I was sitting on a ledge
outside the office building, in my usual spot eating my lunch. As I reviewed my life to
date, I determined the only valid trend attached to me was I was, reluctantly, a
slow starter. I was not the smartest kid in my class nor was I the most successful person
from my hometown but I always showed impressive ascension in all endeavors. Rarely did I
ever master anything right out of the gate, as I was more of a second-wave person. This
trend followed me through my youth as a tennis doubles player (I served fourth), a
baseball player (I closed games), a student (I sat in the last row), my first job (I
literally mopped up) and I never was mistaken as a sprinter. I took the last slot in a
training class for a large company; I have always lived on dead ends and always liked to
deal the last hand. There was nothing inherently flawed in the pattern, in fact, I
thought it added much-needed character.
This trend continued throughout my life but I feel when one starts looking for a trend, you will find it. However, I wanted to remain wary because self-discovered trends are inherently boring and/or dangerous. If you are convinced a certain number is lucky (or unlucky) or you might sense something unseen, your self-fulfilling prophecy will be galvanized into a bone fide attribute by lunchtime. The realization of my slow starting trend came as a quiet thought which was mentally chewed on for several days before I could tell myself, straight-faced, of my discovery. Once it was laying in front of me, I decided I didn't need to shout it from the trees but rather allowed it to be filed away in my short-term memory until I was asked about it or if the day came in which I felt compelled to inform someone.
"Excuse me, would you define yourself as a slow starter?"
"Why, yes I do."
Immediately following this epiphany, I became pre-occupied with an external event only related by proximity. I began to watch a man sitting underneath a tree directly across the park from me. He appeared to be in some sort of discomfort; not a medical emergency but more of a collision of realization of his lot in life. His facial expressions were similar to someone waking all of a sudden as he or she finally concluded a life inventory. He was a mess and oblivious to the pedestrian traffic around him. Although in the shade, he appeared to being completely soaked in his own sweat and his hair was a mess. He was the living embodiment of an unmade bed and gave a fascinating impression of a pile of covers which were kicked away and laying in a pile in the corner. He would eat his lunch quickly and spend the day studying a wide expanse which lay in front of him. The area, surrounded by larger office buildings, was a rectangular piece of land in which employees of the buildings would have lunch. There was a hot dog vendor, benches, fountains, a divergence of sidewalks and several deli restaurants on the periphery.
As a slow starter, I learned never to jump to many conclusions or unconsciously overplay a hand, no matter how obvious or powerful. Instinctively, I remained quiet and continued to observe him observing. Although uncomfortable and pre-occupied, the man wasn't in any significant physical danger so I felt it was a healthy exercise to determine why he appeared so distraught. He picked away at his lunch while taking in the lunch time scene and eventually got up and wandered back into his office building to spend the rest of the afternoon filing hard copies and likely looking out the window. We all have our problems but rarely do we show our emotion so blatantly on our sleeves. I went back to my work area trying to determine what could be causing him such anguish. He might have just had a bad morning or was experiencing a poor lunch choice. He could have been suffering a loss of a loved one or faced with an impending loss of job but they were just guesses.
The next day, I moved out of my hidden spot and moved closer to him to better pick up on his apparent maladies. When he walked out into the sun, he paused slightly and looked upward with eyes closed. There was a moment which he appeared to be bathing in the warm light and was trying restoring something back into his soul. After the brief sunbathe, he wandered to his same spot and sat down with an audible sigh. I continued to watch him organize his lunch choices, his drink on the ground, the food on the left and the paper on his right. His ritual was the same as yesterday and I made a mental note to watch for deviations in future events. He ate at a normal pace and seemed to be in a slightly better mood today. He read his paper like a pro; cracking the sections nicely and giving each page at least a cursory review before moving on the next section.
