stumbling upon a writer
“Youth is a song I can no longer sing. I can’t hit the high notes.”
It was the kind of overheard line that makes you immediately freeze and need to know more. More than more. You’re suddenly filled with the need to know everything. The needle slides across the record and back again.
I watched the old man finish up talking to the two younger people at his table at the food court and then saw the two get up and depart. He’d seen me eying him since his poignant observation so he did not seem surprised in the least when I strolled over to join him.
“Youth is a song I can no longer sing. I can’t hit the high notes” I repeated. “Is that yours?”
“You mean did I come up with it?” He paused a moment. “I guess I did. It just popped out as I was talking, although I assume the sentiment has been said any number of ways over the centuries.”
“I’m a writer” I said clumsily, “I was hoping it would be ok if I used it in a story.”
“A writer huh?” He said it in a way that I interpreted as a mix of trepidation and disbelief. “If you’ll pardon my honesty, you don’t strike me as a writer.”
I laughed. “I get that a lot.”
“What I mean is that you have your little notebook and you’re scribbling away, but you don’t seem very connected to what you’re observing.”
I sat back and tried to digest his critique. It was far from what I was expecting from a stranger at the mall. One good quote and he apparently felt it was open season on sizing me up.
“Before I give you permission to borrow my material, can I ask to read the story you are working on?”
Admittedly a bit taken aback, I dutifully handed over my “little notebook.”
He began to read and his brow furrowed and unfurrowed. Given the number of lines on his forehead you could probably see the furrowing from a distance of several hundred yards.
“Another treatise on the banality of existence I see. I also see you like to throw in quotes. No doubt that’s why you want to sprinkle in mine.”
His eyes continued side to side and up and down the pages. Every doodle and scratched out word was being consumed.
“Ah, a quote from Cioran; ‘The mission of Everyman is to fulfill the lie he incarnates, to succeed in being no more than an exhausted illusion.’ That’s a good one. A bit bleak though.”
I wanted to interject something to explain why I felt it was important to punctuate my stories with quotes but I didn’t want to interrupt his perusing. It’s so rare I get to watch someone peruse what I’ve written in person that I couldn’t risk ruining the moment.
So he ruined it for me. He recoiled and muttered contemptuously “Another friggin’ quote. ‘To awaken means to realize one’s nothingness, that is, to realize one’s complete and absolute mechanicalness, and one’s complete and absolute helplessness… So long as a man is not horrified at himself, he knows nothing about himself.’” (that one by George Gurdjieff) He then let out a long sigh that sounded like I imagine a tea kettle might sound when it finally comes to the conclusion that the water is never going to boil.
I had long understood that when strangers admire the painting of another stranger, or their sculpting or glass blowing or yes, even writing, that they are obligated to offer up a few pleasant platitudes regardless of their true feelings. That’s the way the world works. The social contract. The glue that held civilizations together. The civil in civilization. Instead of sitting back and basking in said platitudes, I was on the receiving end of contemptuous mutterings.
No wonder malls are dying. The food court had twenty three booths available for food vendors yet only four of them were occupied. Even McDonald’s left last year.
Finally he lifted his eyes up and met mine. “No. I cannot allow my quote to be inserted into this. It would be a splash of punch in the turd bowl.”
He saw my eyes light up.
“And no, you can’t have that one either” he pronounced. “A little advice? Don’t try to write in a mall. The only thing you should sign your name to in a mall is the credit card slip for a new pair of slacks.” With that he stood up and walked away as fast as his 137 year old legs would carry him. Which wasn’t fast.
Shit, that’s when it hit me. I had inadvertently stumbled upon a writer.
I looked down at my jeans. Was he suggesting I should be wearing slacks?
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