We have this neighbor, a couple of blocks away. He's a big man, with long, unkempt hair, and he always seems a little unwashed. For years he has had this huge, two-door red clunker, I wouldn't know the make, but I'd guess from the early 1970s. It belches fumes; the pop-up lock on the driver's side has sprung loose, and its long cable is usually draped around the steering wheel while one of those club devices protects the car from theft--though it's hard to imagine who might steal this hulk, or why. The dingy interior is overflowing with assorted trash. Our neighbor drives it occasionally around the local streets, presumably to keep the engine and the gearbox in running order. Aside from the smell, it creates a frightful, thunderous racket, and it moves precariously at about three miles an hour.
Our morning walk takes us regularly around the hill we live on, and the car is invariably parked outside his house. We often find him tinkering with it, with the hood or the trunk open, his head buried inside. I have always made it a point to say good morning. For many years, my greeting went ignored. I was unsure whether it was even heard, or whether the man simply chose to keep himself to himself. It was only recently, during the past year, that I began to get a surprise good morning in return.
And then this morning, on our walk, we found him tinkering with a different car--still considerably older than those parked on either side, up and down the street, but smaller, sleeker, tidier... As we passed by I paused and said: "New car? Congratulations!"
And the floodgate opened. This man who had never responded beyond a muttered monosyllable went off into a rant--friendly enough, but definitely a rant--from which I was hardly able to tear myself away. The new car, I gathered, was an inheritance. It was one of those sweet and bitter things, he explained in a booming voice that startled me and threatened to arouse the neighborhood. His good friend had died of cancer at the age of seventy-four and had left him the car. It was smoking, he said. It should be against the law. He himself is a smoker, he confessed, and is unable to quit. He smokes one cigarette a day. Well, maybe five, some days. How much he smokes, or has smoked in his life, is evident in his voice. He fulminated for some time about the evils of nicotine, and would have gone on, I guessed, for another half hour, had I been willing to listen.
But I was maybe a bit spooked by the torrent of words, by this big man and his big voice, by the intensity of his monologue. And besides, Ellie and our friend from across the street, who joins us on occasion for our morning walk, were moving on. Perhaps they, too, were spooked; or perhaps they were just engaged in a conversation of their own. So I hastened to tear myself away and catch them up. He was still talking as I tried to say goodbye and wish him luck in quitting cigarettes.
I felt a little bit guilty, too. After all, I had finally succeeded in finding the switch that turned him on, and it felt like I was abandoning him at a moment when he had suddenly revealed himself to me and to the world. I was left wondering about the man, about his loneliness, his isolation, his obsession, whether these things were chosen and what might have been their cause. Did he need connection, was it something he might have longed for in his life? And now that, for a few moments, he had it, was it right to snatch it away? And when we pass again, will there be more words exchanged between us, or will he revert to the silence from which he so unexpectedly emerged? We human beings are a mystery... to each other. Sometimes even to ourselves.