Song of a Stranger

It was as if he was sent with metaphors chosen especially for meeting me, even though, of course, he couldn’t know when he left his place that morning who he might meet, if anyone.

I was sitting at a Starbucks down the street from my place, outside on the patio. It was a beautiful day. A cold snap, rare for Vancouver. Watercolour indigo a steady swath above. Sunshine and the overhead heaters warmed my face. The heat off the red brick wall helped conjure up tropical destinations. White Sand. Black Sand. Playa del Carmen. The Big Island.

He walked by me coffee in hand.  Black sunglasses, plastic Aviator style. Shiny black ankle- high, square-toed boots. I’m not always friendly in the city. I stopped greeting strangers as a matter of course within six months of returning from Salt Spring.  As he walked by, I looked up and said it quietly.

“Hi.”

He responded in kind.

“Hello.”

I wasn’t acting on any instinct about him. Just being polite. He sat down to my right and a sideways glance offered me a closer look.  Not sure why I looked. Maybe because he and I were the only ones out there braving the cold which wasn’t actually that cold.

The first words? Might have been about the weather. That’s how these things always begin don’t they? Nothing big. Just an intro, willingness.

“Nice out eh?” I said.

He looked over at me. “You’ve got a small window,” he said. “Between now and 2pm. After that it gets really cold.”

He put his hand against the brick. I did too and he was right. Campfires. Barbecues. The kind of straight-on heat that burns but in a good way. He had an accent. Eastern European? His words seeped out rhythmically as if he were talking a jazz tune.

I couldn’t tell how old he was. Maybe sixties. Barely there stubble on his chin and cheeks; kinda sexy. He didn’t bother to take off his sunglasses. He was drinking a venté-sized coffee. At least I’m guessing it was coffee, lots of milk, bit of sugar perhaps. He didn’t seem the kind to order a special drink.

A song from the sixties –Downtown – was piping out of the sound system.  That song took me back to the dining room of the house I grew up in. I can’t hear that song and not recall my sisters’ love of that song – the Petula Clark version. I imagined them buying the vinyl 45 in downtown Vancouver. They’d drag out that blue and white record player and plug it in. They’d remove the shiny black plastic disc from its sleeve, place it carefully onto the raised platform and then lift the needle encased in its white plastic arm and place it flatly over the thin silver totem that spun wobbly in the middle.

“Must have been  the late 60s?” he asked. “Motown?” “Detroit?” “Detroit a model city back then,” he said.  “Motor city.”

I didn’t think I’d ever met anyone who’d been to Detroit. I asked him why he had.

“My extended family lived just outside of Chicago,” he said. “Went through there all the time. The music. The cars dealerships.  Jimmy Hoffa.”

“Did you know it just went bankrupt?” I asked.  “Not sure what that means exactly.”

“Officially, you mean? Officially bankrupt?”

“Yeah, officially,” I said.

“It means services gone. Pensions cut.  Everybody leaving. Everybody who can that is.”

Then he changed the topic.

“I worked in shelters for a long time,” he said.  “The other week. I came across this homeless lady on the street. Outside the pharmacy down there. Guess they called the cops. It’s like when two parallel universes collide. When realities are so far apart that one thinks they’re helping the other but the other, the one who seems to need help, doesn’t understand, doesn’t know why someone’s bothering with them.  The police officer can’t really comprehend what might have transpired for the person to get them there and first thing this police officer says to the woman,  “I’ll take you to a shelter. “‘

“And the homeless woman, she’s staring at the cop wondering why this cop is bothering her. She doesn’t want to go to a shelter. Why would she?  Why can’t she just stay, just live her life.  It’s still a free country isn’t it? They are so far removed from each other’s realities that they have nothing to offer each other. Sometimes it’s like living in a parallel universe. Writing can be like that as well,” he said.

I hadn’t told him that I was a writer.

“Are you a writer?” I asked him.

“I used to write,”he said. “I used to have an urgency. Not so much anymore.”

“Only a writer would ever say something like that,” I said. “Nobody else would even think about that kind of thing or have that kind of experience.”

“I used to urgently scribble everything down,” he said. “Now, I  just don’t have the ambition. I like the ideas. I like the thoughts that arise. That’s the beauty more than the writing. Imagination: using it.”

“That’s what life’s like when you’re on a journey. You can be on a journey or you can be comfortable,”he said.  “You can’t be both.”

