Two Strangers, Three Stories

All the lonely people and where they come from

Martello Tower (James McConkey)
Martello Tower (James McConkey)


Overlooking the sea in Key West are the crumbling remains of a large fortification, the West Martello Tower, a small segment of which has been restored. On the seaward side, most of the foundation, including the cannon openings, has been demolished; the lower portion is simply a brick wall holding back the earth within the fort from the low-lying sand. Because that wall and the trees planted behind it offer some shade from the sun, a lone picnic table has been placed beneath them, at the far edge of Higgs Beach.

During a vacation in Key West last year, my wife and I were resting from a long walk at that table when a stranger approached us. “Would it scare you,” he asked, “if I joined you to roll a cigarette?”

Nothing about him was frightening. A middle-aged man with a kindly face, he asked his question in a gentle way. His body, though wiry, was no taller than mine. Clearly, he was no beggar: he was clean-shaven, and wore unsoiled clothes—work pants and a T-shirt that seemed to have been freshly laundered. As we could tell at once, the need to use the table to roll a cigarette was just a ruse to enable him to talk to us.

Many years ago—I was still a teacher then—a motorist slowly passing our old country house saw me on an overcast day looking disconsolately at a lawn that once again needed cutting. The only other stranger I’ve encountered who wanted to talk at length about his life, he stopped his car to ask me, in a voice as soft as that of the Key West stranger, if I thought something might be wrong with him, because he wanted to cry, and couldn’t. The reason for his low speed was his concern that he might hurt a child or a dog if his eyes were to become blurred up with tears. He earned his living as a roofer on a construction crew, but on this day had left the job early because he couldn’t bear any longer the jokes that others on the crew subjected him to. He guessed he was different from the others—he never used swear words, for example, and sometimes was clumsy. In fact, he had suffered ridicule because of his differences ever since grade school. Desiring to be liked, he always shared what he had—an apple or sandwich, for example—with others, but that only intensified the ridicule. And yes, he had always wanted to let others know how he was feeling, for how can people develop friendships without expressing their feelings? He’d thought that crying might get him over the emptiness he felt. Did I think it was a good thing or a bad thing that he found himself unable to cry?

When I told him I didn’t think one person by another; crying was a bad thing, he said he had stopped to talk to me because I was obviously depressed myself, and really a mirror. yet I wasn’t crying. Empathy is said to be a generous response to one person by another; and yet empathy is really a mirror: the projection upon the other of what we believe is true of ourselves. If he had been full of self-pity instead of wonder, I wouldn’t have felt empathy for him. But I, too, wished to be liked by others; his questioning had made me realize that my depression had less to do with how fast grass grows in a rainy season than it did with a hostile student to whom I’d given a low grade—she had phoned me at my Cornell office to tell me I was the lousiest lecturer she’d ever known, for I’d never told her what she should put into papers or tests in order to get an A. It’s true enough that I’d never wanted students to give me back my own views, wishing they’d listen to, and perhaps question, my responses to a poem or a novel rather than copying them down; she wasn’t the first student to make that complaint. The young roofer and I talked for a long time, for his unusual frankness about himself enabled me to be more open about my own feelings than I usually am. Since he drove away at a less cautious speed than before, I assumed I had helped him get over his need for tears; and I discovered that my own depression was gone. In the following months, he passed my house several times while I was outside. I wished he would stop for a chat, but he never did—he simply waved and smiled, and gave a brief toot with his horn.

