair slicked back and wet-looking to make the case against Darwin’s theory of evolution. He had a clutch of professional-quality charts, which he set up on an easel behind him to help illustrate his points while he was speaking. His whole style was corporate, a corporate version of sincerity, like a Fifties ad man.
The students and occasional professors walking by would mostly mock and jeer at him; he wasn’t worth the trouble to refute anymore, not here at least. Whatever Christian souls might have been passing had no stake in such controversies. By trying to be intellectually respectable he had lost them as well, falling, as the saying goes, between two stools.
I would watch his efforts from a distance, curious but not wanting to be drawn into argument. His cornflower blue eyes had a buried panic in them, like the modern world was too much for him, like he felt compelled by his very fear to come to the heart of downtown to fight against its mindless swirling madness, to have his say against error, to save. He was in the park for two years before vanishing
Another guy I saw a few times was this shirtless, retarded-looking white dude in loose green sweatpants missing the drawstring, who sang his heart out over tapes of old soul classics. He had black plastic glasses held together by tape and a likeably ugly face like Stephen King’s. People stopped to laugh at him but soon began to enjoy his performance. He really had the moves down, all that old gut-bucket showmanship of pointing accusingly at the sky, going up on your toes to wail a high note and then dropping to your knees to plead with your baby not to leave.
That was the first time I had ever heard “I Can’t Get Next To You.” His repertoire was all agony: “Standing In The Shadows of Love” and “Bernadette,” the tragic Temptations and Four Tops stuff you don’t hear much on the radio. He looked like he lived at home with a TV-dead maiden aunt and had never had a date, but he was feeling it. Those songs were probably his best friends. Maybe his heart had been broken or maybe no one had ever bothered and that was what was killing him or maybe he felt just fine.
The police walked him out and took his batteries ó radio-playing is illegal in the park and I followed after to make sure they weren’t rough on him. I saw him one other time a few weeks later and they shut him down again, to the boos of a fair-sized crowd. My girlfriend was moving up that winter and I hoped he’d come back in the spring so she could see him too, but as far as I know he never returned.
Some days nice weather is as annoying as a fire drill; it requires you evacuate the premises but gives you no particular place to be. After much circling around I always seem to touch down at the park. For one thing, it’s about the only place you can sit. I don’t like to read outdoors, there’s too much to see, but it’s good to have a book with you to reassure people you can still hear the small silent voice of reason rising up invisibly from the pages.
It shows how little power the police really have that just walking from one end of the park to the other three or four guys will try to sell you pot. One dealer used to call me Mr. Book-Man whenever he saw me, which always cracked me up, but most of the time the offers felt like insults.
In the southwest corner guys are waiting to hustle chess and in the northwest sometimes there’s speed Scrabble. These games are like an emblem of city life: Here we do it fast and we do it with anybody, and money has to change hands. This is what happens to childhood games here, they all grow furtive and professional.
I suspect our lunatics are sent to us on a rotating basis, like missionaries. The new one is a Latin gentleman with a wooden sword who wears a dirty grayish-brown trenchcoat off his shoulders like a cape. Waving the sword about him, he delivers a long speech asking for work in the movies. You want to tell him he’s in the wrong place, that even shows set in New York come from L.A., but you’re afraid to wake him from his enchantment.
Some air of olden grandeur clings to his person despite its recent shabbiness. He seeks fame and glory like the musketeers of yore, but on the screen, the only place it exists now, maybe the only place it can ever exist. He wants to live full-time in the world of human dreams, with the moon for a nightlight and his feet propped up on a pillowy silver cloud. He is looking for the secret door to that large and brighter world, oddly by asking after it on the street in broad daylight.
Where’s he from? Somewhere. What’d he do before this? Something else. The truth is questions are rude. I don’t ask because I don’t care enough to be genuinely friendly and I don’t really like to play with people anymore either. I confirm a secret pact of silence, not with a look even but by not looking very long, by more or less minding my own business and moving on.
The creationist, the soul-singer, the swordsman: I don’t collect crazies but it does cheer me up sometimes to see them. If they can get through the endless plate of days set before us then maybe Mr. Book-Man will too, and with no drug stronger than fresh air and a few of the more common household illusions. That people still read, that our better feelings will always matter, and that there are some things only a stranger can hope to understand.