He spent a fair amount of time reading the comics. I have always trusted people who take the time to read the funnies; it is an honorable and dying art and anyone who gives the trivial little drawn-out vignettes a moment of time cannot be evil or completely desperate. I, as well, have left newspapers in waiting rooms, bathroom stalls and restaurants for the person needing something to do while completing their assorted tasks. I have also been the grateful recipient of the abandoned newspaper in these venues; the happiness of finding a section of a recent newspaper is always a positive feeling and I never spent time fretting over the journey of the paper because it was now mine.
He ate his lunch methodically and in the same way each day. He would eat his sandwich first, then his chips and then, right before he got up, he would drink his entire drink in one or two large swallows. This fact was only known to him and to me, as I doubted if there were several experts in his lunchtime consumption pattern. I don't know why I found him so fascinating, he was just another guy who was eating his lunch but the weight of the world was evident on his shoulders. If I were completely wrong about my observations, then my insights would be determined, by me, to be a colossal waste of time.
His lunch concluded, he dutifully compacted his garbage into his drink container and left the paper secured in the bench for someone else. He tossed his single unit of garbage into the trash and looked up briefly again to the sun for another quick sun shower. With that last movement, he walked back into the building for another afternoon of general and administrative labor. The act of leaving his paper, well folded and organized, for another lunchtime person, was a quiet act of charity worth noting.
Everyday I would move closer and I continued to wonder what he was thinking and the demons which were attacking his psyche. He dutifully padding outside at the same time, he briefly allowed himself to be cleansed by the sun, he basically ate the same food, in the same order and went back in. The consistency seems to comfort him as he rarely looked up at pedestrians and although cordial with nearby diners, he never initiated contact. He remained engrossed in his reading as well as his simple relief to be somewhere other than where he came from a moment ago. He would eat his lunch and read his newspaper with obvious relish of not being talked to or about for an hour a day.
What did this guy do? Who did he kill? He would walk out into the sun and be almost baptized with the bright sunlight. He would relish the pressure release and when his lunch hour was concluded, he would bundle up with wrappers, kindly leave the paper and go back inside. At first and even second glance, he appeared to be a normal guy that was eating a normal lunch but his facial expressions of relief and rebirth were so apparent which things could not be too tranquil within him.
I decided to make my play several days later, coinciding with his departure ritual. Hopefully, I could get his copy of the paper as a way to strike up a conversation with him. I came to the far side of his bench with about five minutes to go in his lunch hour which allowed me to get myself positioned and hopefully get his newspaper to enjoy my lunch. This would begin an initial relationship and I could finally begin to determine what was this guy's constitution was made of.
I arrived five minutes before his departure and positioned myself on the far side of the same bench. I didn't want to intrude neither with his lunch or finishing ritual. I assembled my lunch and drink in a similar manner and got ready to eat. Showing no sign of reading material and no interest in watching the female pedestrians, I was stuck with something to do. A minute earlier than usual, he looked to his right and gave me the universal hand gesture for "do you want this paper?
I nodded and gave him the reciprocal hand gesture of agreement.
As he rose, he handed me the folded paper baton in the similar manner of a relay member and muttered, "Here you go."
"Thanks," I said as I cracked the paper with my own flourish and began my review of the top right fold of section one. He deposited his lunch debris and gave one quick cleansing look to the sky and disappeared into the building. The next few days were similar and I began to sit closer to him and took my time to ingratiate myself to him by coming into his world but I didn't bother him. I would usually bring my newspaper with me and when I sat down somewhat near him, he eventually gave me a cursory nod and kept his vigil of the people. We began to engage in small talk but I never overstayed or abused his good nature. I spoke when spoken to but I showed respect to his activities by keep my comments short and to the point. He kept staring ahead while he ate and when he read his newspaper; he appeared to be looking over the top of the paper similar to someone who was conducting surveillance. I continued to eat my lunch nearby and made every effort to keep out of his business. This guy continued looking pained and finally, I felt compelled to say something.
"Excuse me, " I said, "What are you looking at?"