Idon’t remember if the stranger who wanted to talk about himself to Jean and me in Key West ever rolled a cigarette; if he did, he never smoked it. What he wanted us to know was that he had been homeless for more than 30 years, and that the warmest place in winter for homeless people in Key West was near the picnic table where we were sitting. The wall behind it is five or six feet high, and above it are shaded paths winding among the trees, shrubs, flowers, pools, and fountains maintained by the Key West Garden Club. Earlier in our vacation, we had paid a small sum to look at the paintings and flower arrangements inside the restored Martello structure before strolling along those pleasant paths. It hadn’t occurred to us then to think that the sturdy chainlink fence on top of the wall that protected visitors to the garden also served to keep the homeless from climbing up the stones to seek shelter by breaking into the structure or the garden club’s wooden sheds during the night. The homeless man felt no more self-pity than had the man unable to cry; if anything, he seemed proud of his resilience and lack of dependence upon charity. But even in semitropical Key West, winter nights can occasionally be chilly, and torrential rains can arrive in nearly all seasons. I asked him if sometimes he had needed to find shelter from a storm. He’d been offered a bed in the past, he told us, but usually rejected it—he had long ago learned that “when others offered him something, they wanted something in return.” Maybe it was an oblique explanation of what “they” wanted that made him say that he was different from all the other homeless people in Key West: unlike them, he wasn’t gay or alcoholic (he wouldn’t drink even a beer), nor did he take drugs, except the ones prescribed by his doctor. “I’m schizophrenic,” he said, with the frankness of—but more cheerfully than—the earlier stranger. His prescription drugs enabled him to work at odd jobs, providing all the money he needed for food and other necessities.

Had his differences from others made him so lonely that he had to seek out a couple like us to listen to him speak of his proud independence as a man without a home? Was it simply the prescription drugs that enabled his acceptance of a life intolerable to those of us with families, monthly incomes and friendships? He may not have given us much of a chance to speak, but he seemed to be alert to what either Jean or I might be thinking, for at that moment he pointed to a figure sitting on a stone breakwater several hundred feet away, a bicycle next to her. “That’s my girlfriend,” he said. “She’s guarding my bike for me.”

As it soon became apparent, the girlfriend—the sun glittering on the water made it difficult to see her as much more than a stout shadow—was crucial to what he wanted to tell us, but for the moment it was the bicycle that held his attention. “That bike,” he said, “cost me 500 dollars, and it’s the best bicycle you can buy.” He emphasized that point, as if we hadn’t understood its value: “Nobody in the world has a better bike than mine.” He paused only long enough for us to reflect on those words before saying, “It pays to be crazy during hurricane season.”

The last sentence was the beginning of his explanation of how he’d managed to be owner of a bicycle like that. When a hurricane was imminent, the local authorities transported people like him by bus to the safety of refuge centers—sometimes as far away as Miami—where they were housed and fed until danger was past. Like anybody not suicidal, he was more than willing to compromise his independence on those occasions. He didn’t say whether or not the authorities typically made it a one-way trip, only that after a storm in the past hurricane season he had hitched his way back—and had the good luck to be picked up by a farmer who needed emergency help in his fields. For a week’s labor, the farmer had paid him exactly the amount he needed to buy the kind of bicycle he had always wanted. That marvelous bicycle, which permitted him to get quickly from one odd job to another, gave him, I imagined, the autonomy and pride that a new automobile can give those with a family and a home in a suburban development—or (like me) an old farmhouse at a rural crossroads.

But why should a stranger so happy with his condition feel the need to talk to someone else about his contentment? Decades earlier, that unhappy roofer had stopped his car to unburden himself to me because he had seen that I might be unhappy enough to understand his story; had this one chosen Jean and me because we were an elderly couple whose demeanor made him think we would understand him? It is true that we feel fortunate in having had each other’s companionship and trust for 60 years. The knowledge that good luck is bound to run out for the most fortunate of gamblers—will it happen tomorrow, next month, or next year?—imparts, consciously or unconsciously, a poignancy to the idle pleasures that a vacation provides us. I guess anybody who had seen us sitting before that picnic table and talking with each other, as always, about what is past, or passing, but never about what is to come, would have considered us a happy couple.

