One of the quirks of living in a big city is people passing on the street don’t speak to each other. People move about in a swarm yet each person acts is if they are the only person on the street. The proximity of the bodies violates typical Western personal space norms yet people slide by within inches of each other without a “good morning”, a “hello”, or even the short and succinct “hi” which can be uttered with less effort than exhaling a breath. Masses of bodies jostling for position cross the street as soon as the little human on the sign brights up without a word or daring to violate the unspoken but understood eye contact taboo. It’s as if everyone is wrapped up in a protective, isolating cocoon.
When I lived in the suburbs, people crossing generally acknowledged another’s presence with a short word or, at a minimum, a head nod. In small towns, I have found people consider it rude to not greet passersby. The city is the opposite. This caught me off guard when I started working in the city. It took a few weeks time until I was able to accept the urban norm and walk by people without feeling uncomfortable at ignoring them. I have now worked in the city for a couple of months and have fallen into the pattern of walking in my own cocoon. I normally don’t even notice my isolation until someone chooses to interact as happened after school this week.
The dark of evening had descended. I exited the train, one ant in a swarm, making our way down the steps before dispersing into the streets heading our separate ways. I stepped into the crosswalk with a couple of other commuters forcing cars coming from both directions to stop, it can feel a bit like Russian Roulette because there are times cars violate traffic laws and don’t stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, before turning left to walk the final few blocks to my car.
A man in a black baseball cap, one of those flat brim styles made popular by the hip-hop culture. The cool thing in my day was to curl the brim forming a tunnel through which we challenged the world. He had on shorts, and a white tank top, and shoes that appeared a bit too long and made a flopping sound with each footfall. He had come up from behind me and made sure to get eye contact before greeting me with a smile and a hello. He was a few inches shorter than I with hairy shoulders. He asked where I was coming from. I told him work and school. He was coming from watching the Chicago Symphony Park in Millennium Park and was caught in a downpour and was still trying to dry off.
“I got soaked! I’m still so wet I think I’m sprouting mushrooms.”
We discussed music and concerts. I told him about Ravinia, a concert venue in the North suburbs. He was still right next to me after a block. I was not sure of his intent so moved my messenger bag to the shoulder opposite him, palmed my keys and adjusted them so they could be used as a weapon in the event the interaction turned ugly.
“What kind of moon do you like? Waxing, waning, gibbous?”. He said pointing to the clear Eastern sky.
It’s rare than anyone ever mentions the gibbous moon. I knew it meant the phase of the moon that appears more than half lit but less than half full and that there are both waxing and waning versions. I looked toward the direction he was pointing but saw nothing until we walked a bit further and there was a gap in the triangular peaks of the buildings.
“I like full moons.”
He whirled toward me. “Does the moon cause the animal inside you to uncoil? Do you become a wolf? Do you drink blood.”
“Hmm. No. They provide great light when backpacking. I used to be a backpacker.”
“A moon led the three kings.”
“I think that was a star.”
“Oh ya, I haven’t been to a church in, like, 20 years.”
This was by far the strangest conversation I had had in ages. It was both enjoyable and disconcerting so it was with mixed emotions that we were approaching my car. I pushed the lock button so the rear lights flashed a couple of times.
“This is my car. Have a nice evening.”
“Would you like to stop by my place for a drink?” he asked staring straight ahead.
“No thanks,” The question tipped the emotional scales further toward disconcertedness. Still, I didn’t want to come across as rude so added, “My wife is expecting me.”
“Oh, you’re married. What’s his name?”
This was taking a very strange twist but it did confirm a suspicion. “It’s a her. I’m married to a woman.”
He abruptly turned to face me head on, moved his hand toward the back of his neck and rubbed it slowly, “You’re not gay?”
“Really. Why would you think I’m gay?”
“My socks?” I was wearing a light blue pair of socks with the nude David statue carved by Michaelangelo woven into the design. They were one of many pairs of socks I own depicting classic works of art. I have increasingly grown to appreciate art so add a bit of pizazz to my wardrobe with colorful art socks. It was too dark to see the David and that part was covered by my trousers. I was at a loss to understand why my socks said I was gay.
“Your socks match your shirt. They are the same color, the same shade of blue.”
He stood looking at me with a slightly befuddled, slightly exasperated expression with hands now palms up. ” It’s very common in the gay community so I thought you were one of us.”
“No. No, I’m not. I’m straight.” I took this as an opportunity to part company. “Have a good evening,” I said heading off toward my car.
“You too.” He walked away. As he was turning the corner, he threw his hand above his head, waved and said loudly, “By the way, I’m Kevin McNally.” And that was the last I saw of him.