He smiled and said, "It is a secret."
I felt bad to have violated my non-interruption maxim and I didn't respond or inquire further. A few moments later, he looked back at me and said, "Okay, I will tell you."
"Great," I said, "Who are you watching?"
"Not whom, what."
"What do you mean?"
"I am fixating on was a green vending box of local newspapers which is directly in front of you."
I looked and saw the box. It was of standard construction, quietly displaying the day's headlines and the general process one needs to follow to extract a paper from its mechanical clutches. The cost of a paper was fifty cents and one would drop the money into the coin slots and be rewarded with the day's edition. This process would be completely about thirty times until the last paper, lodged in the door, would be taken.
"I am passively posing a benign dilemma," said the man.
"I began using the box to make my lunch hour more enjoyable. I enjoy coming outside and reading the paper with my lunch."
"So do I."
"And I initiated a small act of subversive charity by buying a paper from the vending box each day and slowly returning the door to an unlatched position."
"Usually, if left alone, the metal door clangs shut and becomes ready to be fed more money to release another paper. But by slowing returning the door almost flush to the box, usually allows the door to rest, unlatched, for the next customer to enjoy a low-level ethical dilemma."
"What type of dilemma, ethics aside, are they presented?"
"When they come to insert their coins, the door would appear slightly ajar, almost begging for a test pull."
I knew the situation he was speaking. People who buy newspapers from boxes will usually momentarily fantasize about taking a free newspaper or even worse, two free newspapers. However, two newspapers are usually useless to a single customer and rarely will the individual customer dream of doing such an act. Anyone may take more than one newspaper when the box door opens but a vending box is a primarily one to one transactional system succeeding on the premise which one paper is the goal of each transaction, even though documented incidents of multiple paper removals occur. But if one provides the next, and usually unknown, customer the chance to get a free paper, things can get interesting.
The man smiled and said, "My desire for polite disobedience allows for some interesting challenges."
I said, "I can see that. All this time I thought you were tormented with the weight of the world on your shoulders."
"That is not a surprise," said the man. "Everyone is full of anguish and torment."
"Pretty close," said my new friend. "Everyone has health issues, marriage issues, family issues, money issues, job issues and other issues which don't fit into these categories. People worry about things which they have no control and people worry about things which seem to surround them. My sister once got a stomach ache after she read about the sinking of the Lusitania."
"And you invented this vending box observation because ?"
"Because it makes for a more interesting day."
I thought for a moment and said, "The newspaper must know that some boxes are suffering losses."
"They sure do," said the man, "And when the maintenance people visit the more charitable boxes, they will adjust the springs to a tension which rivals a coiled, angry mousetrap. Those are boxes that are incapable of charity, just like people."
"That seems pretty straightforward," I said, "Either they are honest or they are not."
"Not really, there are many shades of gray."
"Such as when a person sometimes 'discovers' the open door, takes one. After taking one, they shut the door and tries pushing the coin return for their money. Sometimes the refund works and sometimes it doesn't. "
"Such as a person takes the free paper out and closing the door completely, hereby denying anyone else the chance to get a free paper."
"The least they could do is share the wealth. Or the knowledge," I said.
Such as person taking the paper and casually returning the door to its unlatched position."
"That takes some practice," I said. "I have been thinking about doing this and it can't be done in too obvious of a manner. You want to do this with calling no attention to yourself."
My friend laughed and added, "However, this move is difficult to master extemporaneously and usually fails due to a ham-handed attempt to rest it carefully. Each box's tension is set different and some are obviously, easier than other boxes. One may be the mousetrap and the next one may be mushy."
I agreed but felt a true patriot could assist the door by positioning the stack of paper's closer to the door, not allowing the door to return fully. I bounced that idea of him, using his papers and lunch bag as a prop.
"It isn't a bad strategy, but this takes precious time and nerves to pull off without a lot of attention. Try positioning a spring-laden door to return to its precipitous former position."