Soon after the homeless man had joined us, I sensed his proprietary interest in the picnic table we had chosen; in retrospect, I can see that we were his guests in surroundings so familiar to him that they were a kind of dwelling open to the sky. The table would have been the dining room where he—maybe with the homeless woman who was his girlfriend—ate the food his odd jobs paid for; their bedroom, if she spent the night with him, would have been beneath the curving walls of the old fortification on whatever sandy spot offered the most protection from rain or wind. For a bathroom, they had the convenience of the Higgs Beach comfort station, as well as the open-air showers for bathers.

Only toward the end of the encounter did he speak in any detail about his girlfriend. She was a very smart woman whose curiosity had led her to far more places and experiences than he would ever know. Once (where or how many years ago he didn’t say) she had been introduced to Mick Jagger after one of his concerts, and was able to talk for some time with him. Before leaving, he told her, “I’ll never forget you.” I’ll never forget you—that a celebrity like Mick Jagger would hold her forever in memory should let us know what a special person she was! And now that she was living more or less permanently in Key West, his girlfriend was thinking of contacting Mick to see if he would give a concert on the island the next time he went on tour.

“What you dream about can come true,” he said, with an even greater earnestness than he had given to the attributes of his bicycle. “If there’s anything I believe about my country, and especially about Key West, it’s that anything’s possible.” Maybe to let that truth linger in our minds, he looked (as did we) toward the seemingly limitless sea, and to the variegated shapes above it—the sunlit towers and castles, the monkeys, elephants, and dragons of cumulus clouds outlined against the blue of the afternoon sky. And then, just as he was about to walk back to the woman still guarding his bicycle, he gave us the offering he must have had in mind ever since we had first demonstrated our interest in his life: “If Mick Jagger comes to Key West, I want to give both of you complimentary tickets.”

Though he had no way to contact us about those tickets—the three of us had not even exchanged our names—his was a sincere promise, offered by one who lived in a land where anything imaginable could be realized, and we accepted it as such, and as an unexpected gift Jean and I were grateful to receive.

Six months have elapsed since Jean and I met the homeless man. I wouldn’t have quoted his words if I hadn’t believed them an accurate transcription of phrases held in my memory from the moment he spoke them. I’m aware, though, that personal memory carries a subjective reality: in listening to him, I was influenced by more memories than I can ever put down, including those of the earlier stranger. Though 30 years have elapsed since my meeting with the roofer, my memory of it doesn’t need to be bolstered by the description I gave it in an autobiographical story I wrote a day or so later. He had leaned across the passenger seat of his little car to speak to me, his left hand grasping the bottom frame of the opened window, and I can still see as clearly as ever his empurpled thumb, blood congealing at the edges of the nail.

In mentioning that encounter, I failed to include the event that caused the roofer to leave his job, maybe because my mind rebels against thinking of all the meanness we can inflict on others. For reasons so small they seem but a whim, young children sometimes exclude another—the chosen pariah— from their play. And what applies to our social groupings as children and adults also applies to nations and religions. “We must exclude someone from our gathering, or we shall be left with nothing” is the explanation the narrator gives us, in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, of the quandary of a young English missionary so advanced in his thinking he would admit many, but sadly not all, of God’s lesser creatures into his concept of Heaven.

The bruised thumb, though, came from the roofer’s own clumsiness—he’d hit it with his hammer while trying to drive a shingle nail through metal flashing. His fellow workers had laughed at his “golly darn,” and the single one who had seemed to be coming to his assistance had instead kicked his hammer off the roof. As he was wordlessly climbing down to retrieve it, one or more of the crew so jiggled the ladder that he fell off. What he remembered was lying on the ground, while those on the roof were joined in laughter. Is there anybody who has not, at least in childhood, awakened in terror from nightmares similar to that actual occurrence? I mean, the sense of being alone, our lives imperiled by vindictive others, maybe those red devils that our imaginations have conjured up from some forgotten Sunday school lesson? In the delirium that followed an operation on my viscera at a World War II field hospital in Germany, I saw Hitler as a devil, his pitchfork plunging again and again into my guts. Occasionally, I have dreams in which I’m trying to escape an unknown peril but my legs won’t move. The large dog that sleeps near the bed I share with Jean is—like nearly all the dogs that animal shelters don’t immediately place—of mixed breed. Though young and strong, he sometimes whimpers and cries from whatever fears that dogs dream about; in his case, his legs thrash about—it’s his body that can’t move. I have enough in common with that dog to put him in my Heaven. It’s possible that hallucinatory fears are lurking in our unconscious minds every moment of our lives. If so, are they a consequence of genetic memories we carry from our primitive ancestors who were endangered not only by the claws and teeth of the very animals they killed for clothing and nourishment, but also by the aggressions of people in other tribes? Whatever the cause, those fears could explain the security that exclusionary groups provide us, even in times that carry no stress.

