On my ostensibly kind face

Famous people I don't recognize get excited.

A drunk person makes everyone happy.

This morning I took my breakfast at the Press Box, as is my wont. I was talking to my server about her sister’s novel when a drunk man interrupted us, waving a beeper. He was wearing a Carhartt jacket and a human costume one size too large, which turned out to be his skin. He had the outgoing cheer of a person still up from the night before and the repetitive speech patterns of the more serious partier.

“Oh yeah?” he said, in response to the server’s claim that her sister lived in the Bay Area. “What’s this?” He waved the beeper closer. “What is this?”

“A beeper!” I said. “That’s amazing.”

It did not sound convincing to me, but he was fully convinced. He talked to me for a long time. He never felt like what he was doing was inappropriate, and when finally I rose to flee he thanked me for appraising his beeper and shook my hand.

Anyone who knows me knows I am mean as a snake. I’m constantly remarking on other people’s weights and genders, and everything they like is stupid to me. But I am nice to strangers. Unfailingly, when a stranger appears and delivers his1 monologue to me, I listen attentively and make reassuring sounds. I would like to say it’s my midwestern upbringing, but really it’s my fearful nature. I missed so many social cues as a child that now I am like one of those jittery community theatre actors, breath bated until my turn to say the right lines.

Crazy people love that about me. So do drunks, the homeless, and the merely eccentric. Here in town, a man I call Hard Corey has sentenced me to multiple terms in dialogue prison while he recounts his travels abroad. Once, in Al’s and Vic’s, a developmentally disabled adult passed an hour describing prostitutes to me, during which time I failed to talk him out of eating a decorative magnet. But these brushes with local color are nothing compared to my old life as a subway commuter. It was a calvalcade. Tourists, nuts and Jersey bros gravitated toward me so reliably that it became a running joke.

I used to think I was marked in some way. For a while I thought I had a kind face, in which lonely or bullying people2 recognized someone to indulge them. It’s possible that after a couple decades of making interested faces, mine stuck like that. But I doubt it. I don’t think strangers on output talk to me because I am kind. I am kind because I let strangers on output talk to me.

Sartre addresses this distinction in the opening chapters of Being and Nothingness, advancing his famous argument that existence precedes essence. He uses the example of a deserter during war. We say he dropped his gun and ran from the enemy because he is a coward, when really he is a coward because he dropped his gun and ran. He does things before he is things, since the fact of his existence forces him to make choices and deal with their consequences before he has established a pattern of behavior.

I do things before I am things. There was a first schizo-affective bum and I chose to humor him, and that’s how I started practicing my kind face. My belief that I am doomed to listen politely to the former boxers of the world encourages me to sit tight and endure, as though that were my fate, but it’s not. It’s a tactic that coincides with my fear of disappointing strangers, and it pretty much guarantees the crazy ones get to talk to me all they want. In that way, it reinforces the illusion they select me.

Sartre called this kind of thinking mauvaise foi, or bad faith. Bad faith is when you choose to believe you are something in a way that limits your behavior, even though you know you are free to change. It’s a kind of thinking we do all the time, often for good. My patience for aggressive weirdos has gotten me out of lots of fights, and it’s probably better that when someone waves a beeper over my eggs and asks “what’s this,” I don’t respond “a junkie’s vain hope.” The belief that I “can’t” treat people rudely helps me uphold my day-to-day obligation to treat them nicely. It is better to be kind.

But it is also better to be free. I like people, but I’ve heard enough drunken appraisals of found electronics to know how the next one plays out. I don’t need to listen to it. Fortunately, I can escape from dialogue prison any time I want, at a maximum cost of a crazy person thinking I behaved oddly. But I suspect I won’t, next time. I will sit in my cell with the door unlocked.

A central notion of bad faith is that it is not delusion. I know my approach to garrulous strangers is wrong, and I know my perception of their affinity for me is false. But the next time I see Hard Corey, I bet I’ll sit frozen while he talks about his bus trip through Chile. I will give in to fear and comfort myself with the notion that I can’t help it. People like that are just drawn to me. The tragedy is that even though I know this idea is bullshit, it still works. Or maybe that’s the comedy—it depends on whom you talk to.

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  1. I totally get the notion that you somehow attract people–dare I say, “odd people” because they are people after all?
    This happens to me, too. Once, long, long ago when I was newly married, my wife and I were driving across country. We stopped somewhere in the Midwest and decided to take in the local color at the County Fair. As we waited in line, I noticed it was “take grandparents to the fair day.” I struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman in a snappy straw fedora who was totally rockin’ a pair of red, white and blue suspenders. As we went through the admissions gate, he just smiled and I realized, like some old man remora, he had glided into the fair for free projecting the image that he was our grandpa. I laughed, and he laughed when I was cool about what he had done. He then started chatting me up about who we were and where were from, etc. at which point, my wife, who knew of my strange attraction to talkative strangers, rolled her eyes and said something about having to go look at piglets.
    The old gentleman just smiled and said something to the effect of, “keep on being good to her or she will try to kill you like my wife tried to kill me.” I said, “Your wife tried to kill you?”
    He said, “Oh, yes! She sent her boyfriend to kill me with a ball peen hammer!” I don’t know whether it was my widening eyes or my gaping mouth but he proceeded to tell me how on an October evening she told him she was cold and asked him to go fetch some logs from the wood pile to burn in the fire place. He told me it didn’t feel cold to him but he went anyway. Just before reaching the wood pile, the lover popped out from the shadows of the shed and gave him a smack in the head with a hammer.
    I said, “really?” in my politest voice of incredulity.
    He lifted his straw fedora to reveal what I would fairly call a trench across the side of his head from above his right eyebrow to above his ear. I thought, why didn’t you die?
    He then went on to say how after he got out of the hospital and was convalescing at home, she would bring him his meals in bed. After about six weeks, he reported that he wasn’t feeling too well and took himself, over her protestations, to the doctor. The doctor’s examination revealed that she had been putting arsenic in his food. Rather than kill him, he reported to me,the amount just gave him a chronic low-level feeling of crappiness. He said, when I went home and confronted her, she got angry and sped off in her car. Unfortunately, she didn’t watch where she was going and another car smashed into her, breaking both of her ankles. Then it became her turn to convalesce at home and he made her meals. One day, she got up out of bed after some sort of argument with him and grabbed her walker and a paring knife and came after him with deadly intentions.
    “It was then that I knew we were through for good,” he reported. “I left her.”
    I told him I needed to go find my wife and made a hasty exit. As I was relating all this to my wife at the pig pens, he walked up and, opening a little white cardboard box from one of the booths at the fair, he said, “You all have been so kind to listen to me. Would you like some homemade fudge?”
    This is one of my favorite exchanges with another human being. Maybe I am the weird one, maybe he was, but I got a story told to me that was a slice of what is possible in the human family. And the fudge was good, too.

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