"You have thought about this a lot."
"I like to think about things. My job is all right and other issues have been analyzed within an inch of their metaphorical lives. I feel it is healthy to think about more abstract subjects occasionally."
I smiled and went back to work but the cyclical observations between myself and Mr. Brownbag made me ponder about something, that up until the last hour, I didn't know existed.
I drove home thinking about it and the necessary skills to covertly position the door. My imagination was full of safecracker images with crafty ex-cons in cat burglar garb sizing up a door's tension while entering the box. Just at that moment, he decides whether or not to allow the next visitor the opportunity for a free paper. If the tension is significant, a professional wouldn't attempt the subtle manner necessary to placing the door next to the locking mechanism because the door will likely snap into its desired and locked position. When the door has blissfully minimal tension, the thief is almost guaranteed a result of success. By resting the door onto the locking mechanism, it allowed for only a small chance of detection by other nearby citizen. Only when one attempts to engage in a transaction with the machine, it's discovery occurs. It remains a little secret surprise; shared by the vending box and the literate.
I decided that the act should be viewed on a spectrum ranging from a random act of kindness all the way to a cruel ethical puzzle. The second visitor to arrive has to make a choice: theft or the ethical high road? The ethics come into play only for the second player because the originator of the act does not benefit directly from the opportunity for a free paper. I made an analogy about finding money lying on the floor. If someone leaves a dollar on the floor, ethical issues arise by the finder to whether or not they should make some effort to find the rightful owner. At least some effort should be expended to find the owner and the more effort put forth to find the person, the less guilt is generated when you finally give up and place the dollar in your pocket.
In this case of the newspaper box, the artist takes a small but initial risk for someone they do not know. If two people arrived at a newspaper box at the same moment, there could be some whispered discussions about the caper but usually people will politely wait their turn and miss out on the crime. Also, if two people that are associated with each other need a paper, they will usually share one instead of purchasing or taking two. The beauty of this conundrum is that it only looks self-inflicted but in reality, it is two separate and diverse issues.
The next day, I realized that I looked forward to my lunch and make a point of having the correct change for the vending box. Today, as a sign of respect, I wanted to get the box ready for the next person. I was so charged up to tee up the machine, that I left a little earlier than usual to make sure his lunch spot was open. I continued to wait and to kill time, I meandered towards the box, making a visual inspection looking for any variables that would cause me problems. I saw no jammed mechanics, the handle appeared to be cleaner than usual and I could spot the stack of papers within. Satisfied, I scooted back to the bench to wait for my friend.
I had several questions for my new friend as I continued to wake up to the numerous events that were spinning around me but yet, going unnoticed. I was curious if he factored these new ideas into his lunchtime entertainment and it was time to speak up for the newspaper companies and the eventual choice that replaced the traditional corner newsstands. I believe they determined long ago that this contraption was the simplest way to conduct business and their best attempt at honest commerce was introducing the clear door window. If the last paper, located in the door is gone, it is somewhat obvious that the newspapers are gone and the chance of a person placing money into an obviously empty box was a good solution. Although one can open the door while the box is empty, individuals with some sense of the obvious will postulate that no paper exists within the confines of the box. Stupid people however, dutifully put in their money and are surprised on what they don't find.
As far as the newspaper is concerned, that is the deal. You put your money in and take out today's paper and if for some reason, you get yesterday's paper, tough shit. Papers, like fish, are best consumed within 24 hours and have a pitiful shelf life. Many times people grab an abandoned paper at lunch, ecstatic that they have something to read, only to find that the news seems real familiar, and eventually determine that the paper was abandoned for a good reason. So, when the need to determine the best way to manage all those independent issues was discovered, the newspaper vending box was born.