Jean and I came to maturity during the long years of the Great Depression, a decade of deprivation for nearly all American families. Unable to support his family, my father, then a traveling salesman, never returned from one of his trips. We lived in a new but already bankrupt development at the edge of Little Rock, Arkansas, miles from the nearest store. He must have known in advance he was deserting his wife and two sons, for he had taken the train instead of driving away in his old Packard, realizing we would need it in the days immediately ahead and perhaps for the escape that his own had made mandatory. I suppose my father didn’t forget his responsibility for us, since he occasionally sent small sums of money, though never enough for groceries or mortgage payments. The federal government under President Roosevelt had already begun to establish some of those social programs that currently are under attack or being dismantled, but no security net then existed. In the late afternoon of the day that my mother sold all the furniture and most of our other possessions, the three of us, accompanied by my large German shepherd—as a puppy, he’d been my birthday gift from my father—began our long journey northward, my brother old enough to drive the Packard, our hoped-for destination the home in a Cleveland suburb where my mother’s sister lived with her family. In the early morning hours of the third day of traveling, my mother called her sister from a roadside phone booth about a hundred miles from Cleveland: fearing that otherwise shelter might be denied us, she had waited until then to tell her we were coming. I was just entering adolescence, that self-conscious stage of development in which we are painfully aware of our smallest difference from others, and so remember only my private sense of humiliation and shame.

But it turned out that the three us didn’t differ much from anybody else in those days. The stock-market collapse brought ruin to more than brokers and their clients; the ensuing closure of banks wiped out everybody’s savings. My uncle and aunt took us in, even though my uncle, having lost his position, was trying to sell new cars from a storefront so small that it had room for only one car. My mother joined her sister, who did laundry and ironing for others; my brother made hamburgers at a franchise stand in a downtown Cleveland dime store; and, each day after school, I delivered afternoon newspapers. Hope, though often illusory, sustained nearly all Americans in those days. When my brother was admitted to General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan, a work-study engineering college that offered him free tuition and living expenses, my mother and I accompanied him, for he thought his monthly stipend—so much more generous than his hamburger stand salary—could support the three of us. Within months, we realized how false that dream had been. My mother left, to be a live-in maid in Cleveland; my uncle and aunt so welcomed me back that they became my surrogate parents, their two daughters my sisters.

But it would be sentimental to say that mutual insecurity and hardship made everybody as hospitable as that. When my brother worked at the hamburger stand, his employer displayed no generosity at all. In the two weeks before Christmas, my brother worked 10 or 12 hours six days of the week with no increase in pay, and he was docked a day’s wages by the closure of the dime store on Christmas itself.

Such ruthless policies—I could provide other examples—may have been instituted in boardrooms of corporations struggling to turn a profit, but families and neighborhood businesses were bonded together in a way that later generations might not be able to comprehend. Like others my age, I wore clothes that came from parents whose children had outgrown them. Often today as my wife and I wait in the checkout line of a supermarket, I remember Paul Marwitz, the neighborhood grocer whom my aunt depended upon for the food whose cost he added to an already sizable bill. In a supermarket owned by a chain, what would a checkout clerk do, if we had neither credit card nor cash? On one occasion more than 65 years ago, Paul Marwitz sent a desperate message to his customers, telling those who owed him a hundred dollars or more that if they didn’t pay something on their overdue accounts, his own creditors would force him out of business. That his store managed to survive I learned years later, when I returned to the neighborhood to thank him. The mutual dependence of grocer and customer helped both to weather a depression that conclusively ended only through the revitalization of American industry by the war that already had engulfed much of Europe.

