The following is about someone I observed on a recent trip to the library. It was interesting to me because it’s one of those things I saw – and I’m sure you can identify with this – that looked like it was staged. But it wasn’t.
Anyway, here it is. It’s short and doesn’t “do” much (in other words, there’s no action per se), but it was one of those many instances when I see something or someone, and I wish I knew more of the story.
He sat alone in a corner alone. By his outward appearance and demeanor (the only things I had to go on), I presumed he was often – if not always – alone. (That’s probably not fair, but it’s difficult not to try and connect the dots when you see people or things.)
Later, I would take that thought a step further, figuring that if he hadn’t chosen a solitary life, by now he accepted it, and by all accounts, he seemed comfortable with it.
Old and crooked, he wore a long beard, which matched in color and texture his massive haystack of grey-white hair; “mad scientist” hair. He was thin and wrinkled, from his leathery face to his massive hands.
They were working hands. Hands that that had a rich, deep history. Hands that held stories, both symbolically and literally, since he was reading when I came upon him.
He was, in a word, tattered, tattered as the book he read, and the lives revealed in it. It was a classic, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. And he was a classic, looking like he could have written it—or lived it—himself. The tortured soul. The thinker. The lonely genius.
I knew the story he was reading because it’s one of my favorites. It’s a long book, a requires a commitment of both time and attention because it’s neither a page-turning mystery or a fun, rollicking romp. It’s about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and desperation. But at that moment, I didn’t care about the story he was reading, I wanted to know his story, the one behind the hair, the beard, the wrinkled features and the eyes.
When he looked up from the text, they defied the rest of his appearance. They were pure and beautiful and friendly. Still blue and clear. But I got only a brief glimpse as he looked up to nod to a passer-by before returning to his reading.
I had questions. Where did he come from? How did he ply his trade or passion as a younger man? What brought him here, to this point on this day? Was he happy? Did he have family?
“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” as the saying goes, and I try to avoid that, though I knew others had judged this man without knowing him. That’s what happens when people’s appearance sticks out from the crowd.
I try not to do that, yet I realized that my own presumptions or questions about him were also judgments, though mine weren’t negative in spirit, as I figured those of others were when they saw him.
But would it be bad if judged this man by the only other clue I had about him, his choice of literature? Because if I could do that, I would say he’s a man of depth and sincerity, a soulful person who appreciates the human condition, the value of hard work and overcoming obstacles.
Just like Steinbeck did.
And I’d say he’s a man who enjoys the quiet solitude of sitting and reading a good book, letting his mind take him places and maybe even roil up old memories.
Bothering no one. Bothered by no one. Just an old man reading a book.
I took a seat across the room, and as I did my work, I’d occasionally steal a glance at him, to see if I could get any clues. I’m ashamed to say it, but to me, he was like a work of art, and he reminded me of a painting my grandmother had on her wall for so many years. It was an old man sitting at a table, head down, hands folded, presumably in prayer. That painting always stopped me in my tracks.
For the next hour, he just sat and read. And I thought, “I’ll bet people look at him, in his old unraveling overcoat, wild hair and wrinkled skin and dismiss him, take him for granted.”
But I couldn’t help thinking about him, and all the stories he had of people he’d met, things he’d done, and places he’d been. (At this point I realized I, too, was in my own way judging this man—this book—by his cover.)
And I wanted so much to sit down and talk to him, to learn about him, to hear all the wisdom he’d accumulated and earned throughout his many decades on this Earth. But I didn’t because that could be seen as rude and selfish, especially in a library, where people come to read and work and study in peace.
And on that day, that man was there to read, to read someone else’s story, not to open up his own book to a stranger.
I went back to my work, something much more mundane and less romantic than The Grapes of Wrath or the mysterious experiences and life stories I had put on the shoulders of this man I had never met.
A bit later, I looked up to catch another glimpse, just like I did with that painting so many times in my grandmother’s house, and the chair was empty. He was gone, and with it, the story I wanted to hear so much about.
© 2023 David R. Haznaw