By Mark Thomas
Every day, on my walk home, I initiated a conversation with the man begging for change at the Coulter Street highway exit. This scruffy individual held up cardboard signs with vaguely threatening messages, like “blood and fire and pillars of smoke,” and motorists trapped at the stoplight would occasionally feel compelled to give up a few quarters.
I used dialogue-starting techniques culled from my networking group’s manual. For example, on our very first encounter, I leaned forward in a friendly way and asked the man his name, but before a reply was possible, added, “Wait a minute, let me guess… Is it Diogenes?”
At first, the man just stared at me intently. But he eventually spoke, barely moving his lips: “On the fortieth day, the Lord came down with a sword and said, ‘don’t worry, little one, I will get them all.’” Then, his eyes shifted to the slowing line of cars and I knew he was mentally preparing to get back to work accosting the drivers.
Of course, his words didn’t make literal sense, but that should never be an impediment to a successful social exchange, I merely had to focus on an optimistic future. “It was really interesting talking to you,” I said. “In the event that you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, I look forward to our next conversation, at this same time tomorrow.”
The man suddenly frowned and pointed with his toe at a discarded water bottle. “People on distant planets are dying of thirst and look what we have here.” His voice was a pillar of sadness.
I cheerfully waved “good day.”
The man nodded and mumbled an unfamiliar word that might have been “exitium.”
Isn’t that amazing? Within a few seconds of our first meeting, this gentleman had offered up complex observations about human greed and the thirst for revenge, and all it took was a humorous determination to ask his name.
Every evening, my initial question referenced something the man had said the previous day. For example, last week I asked him: “If you weren’t here, assessing this planet for potential destruction, what would your typical Thursday evening be like?”
His startling response: “Lounging in a garden beneath which rivers flow, listening to the howls of the insincere.”
What a remarkable image! Here’s another interesting snippet from earlier this very evening.
“Hey,” I said to him, “lots of people agree that travel is enlightening. If you didn’t have to be at this highway exit foraging for change, where would you go?”
The single word contained a symphony of longing. I remembered previous idyllic invocations and asked, “Is your home a beautiful place?”
The man stared at the sidewalk and nodded tightly. “It was, and will be again.”
I felt the gathering darkness of an approaching storm and sensed, rather than saw, the first sparks of lightning. I hurriedly excused myself and turned towards my apartment.
His last words, “forgive me,” were barely audible.