That individually we are alone, and that our aloneness bonds us with others, may be the essential human condition, but my awareness of it chiefly has occurred in periods of national insecurity or fear—though such an awareness is undoubtedly abetted by the increasing sense that comes with age of the precious fragility not only of life, but of those institutions apparently built to last for centuries, if not forever: the ones erected by our Founding Fathers to support and defend us from others as well as from our own often predatory nature. For a brief period that began on 9/11, all Americans, joined by peoples in Europe and elsewhere, responded in a way that sharply reveals the extent of our shared existential condition.

Before the shock of the catastrophic terrorist acts in 2001, I had lived through both the Depression and the Cold War years. Few people today grew up in the Depression, but their middle-aged children must carry, however unconsciously, the memory of being instructed by their grade-school teachers to crouch beneath their desks, sheltering their heads as best they could—learning to protect themselves from a possible nuclear attack. The early 1960s were the years of the Cold War in which humanity seemed most likely to destroy itself. During the Berlin Crisis of 1961, President Kennedy, in a nationally televised broadcast on civil defense, advised Americans to build back-yard fallout shelters, stocking them with food and water and other necessities, in case of a Russian nuclear strike. Was it an example of Kennedy gamesmanship, as one magazine at the time suggested, intended to convince Russia that if it continued its aggressions we could use our nuclear weapons against it, while surviving a retaliatory attack, or was it simply an attempt to convince our citizens that if they took the proper precautions they would be much safer? Whatever his motive, the strategy created nothing but panic in America: shelters were hastily built throughout the country, and at first—according to well-publicized accounts—a few of their builders said that for the sake of their families they would shoot any who intruded on their underground sanctuaries.

Though such a primitive reaction may lie deep in the human psyche, the effect of these Cold War years produced a different response in most others. I was the father of three young sons. The threat of global nuclear annihilation made me aware of how deeply I loved my wife and children and of my connection to all other humans as well as to the endangered natural world from which all of us had come. Yet I was alone, and my family was alone; and I wanted to convey to others, through the words I wrote, my feelings toward even the most commonplace events of my past, for they had unexpectedly become of immeasurable value, a judgment I still retain. More so than during the Depression, and certainly unlike today, other individuals also wanted to share their feelings about life in general—not about their political animosities—with anybody who could hear them. I would listen to one or more of the talk shows on the radio late at night, sometimes from stations so distant that the voices would fade away. The callers simply wanted to express what at that moment mattered the most to them. Those radio programs have long since been replaced by the late-night television entertainers who interview celebrities. In the early 1960s, Americans became far more introspective than they were before or after.

Have I digressed from the stories I heard from two strangers, one long ago and the other more recent? I don’t think so, though digressions are acceptable in any story told by one my age. (I recently celebrated my 84th birthday with a dinner at a classy French restaurant in the nearby Finger Lakes wine district; the celebrant of such an occasion deserves to get a little tipsy, and a son was the designated driver who brought us safely home that night.) All along, this essay has been autobiographical, an exploration, through memory, of the reasons I respond to others—and to life—as I do. But why should I have come away with a sense of well-being from the stories these strangers needed to tell? Was it that both men made me aware of my good fortune in life? I wondered about that question after each of them had left, but such a comparison would never have made me happy. A more likely explanation is not quite so self-indulgent. While listening to these outcasts speak of their difference from others, I was hearing much that is essential to us all—the same kind of story I’ve wanted to tell others for many years, and still need to tell today.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

James McConkey is Goldwin Smith Professor of English Literature Emeritus at Cornell. His books include The Telescope in the Parlor, Court of Memory, and To a Distant Land. His next book, The Complete Court of Memory, is forthcoming.


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