I continued to wait for my friend, with two quarters burning a hole in my pocket. A quarter of an hour passed and I decided to make my move. I went over to the box, leaving my half-eaten lunch in plain site, and tested the handle of the box. The box was secure so I successfully placed the money in the slot and waited a moment. Then, I pulled the door towards me and saw a beautiful stack of papers; pristine and obedient. I retrieved the second one to the top and slowly closed the door. The action of the door felt underwhelming so I made the effort to place it on top of the locking mechanism without sending it back into the clutches of the latch. I rested it there and walked directly back to my seat. I did not look around as I was in the middle of being an accomplice in a misdemeanor. No one was to be paying any attention to me nor was I tackled by an ink-stained cadre of newspaper cops. I quietly opened the paper and looked out over the horizon of the paper's headline for any suspicious activity. There was none and no one seemed too interested in buying a paper at lunch. In fact, during my lunch, no one bought a paper so whatever ethical dilemma I concocted was going to play out sometime after I left.
So, there I sat with two moderately unique feelings in front of me. The first was the realization that not more than a month ago, I was blissfully eating my lunch, completely oblivious to the world around me. But by simply viewing a man eating his lunch, appearing obviously troubled about some thing or things in his life, caused into to become part of a scientific experiment on the elastic ethics of the literate. Life just kept giving you options to ponder and avenues to explore and until something smacks you on the head and tells you to look around, you wander through life completely immersed in your own internal passion plays. I got up, got dressed, ate, drove to work, ate, worked, drove back home, went to bed and started again the next day. This cycle went on for years with no real deviation and no awareness about the world around me. Dramas were occurring everyday and my fellow humans were experiencing life at all levels and intensities and I was concerned more about getting my house painted than the events that were vectoring friends, family and co-workers from one side of the emotional spectrum to the other.
Sitting at my desk, I wasn't concerned about his tardiness but was more impressed with choice of circumstantial entertainment because my new friend picked a perfect position, both literally and figuratively. He enjoyed a nice lunch with a never-ending situational comedy/drama playing out in front of him. He didn't do anything illegal or wrong as he paid full price for his paper but he allowed others to wrestle with the dilemma of acquiring something, albeit transitory and inexpensive, for nothing. All he was doing was watching his fellow man wrestle with a fifty-cent conundrum while eating his lunch. I thought it was the cheapest dinner theatre available although the food was likely more appealing. The amount of the booty was inconsequential; it was the thrill of the hunt with magnitude and significance notwithstanding.
The next day, I arrived at my normal time to see my new friend at his post. He apologized for not making it yesterday and he gave the impression that he naturally missed a day or two, just like anyone else. I then realized that I had not observed his lunch habits extensively so I was in no position to judge his level of commitment. He had obviously salted the vending box across the square and was paying attention to the foot traffic that was in its proximity. During a lull, he looked at me and asked for an update.
"Did you continue with the experiment?" he asked.
"Yes, I did but it was a quiet day."
"No one bought a paper?"
"That is correct, in fact, no one ever came close to it."
"Well, that happens."
Our conversation about the daily behavior of the well-read urbanite generally ended for the time being. Neither one of us wanted to debate the merits of the experiment any longer so we sat there, watching the box, reading his paper and eating our lunches. We were basically acting like two old men out on a fishing dock with no concern of whether the fish were biting or not. I didn't know his name but I had become more mindful of all strangers, whether they appeared in agony or fresh from a magazine cover. I told him that my respect for other strangers came with both fascination and a distinct morsel of responsibility. Since I became aware of the people around me, I felt that I had taken on another role as a detached but sincere keeper of their daily travails.
"When you think of it, it is a blessing in disguise," said the man.
I smiled and said, "That is one hell of a disguise."
No one talked for awhile until we saw a man approach the vending box. He walked up towards it and just before he placed his coins into the slot, he peered specifically at the vending box seam and realized that the box was his for the taking. He silently pretended to place his coins into the slot and he elegantly opened the door to rescue one of the papers within. The sound of the door slamming reverberated to where we sat and we watched as the literate man scurried away; ready to enjoy his new prize at expense of all others.
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