On Being Stopped in the Street by Strangers

by Paul Guest

Last week I was walking downtown to see a couple of former students read at a local bookstore. The day was sunny, and warm – pleasant in that abstracting way that draws one inward. I wasn’t paying attention to the man when he first shouted at me from his car, though I heard him, dully.

“Excuse me?” he almost pleaded, and I just knew that he was speaking to someone else. I kept going. Then I heard the hollow click of a car door opening and to my left I saw a tall, thin man rounding the front of his parked SUV.

“Excuse me, sir?” he said again, and I stopped, thinking he needed directions. Which way to Monticello? Which way to the Rotunda? I smiled at him.

“I have something to give you,” he panted, with his hand extended out to me.

Oh, no, I thought. I wasn’t confused or alarmed: disability is a very public thing, and in thirty-one years I have been stopped by strangers more often than I can remember. They usually want to know that their sons or daughters will not soon die; they want to know my secret. Or they want to share, to witness, to offer good news to me. They want me to be saved. Or, more rarely, they want to give me money. I’m not sure why, exactly.

You don’t have to give me anything, I said to the man, not looking down at his hand, which would have implied a kind of consent. “I know I don’t have to give you anything,” he whispered. “I want to.” When I didn’t say anything, he slipped a folded bill into my shirt pocket and climbed back into his car. When I got to the bookstore and checked my pocket, I found a hundred dollar bill. I haven’t yet spent it.

As I said earlier, this was not the first time I have been stopped in the street by a stranger. Once, in New York, a man hurriedly crossed the street beside me. That is a nice wheelchair you got there, he panted.

It wasn’t all that nice, the wheelchair, but I didn’t argue. I didn’t say anything, in fact. My silence suggested he try another way to reach me.

“Yo man, what’s the best nation in the world,” he asked, now on the other sidewalk.

I, uh, don’t know, I stammered, kind of stunned by this question.

“A donation!” he crowed, clearly pleased with himself, that clever pun.

I don’t have any money on me, I said, and some light fell out of his face. He was disappointed: not that I would not be giving him anything, but that I didn’t understand what he wanted.

It is true: I didn’t understand. He smiled sadly and turned back to cross again. The night was cold and dark and I had failed to console him.

Some years later, in Carrollton, Georgia, on the first day of December, the day was warm enough to sit outside. I was eating turtle soup for the first time. And the last, as I recall the muddy grit of meat in the dark broth. This moment was certainly before the curious advent of social media: I didn’t tweet about it, or post a filtered snapshot of my meal to the world.

I was sitting there, thinking about the rest of the day and the untidy stack of papers that waited to be graded when I returned home. I wasn’t thinking about my body. How it had been broken a long time ago and yet was still there.

I was thinking about what it meant to be eating turtle in the winter when a white-haired man stopped on the sidewalk. He was a lawyer, he said, in the office above the restaurant and wanted to know what I did. I never volunteer that I’m a poet; I say that I teach English.

“That was my favorite subject in school,” he beamed. He loved Faulkner. He loved O’Connor. He asked if he could sit at the table with me and I said yes.

“What happened to you,” he asked, his voice soft as a bruise. He looked away towards the town square and all the people out on their lunch breaks.

I told him: how I broke my neck in a bicycle accident at age twelve. That it had been, at that point, twenty years.

The man seemed to vibrate with sadness. He was sick with some sort of grief.

“I came into today to catch up because I haven’t been working much lately. My son – I take care of him now. He was a freshman at the University of Georgia when he got into a car wreck. Rolled his car. The window was open and he lost an arm and suffered a head injury. He doesn’t speak anymore and his mother passed away when he was in high school.”

I am so sorry, I said. He was quiet for another moment.

“Do you think he will ever get better?”

I don’t know.

“I don’t think he will. The doctors say he won’t. I have to learn how to be alright with that.”

He put his hands on the table as he stood up.

“I’ve taken too much of your time. Thank you for listening to me.”

And that was it. I saw him once more in my time in Carrollton. At a distance across the square as he climbed into a truck and drove away. I don’t think he saw me.

To this day, I wonder about his son. If he got better. If he lived. I think about that father and the beat-up truck he drove like a symbol of another life.

* * *
Paul Guest is the author of four collections of poetry and a memoir. A Guggenheim Fellow and Whiting Award winner, he teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Virginia.

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