“Take people out of their cars, and out of their offices, strip away their titles and their routines and the majority would be lost; wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. They wouldn’t be able to handle the hours stretched before them and yet, we look at them, those of us observing, some with envy, some with disdain, and assume that because they have some place to be, that they’ve got it all figured out. It’s good to remind ourselves that they haven’t figured out anything more than you and I. Probably not. They haven’t figured out those things that are going to be critical in old age, to that place we’re all headed.”

“My thing, what I try to do now, is just be. I try to find a way to find the contentment, regardless of where I am. Forget the past. Don’t get stuck. Let it go. It keeps you back in a different type of parallel universe that never turned out to be no matter how badly you wanted it. Don’t go to the future either. Just be right now. That’s all there is to work with really.”

“I haven’t been content for too long in my life,” he said.

“Me neither,” I said quietly.

“Sure, a few years. I lived up north. Lived in a small town up north and at first I thought, this is it. I’ve found what I’m looking for. All nature and isolation. Nice enough people I guess. And then just two years in and I began to think, What am I doing here? How  is being here helping me develop as a person? And, that’s when I knew that I had to get out of there. So I left and it took me a long time to figure out what was next. I eventually ended up working in emergency shelters.”

I didn’t wonder immediately, but later I wondered if he’d ended up living in one himself. Is that how he’d come to work there? I didn’t ask.

“Thought I might find some pearls of wisdom there,” he said. “At least more than some other places where I’d have to spend the day to get money. And I did, occasionally, but mostly I found people who didn’t want to change; islands unto themselves.

“I asked him where he was from, originally that is.

“ I usually say I’m from a place where the cathedral is over there, history up the ying, yang, Mozart and other composers as neighbors. I used to walk down the street back home and sometimes I’d sit down on a bench and think, Mozart walked here. Mozart probably sat on this bench. I think I’ll sit myself down and see if any of his inspiration might still be left here. It might seep up from that bench into me. So what if I had potato soup for breakfast as a kid. So what if there was no such thing as no fancy coffee. Where’s the inspiration in that? I can walk down to the next Starbucks, and the next, and the next  and have the same coffee there, the same experience, the same food. I can warm up but where am I? How has the experience added anything?”

“Sometimes it’s good to be in the wilderness. Sometimes climbing Mount Everest, even when you’re in the city, is going to take you where you need to be.  I used to want to climb Mount Everest. Now, I go to Hollyburn. I find a spot that feels right and I sit down and I take it all in and it doesn’t matter whether it’s Everest or Hollyburn.  I’m thinking and observing, being a part of a place, just the same way I would be if I was at Everest because, in a way, I am there – especially if I’m in the moment.”

“I went to university for a few years,” he said, changing the topic again. “I wanted to take Paleontology. I didn’t know that you had to believe in Evolution. Nobody said I had to believe in Evolution to pass a Paleontology exam. It took me about four or five years to recover from university. Now that I’m older I realize none of that stuff matters.”

“Well, what do you believe?” I asked, not picking up the obvious.

“Creation. I believe in Creation,” he said.

I didn’t say a thing. Who was this guy? Was he Jesus? Is that how it works? Does Jesus show up dressed like a regular dude? Jesus as shape-shifter?  Was I in some old episode of that TV series, Touched by an Angel? Was there a hidden camera? Imagine if it were true. Think about what it might be like if Jesus could just decide each day where he wanted to touch down. And of all the gin joints in all the world he found me, in Starbucks no less. Was he lost, too?  This ain’t Jerusalem, I’d think to myself, sarcastically.  But maybe all the same to him. They don’t call him the Holy Ghost for nothing. Now here he was, right beside me, because I was one of his blessed children and he could feel the need. “You’re on a journey, every journey important in the seeking. At least, you’re paying attention. You’re still asking questions. Is that what Jesus would tell me?

We’d spent more than 45 minutes talking. I was freezing. I needed to go home, needed to pee.

I stretched out my hand and told him my name.

“Really nice talking to you,” he said and grabbed my hand as well.

“Bystrich,” he said.  “Parents called me Bisquick when they were in a hurry.”

He laughed at the memory.

“Tell me your name again,” I said. “Can you spell it for me?”

“Bystrich. B. Y. S.T.R.I.C.H.”

He spelled it out as if he’d just hummed a song we’re all singing aren’t we?