This morning I needed to hear a waitress’s breezy hello and see behinds hanging over the stools at the counter and feel the slight film on the table from repeated wipings and the sticky naugahyde bench seat. I woke up with a longing I couldn’t name and lay in bed unfocused until I thought of a $1.32 breakfast special and began to feel mobile.
I start to feel better when I pull out a black book and begin to draw with my pen, transferring to paper the outline of the boys hulking over the end of the counter. I can feel the edges coming off some of the blocks of wood jammed together inside my head.
Dickens, I find myself thinking. Not Toulouse-Lautrec drawing in smoky bars, but Dickens; this morning I am Dickens walking around with eyes wide open, seeing a pure beam of humor illuminating human squalor.
I lean back to study my drawing: the bolts that hold the chairs to the floor, and the person standing outside the window — the peripheral details that become the edges of what I choose to draw.
“I know you. I watched you one night at Don Juan’s.”
The waitress bends her neck to look at my face more carefully.
I can’t remember her face but I was in Don Juan’s once. I met a friend after work there. We drank margaritas in the restaurant because the bar was too rowdy.
“I drew the puppets,” I say. I remember how a row of Mexican puppets on the wall looked to me like midget bouncers.
The cooler rattles behind our conversation, sounding like a truck with a loose front end on a washboard road. It strains loudly to move the air around and keep the hot day off our faces and forearms; but it’s not loud enough to hide the voice of the waitress with the coffee, pouring out details about me with the tipping of her pot.
“That’s right. Puppets. You were drinking margaritas and drawing and drawing and then you used some of your drink to mix your watercolors. Poured it right in your little box. I remember. You had a black book.”
The eggs come with chunks of potatoes and rye toast, and the steam of the coffee feels good against my nose. Now I sense an audience as I move my plate to the left so I can keep my right hand on the open page of my book. A tennis shoe under a stool has caught my eye, and I make the lines to show it on tiptoe. The hats, too. I need to draw the hats. I feel eyes on me from time to time. The young woman at the cash register watches me while she waits for someone to finish writing a check. The dishwasher comes out in his white apron, wiping his hands with a rag. He looks over my shoulder, grunts, and goes away. I hear the rise and fall of his voice behind the swinging door, but I can’t hear what he’s saying.
I eat chunks of potato with my left hand so I can draw with my right. But I’m not drawing. I chew and consider a bruise inside my chest: a hard-to-define heaviness pinned me to my bed when I woke up today. I’m usually in a hurry to get on with my day, so that I’m light and quick in the shower, and impatient with hair combing. When I’m slow at the beginning of a day, it is either ill health or sorrow.
It started with the garbage that washed up on Eastern shores. The photos of the syringes and tubes and unnameable stuff caused me to stare with as hard a face as I have ever turned to the news.
Then there was the Sunday Times article about forests dying around the country. Certain elevations on Mount Kahtadin are withering from some combination of heat and acid rain and general human piggishness.
And there are fewer and fewer places to put all the garbage. They try to ship it hundreds of miles somewhere else. I watched Winston Churchill’s grandson on the morning news, vowing that England will not accept the business of burying the refuse from other countries, no matter how sweet the deal. International garbage dealing.
There was also an airliner with a hole in its side; human parts got caught in a mighty engine and I stared and stared with grim imaginings.
At breakfast in Alice’s, with the morning regulars hunched over the curve of the counter, I’m staring again, this time at the sign outdoors against the window: NO CHECKS.
I feel like I’m choking on it all; it’s unusual for me to take the world’s grief into my chest, but today I’m worn out with it. Interestingly enough, isms look different to me today. Sexism, patriotism, chauvinism — all look so off the mark: intellectual hairsplitting that doesn’t address some nightfall of the heart that seems to have permeated us all on the planet. I remember how frantic the optimism sounded in the television version of the Democratic National Convention. I wanted to cheer along, too, but I couldn’t.
On a college-sponsored tour of Europe my sophomore summer, I stopped to photograph an old man on a park bench in Paris. My pausing to fidget my way to just the right f-stop attracted the attention of other students in our group. They stopped in the middle of their tales about the previous night’s drinking to see what I saw: an old man with an Albert Einstein face leaning over to feel the weight of his years on his giant wrinkled hands atop a cane. Birds at his feet. Frayed black pants. Cuffs turned up.
I thought at the time it was a particular rectangle I had stopped for: inside the frame, I captured a variation of photographs I’d studied at school — Walker Evans, maybe, or Dorothea Lange. My pausing to notice didn’t seem to alarm the gentleman, who squinched his eyes in a friendly manner and spoke to us in German, not French; none of us knew how to reply.
That moment of attention seemed to inspire the others. They paused again and again during the rest of our walk together; they saw the tricycles for rent that looked like animals from a carousel set free; they saw the lovers so close to the end of a secluded bench they seemed about to fall off — or float away.
“Look at that,” the waitress squeals over my shoulder. “That’s perfect!”
The boys along the curve of the counter — captured by pen and pencil on a page in my book — cause her to lean close. A forefinger with bright polish on the nail taps a figure. “That’s Joe. You got him.”
It does say Joe inside the stitched oval over a pocket, so I add that detail. I lean back and look at the drawing differently myself, sitting in the light cast by the enthusiasm of the woman at my side. I love the giant egg-serving waitress painted on the wall; she looks even bigger in the black-and-white drawing in my book. She seems to serve her eggs in a frying pan to these men at the end of the counter, to all men everywhere, perhaps — men who lean with their elbows on the table and talk loudly and cozily between bites. The cook, the dishwasher again, the cashier, another waitress — all exclaim about what they love as they gather around to peer at the drawing.
“Do you do this for a living?” No. “You should draw in courtrooms.” Maybe. “That’s a trip!” Hmmm. . . .
Dishes go back to being washed; pancakes get turned. Customers pause to steal glances on their way to the restroom.
It is some kind of trip. Yes, I do this for living, I think, as I close the book. This noticing. For now I am more alive than I thought I could be today. The cane I lean on to emphasize my pausing in life is this blank page that might fill with marks if I allow it, if I don’t worry about headlines or the empty rhetoric of politicians or the cigarette smoke blowing my way from the next table. If I don’t worry about who is watching me and what they might think, my hand moves in conjunction with my gut response to whatever line out there delights me.
Once upon a time I took a photograph of an old man on a park bench. This morning I realize I wanted to be that old man, with old eyes full of sparrows at my feet.
Since that day in Paris, many sights have caught my pen: the way a man moves a woman around the dance floor; the sagging of a marquee on an old main street in the West; the way the boots of a fire crew rest on lunch break.
And a puppet collection in a bar that a waitress saw differently after I sketched it one night. Maybe even Joe looks different to that woman now. Maybe her life looks different.
Today at a restaurant called Alice’s, I am reminded of a hunch I’ve had before. Against fatigue of the spirit, there is only this defense: no defense; look again, see.