Charles went by Leonard too, interchangeably, though I never learned the reason why; a middle and a first name, if I understand. A squat fellow who looked good for his late middle age, with defined features and a ready smile, a boylike grin that took me back to the days of playgrounds and soccer and the great unknown.
Most people talk about themselves, which I'm fine with at work; I'd rather listen than speak, and always learn more from the former. Charles and I talked about each other. I'd tell him my thoughts on the job, and he told me about his life; when I switched from the 7 to the 5/21, he was the one face I still regularly saw, as he used both routes, and we thusly formed a closer connection.
He cleaned buildings, three of them in different parts of town, and could show up whenever he liked as long as the facilities were closed. Pretty swell deal, I thought. He'd been at it for years. Like me, Charles favored routine; he told me he hadn't missed an episode of Happy Days for decades. He loved the show. "You get to feelin' like you almost know them, like they friends in your own lives, seein' 'em for that long, knowing they troubles."
He'd been with his ladyfriend for 22 years. He saw his son intermittently, a young man now out of jail and married to a lawyer ("She's a real catch," in the father's words. "He don't know what he got."). Charles hoped his boy could rise to the responsibility and aptitude of his wife. I hoped he'd go easy on his son. Nothing's more sour than a parent who takes their child for granted. Charles was one of those tough love types. Proud in a matter of fact sort of way. I think you know the kind: a front that's convinced it's right.
Sometimes chatting with him was a struggle, but sometimes it was a joy; it'd be an exaggeration to say he was a man at war with himself, but there'd be moments of sensitivity that shown through from time to time, a conflict to the confident front and a reminder of the child inside.
One night he said, "I adjust my whole schedule so I can make your bus."
I jokingly said "no way, I don't believe that."
I immediately regretted my tone.
The briefest of silences revealed he'd been telling the complete truth, and that it wasn't the easiest thing to say. You work up to sensitivity like that, especially if it isn't your style. I spent the rest of the ride trying to make up, let him know what I now realized: he wasn't being Tough Charles but Real Charles. It was one of the nicest sentiments I could think of, what he'd said, and I wanted him to know it meant something to me.
But I couldn't get through.
"I think that's beautiful, man, " I said.
"Naw, you don't think that! I heard you laughin'."
"Seriously though! Now I'm just worried about could I ever make a bus ride worthwhile enough to reschedule your whole day for!"
"What choo talkin' 'bout, you know everybody loves you."
Who knew what was inside? He'd tried to open up, clearly something he was careful about. It's a risk. I get it. I was grateful to have known even a glimmer; no matter how gruff, there's always a human being somewhere inside. That was why his grin reminded me of childhood. Those days are fraught with insecurities, and you cover them up as best you can, especially as a man, we who are taught to not show emotions– or better yet, not have any in the first place, unless it's anger.
Can you imagine what a better place the world would be if men had the equipment to express themselves with something besides bravado? If Descartes' famous line had been rather translated as I feel, therefore I am? Would the world be a different place if feelings weren't believed secondary to thoughts?
"I been wondering where you were at," I say to him, whenever I haven't seen him in a while.
"No you weren't, " he says, staying strong.
It's a game we play. I really was wondering.
I hope deep down he knows it.
*Cogito could as easily be translated as such, for it just as much means to ponder, reflect, consider. Descartes' line comes into greater meaning with context: dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. "I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am." As he explained, we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt. And doubting, as any human knows, is as much a feeling as anything else.
- The Man Game and How to Beat It (2016) and its 2019 follow-up, On Second Acts
- Decent Street: Kendrick, Gender, Lingo, & the Good Man Problem (2018)
- Dominique The Mystique (a 2018 story with an index of related stories from 2014-2017)