Saturday, July 15, 2017

“Zachary”

“Zachary”
by Tim Knight

“A handwritten letter arrived in my mailbox last week from a reader. In it was a note from whom I would guess is an elderly gentleman, thanking me for my work both on Slope and on Tastytrade, but politely asking me to use the phrase "God damn it" less frequently, since he found it upsetting. The handwriting on the paper trembled like leaves in an autumn breeze, and it was obvious it took time and effort to send me this two-page missive. It meant something to him.

It never occurred to me that I ever used this phrase in a video, let alone often enough to cause concern. All the same, the letter, as with the many other letters I have received over the years, made an impression. For one thing, it made me wonder how angry I must be in order for this kind of sentiment to seep through, since I wasn't even aware I was saying it.

Which leads me to the topic at hand. Specifically, a man. A terribly deformed man whom I think about almost daily. For now, I'll call him Sup.

One summer evening, a few months ago, I was walking with my family down University Avenue, the central boulevard in our town, and the location of dozens of high-end retail stores that cater to the insatiable appetite of the affluent consumers in my fair city. "Sup?" came from the voice from below. (As is: "What's up?") I glanced around and didn't see the speaker. That is, until I looked lower. There, standing on the brick sidewalk on the corner of Bryant and University Avenues was a person unlike any I had ever seen before.

His head, torso, and arms were normal. There were two things obviously terribly wrong with 1117-suphim: first, his back was completely malformed, with a huge hump, and second, his legs -  or what passed for legs - were just a few inches long. He appeared to be mixed race (the politically incorrect term, I think, is "mulatto") and he had a big afro.

"How you guys doin' this evening?", he asked. I stammered that we were pretty good, although I confess being a little surprised. That brief exchange ended the conversation, and my family and I continued on to Umami Burgers for dinner. In the receding distance, I heard this fellow chatting up other people as they passed, asking for a dollar from anyone who would listen.

From that day forward, I paid attention to that corner whenever I passed it in my car or walked by it during my downtown errands. Sup, as I called him, was on that corner more often than not. On occasion, I'd see a special wheelchair near him, which I suppose he could hoist himself onto and roll to wherever it was he lived (if such a place existed). But he was never in it. He was also on the sidewalk at knee level.

What struck me about Sup the most was his attitude. This guy was seriously and, dare I say, grotesquely deformed. When he moved from one place to another, he typically did so by pressing his hands against the ground and swinging his torso and tiny legs forward, much like an ape at the zoo. Although his short stature made him easy to miss, once people saw him, they couldn't help but take note. I can only imagine the range of reactions he's ever received.

But back to his attitude: this guy was relentlessly positive. And I don't mean grinning, giggling, and thumbs-up positive. I'm talking about a self-evident confidence, determination, and cachet. He gave salutations to everyone who passed; he casually smoked on a cigarette while chatting up people who would talk to him; and he made verbal passes at good-looking women as they strolled by (enjoying, incidentally, a supremely good view of their legs from his two-foot high vantage point). In spite of all this, most people tried their best to ignore him. They just felt too awkward (as if they were the ones who were entitled to feel uneasy).

Since I'm an unrelentingly self-referential twit, I pondered these observations in the context of my own behavior. Here was this guy who had every reason to feel sorry for himself. His tremendous physical deformities were going to dominate whatever impression he might possibly give to someone. He was begging on a street corner for dollar bills. He was being passed every day by countless numbers of people, many of them affluent, some of them stinking rich, while he begged for a little money to eat. And yet he was totally unfazed (in spite of, I wager, some cruel reactions or mean utterances offered by heartless strangers).

I, on the other hand, have a PhD in self-pity. I'm a white American male - by definition, a privileged class - who has a perfectly good body, good health, a zillion dollar house, and enough money to live the rest of my life without working another day. I've got a beautiful wife, magnificent children, and a good income that doesn't rob me of any personal freedom. And yet I am seized on a virtually daily basis with how miserable and rotten my life is, and how I don't deserve any of the bad things that have ever happened to me. I dare feel sorry for myself due to solvable personal problems or the fact the stupid stock market refuses to fall.

Sure, if I cornered you and shared a couple of drinks, I could probably conjure up enough tales-of-woe to get you to agree that, yeah, poor Tim is a pathetic sumbitch, and it's no wonder he's often tempted to jump in front of the next CalTrain that passes by. Indeed, most people on this planet would be able to surgically extract some sliver of their lives and make it seem sad. Hell, Elon Musk could surely give grisly tales from his multiple failed marriages, although I imagine it would be a Herculean feat for anyone to actually conjure up sympathy for the guy.

Sup, in sharp contrast to this morose malaise, was just plain cool. On more than one occasion, I'd see that he had managed to coax a couple of women - attractive young women - over to talk to him, and he was just smoking his cig, chatting them up, casual as could be. I don't know what he said to get their attention, but whatever it was, it worked. God knows the guy has chatted up more good-looking women than I ever have in my own life. That's me in the corner.

I've long been tempted to interview the guy, because there's so much I want to know about him. Where is he from? What's his background? What's his physical malady all about? What are the most interesting, kind, and nasty things people have said to him? What are some interesting stories from the many months he's been hanging out at this particular corner? What does he hope the future brings to him? How does he manage to stay so upbeat?

I haven't done the interview yet, and I'm not sure if I ever will. I mean, it takes a certain amount of gumption to start quizzing a guy up and down; he might react poorly to the whole thing. But I've got a suspicion he would be all too glad to tell his story. I'm more worried about my ability to do the interview than his interest in answering my questions.

However, I took one baby step in that direction a few days ago. I was walking by, and as usual, he tosses out - "Sup, man? Got a dollar for me?" I was on my way to my mailbox, so I replied, "In a minute." I suppose he gets this kind of brush-off all the time, but I was sincere. I was going to come back with a dollar in a minute, because there was something I wanted to buy with it.

"Yo, yo!" he said as I returned to the corner. I handed him a dollar and asked, "What's your name?" In my mind, the question was "What's your real name?", since I had known him as "Sup" all these months.

"Zachary."
"OK, have a good night." And I left.

So now at least I had a real name for this person. That was a more dignified, after all, since I had heretofore attached a goofy moniker to him. But I really need to interview this guy one of these days. In a way, I admire him, even though his disposition and attitude just make me loathe myself even worse than before. I mean, seriously, what right do I have?

So be it. Zachary is one tough hombre. Respect.”

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