Man on the Stoop, a creative nonfiction story, appears in the Spring 2014 issue of New Plains Review. Since the magazine does not have an online version of this issue, I thought I would post my story here:
On a sunny evening in early August 2012, I walked along James Street in Syracuse, trying to find a store where I could buy a bottle of water. I was in the Eastwood neighborhood to attend a poetry reading at Books & Melodies bookstore.
I passed a red brick building with a sign that read, “Furnished Efficiencies for Lease.” A slim man in his late 50s or early 60s sat on the small stoop of the building, his head raised and his eyes focused on the traffic moving along James Street.
I continued striding down the block until I found The Burger Joint restaurant. I went in, grabbed a bottle of water from the cooler and paid for it at the counter. I then walked back to the bookstore, approaching the apartment building again.
I wanted to stop and talk to the man on the steps; something about his appearance made me wonder about his life. I wanted to learn more about him, to introduce myself and ask him some questions. As I came within a few feet of the building, he looked up at me, acknowledging my presence, and our eyes met. But I lost my nerve to greet him. I lacked the courage to open my mouth and say “hello,” and the opportunity to interact with him and gain insight into his life was lost. I also regretted not having my camera with me because I think his strong profile would have made for a nice portrait.
He wore a dark T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, and his salt-and-pepper hair and thin mustache gave him a sort of rugged cowboy appearance. Wrinkles had worked their way into his careworn face and he had a lean, hungry look, like he could have been the Marlboro Man a few decades earlier. He had oval eyes that were more vertical than horizontal. Mostly, though, he just looked tired, as if life had been dragging him down.
I will call him Sam because he reminded me of a Sam. Perhaps he was a factory worker, a mechanic, a carpenter or a truck driver. I imagined if he spoke his voice would sound something like actor Sam Elliott’s.
And I pictured him in his small studio upstairs with its twin mattress, small desk and wooden chair, tiny bathroom and a window with broken Venetian blinds.
I wondered how this man spent his days. Was he retired? Did he work? Was he an alcoholic or a drug addict? I also thought about the hot, humid night and how he needed to sit on the stoop to escape the stifling air in his apartment devoid of air conditioning.
Something in his body language reflected the universal struggle of human beings grappling with the challenges of each day, carrying around our flesh as we creep toward death. I felt pity for this man, and I am not sure why. He looked exhausted but not depressed, and he seemed content to stare out at the street and see the activity going on, to pass some time before darkness descended and he would retire for the night, trying to fall asleep in the sauna of his apartment.
But driving home after the poetry reading I thought to myself, “Who am I to assume what this man’s life is like?” I only had his outward appearance to judge him by—and this was for just a few seconds as I walked to The Burger Joint for my water and headed back to the bookstore to attend the poetry reading.
What did I really know about this man?
Then again what do we ever know by sight alone? I couldn’t possibly understand the scope and scale and depth of this man’s life based on a few cursory glances in his direction. I would have loved to sit with him on the steps, share a cup of coffee and listen while he told me the story of his life. I bet it’s a great story.
He could’ve been a hit man for the mob or a former porn actor; maybe he had pulled a bank heist and had buried $500,000 in some cave deep in the Adirondacks. Maybe he had been a world-class heart surgeon who had revolutionized the practice, but had burned out and turned to drugs. Maybe he had a family somewhere out West and they were waiting for him to come home. Maybe he was a former relief pitcher and had won a World Series in the 1970s or ’80s; maybe his championship ring was tucked in a drawer upstairs. I will never know.
I understand it is hubris to evaluate a person’s worth based on outward appearance, to judge people by what we see, what their bodies and faces reveal to us. The physical can only be an entry point. It doesn’t tell us about the heart, mind and soul.
Yet I don’t fault myself for wanting to look, even if I am being a little nosy. Curiosity about others in the form of public people watching means we are peering out, being aware of the presence of others around us. And I find value in paying attention to people who are ignored or overlooked; in seeing them, I rediscover the central truths of humanity—the loneliness, illness, poverty and suffering that bind us.
We just can’t get fooled into thinking our initial impressions tell the whole story. The skin is only the first layer; we have to go deeper to plumb the depths of the person.
And this makes me want to be prepared for the next time I encounter an interesting character on the street. I will attempt, if fear does not choke me, to look the person in the eyes, to say “hello” and to start a conversation. I will try to get at the real story of the person, instead of being stuck with only glances and guesses that offer an unsatisfactory rough sketch. My curiosity demands the complete work.
So I might just walk down James Street again one night soon and look for the thin man sitting on the stoop and gazing at the evening traffic. I think we should have a talk. I owe him one, and I think it will be a nice conversation, that is, if I don’t chicken out again.