Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Familiar Unfamiliar Amongst Us

People are Strange - Echo + the Bunnymen (mp3)
Crash - Flesh for Lulu (mp3)

When I was at UNC, there was this guy we all called "Everywhereman." And by "we all," I mean 90% of our campus knew who Everywhereman was. He looked a lot like a short version of Bill Haverchuck from Freaks & Geeks except maybe more awkward, less talkative, and with long curly hair. [NOTE: If you read this blog with any regularity and haven't ever seen Freaks + Geeks, you need to stop reading right now and either put it at the top of your Netflix or start hunting the damn thing down, 'cuz it's one of the best 1-season shows ever.]

He earned the name because, on a campus of 20,000+ students and a town of some 60,000, everyone ran into this guy. He was everywhere. If you ate breakfast at on the main strip, he was there. If you went to study in the library in the afternoon or at 4 in the morning, he was there. If you went out for a night of bar golf, by damn if the dude wasn't in more than half of your bar holes. ("That's what she said!")

He seemed omnipresent, yet no one had ever even briefly conversed with Everywhereman. Everyone knew of him, yet no one knew anything about him. He was a ubiquitous, geeky, complete mystery. Everywhereman was the subject of constant derision, yet never attacked directly, because that seemed somehow sacriligious, like puking in a church pew.

I was a weekly columnist for our the school newspaper when they ran a cartoon that depicted Everywhereman. The cartoon basically mocked him in kinder ways, but in an all-too public fashion, and the campus went into a mild uproar over it. It was hypocritical, but we all stood up in that one moment -- and only for that moment -- to defend the guy we all found wildly odd.

That next weekend, I was in one of the more popular bars when Everywhereman showed up. Conversations had buzzed on whether the cartoon might push him underground. When we saw him in the crowd, we raised our glasses in our own groups and toasted him. Then we mocked him by wondering if Everywhereman ever even knew he'd been immortalized in a cartoon.

After more than a decade back in Chattanooga, it's become clear that all cities have their own ubiquitous mysteries. The 'Noog has at least two.

One-Legged Wheelchairman: If you've lived in The 'Noog in the last decade, you've seen this man. He's black. He's bald save for this one long braid of hair that sprouts from the top right side of his noggin. He has one leg. Which is kinda noticeable. There's nary a street corner in the city limits this dude hasn't panhandled.

I gave him a ride back to his home from downtown back in 2005, and the way I recall it, he told me his name was Blue. Unfortunately, time and Old School could have altered my memory. He called me "Red" because I drove a crappy red Toyota Tercel. So maybe he called himself "Blue" because he was being clever. Not sure. Anyway, I stopped at a McDonalds on the way back to his proclaimed neighborhood and bought him dinner. Our conversation was stilted and odd; gab is not a particular gift of mine in such circumstances. I overthink it. The next day, I saw him panhandling at a stop light and waved at him and said hi. He didn't know me from Adam. I was a kind means to an end, not a specific person. To take it personally would be a little pathetic.

Unemployed Santaman on North Terrace Porch: On one of these streets that runs parallel to I-24 on the way to downtown 'Nooga, there's this old white bearded dude -- looks like Santa Claus... if good ol' St. Nick had been laid off back in 1992 and had long ago run off the unemployment dole. He's got a Dunlop that rolls right into a Front Butt, and for roughly 20 hours each day, he can be found sitting right outside his house, looking out at all the traffic passing him by, drinking out of a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke. He looks bitter and angry, but I'm starting to think that's kind of his look, completely unattached to specific emotion. If I were a journalist, he would be the subject of a story.

We remember these kinds of people because they break an important pattern for us. Almost always, the more frequently we see someone, the more familiar they become to us. We tend to get more comfortable around them as well. Coworkers, bartenders, baristas, bosses, doormen, janitors. Their walk of life need be nothing like ours for us to get comfortable, to grow familiar. (Random side note: This is one reason I enjoy going to church.)

But with Everywhereman, Wheelchairman, and Unemployed Santaman, we remain utterly clueless about them even while we become more familiar with them. We know of them, but we don't know them. At all. (Nor, most of the time, do we really care to. Otherwise, we'd have already gone out of our way to get to know them better, since we have plenty of opportunities.)

The contradiction between knowing them and not knowing them freaks most of us out. It scares us. That's why teenagers spend so much time mocking the goth kid in the corner who's there every day, yet unfathomable and distant as another galaxy.


troutking said...

With all the everywhereman and bar talk, I thought you might be heading toward talking about Lupton.

Bob said...

You mean that history dude turned lawyer?