For sidewalk, Walt Whitman liked to use the word trottoir. Offhand, I can think of no other nineteenth century American writer who did so — this, of course, based on my faulty memory and limited reading. Word choice aside, one thing I’m noticing this time through his Specimen Days, is that buildings and trains are every bit as alive to him as oaks and sparrows — indeed, in his poetic prose, they all seem imbued with the same breath and blood. And so the crush of well-dressed men and women on Fifth Avenue has the grand appeal of a river in torrent; the sparkle of jewelry and the flash of carriage wheels glitter like the waters of Niagara. Not so, Thoreau, who, in his diary, sees man as an intruder — an intruder capable of nobility, it is true; but ultimately as a threat to nature. He laments and measures the loss. Whitman celebrates all. Both are rebellious, revolutionary, sure of themselves; Thoreau is apt to bathe in the moonlight, Whitman in the sunny afternoon.
December 18, 2019. Evening.
Shadows on the Sidewalk
I never did learn the name of the crippled guy with the knot on his head, but I saw him dozens of times over the years limping down Main Street on the sidewalk, as friendly and chipper as could be. He wore a white cowboy hat with a high dented crown, but I don’t think it was to hide the knot. For one thing, in the hot San Joaquin Valley sun, the shade was necessary. For another, the hat suited him perfectly. The knot itself wasn’t visible until he removed the hat to wipe the sweat from his brow, or to have his hair cut at the barbershop.
Who was he? Where was he born? If I had to guess, I’d say Oklahoma. In the old hometown, there was no shortage of Dust Bowl immigrants and their descendants, just as there was no shortage of Mexicans, Japanese, Germans, Armenians, Swedes, Italians, Slavs, and what some might call regular Americans, which included those who weren’t quite sure, or who were trying a little too hard to forget, or who didn’t really care.
I’m pretty sure the guy wasn’t “all there.” But I have thought this before about people, only to have been proven wrong, and to find out that their genius was packaged differently, or perhaps exaggerated in some way. In his case, there was also the knot to consider. Whatever had caused it to grow might also have affected his mind. Or the knot might have put pressure on certain nerves, or prevented his synapses from firing in the proper order, or from firing at all. I refuse to carry this as far as his pistons and valves, however, because I have never been much of a mechanic.
Where did he live? Why was he always alone? These are the questions I asked myself back then, in the 1960s. I asked my father. He didn’t know. The guy had been around for several years and was one of the town’s characters, that’s all. Even then, I realized he belonged every bit as much as we did, and relied on the familiar scene for sustenance — the brick buildings, the smiling and battered faces, the dusty awnings, the bits of conversation, the sound of the noon whistle blaring from the fire house.
Now, in my hard-earned wisdom, I also realize that there were people who really did know him, and who might still be around to tell his story. I feel certain he is no longer alive. I could be wrong, but I just can’t imagine his poor body carrying him into his eighties or nineties. Come to think of it, when we moved from the valley to Oregon in 1987, he had already been missing for some time. But that proves only one thing. It proves that I, too, am missing.
Songs and Letters, July 26, 2005
Tags: Diaries, Fifth Avenue, Immigrants, Journals, Library Notes, Memory, My Father, Niagara, Oaks, Reading, Specimen Days, The Dust Bowl, The San Joaquin Valley, Thoreau, Trains, Trottoirs, Walt Whitman, Words