You would know if you’ve seen him. No one else here in Seattle, whether mentally stable, unstable, housed or employed or otherwise, has the happy-go-lucky gall to dress up like a king outside of Burger King. I don’t even know if the restaurant has anything to do with it. Travis stands out there most every day, like any number of folks you see at freeway exit ramps or major intersections. If you spend enough time in such places, you’ll notice a pattern: there’s often a second figure standing by in the wings, waiting for the first to vacate his position so he can “start his shift,” as it were.
But nobody else panhandles in Travis’ spot. Who would follow a king? You’d be forever doomed to be second-rate. Look at that stubby smiling fellow, complete with flowing black cape and gold crown, sword and shield, a grin ever-visible beneath the appropriately regal beard. His sword remains sheathed, and instead of holding a sign he moves between the cars offering a gesture of prayerful supplication and a well-wishing smile. Like my older friends who don’t need to wear logos or slogans on their shirts, who simply are themselves and you have to talk to them to know them, his being, his life force, is his sign. I’ll open my driver’s side window for a brief chat at the light, or else tap the horn twice as I roll by. He always knows it’s me.
Today, though, Travis was a mile or two further down the road, collapsed on the concrete expanse of Mount Baker Transit Center. I pulled up and opened the doors as other intending passengers came aboard. He cried out from his prone position on the ground.
“I need somebody to help me up.”
“Hey, Travis,” I called out.
“I need somebody to help me up.”
I stepped outside, toward him. “Okay, let’s see here.” I had to do something. You don’t just leave a monarch sprawled on his belly on the side of the road. Especially a benevolent monarch. “How’re we gonna do this. How about I reach under your arms like this, and then we’ll both stand up, okay? Let’s do this.” He’s a smaller guy. This was doable. “Okay there we go. Great. You got it. Now do you wanna go sit on that bench, or do you want the bus?”
“I want the bus.”
“Okay, let’s go get on this bus. But listen Travis, if you sit down on the bus, are you gonna be able to stand up again?”
“I’ll stay standing.”
I wondered how long he had been lying there. I didn’t ask.
“Hang on, lemme put my sword down,” he said as we settled inside.
“Yeah, they say no swordfights on the bus…”
After a chuckle he said with complete seriousness, “Nathan, thank you. Thank you. I’m so glad you came by.”
Me, trying to brush it off: “I’m so glad I did too!”
“I’m so glad it was you.”
Actors try for sincerity that unvarnished. It was a simple sentence, but it answered my unasked question: he had definitely lain there for no small part of the afternoon.
“I’m so glad too! And I’m glad I get to see ya! It’s an honor to have a King onboard…”
I kept it in between a joke and earnest gravity, the better to let him lead. I like that he chose the latter. “Man, Nathan,” he mused, “I remember the first time I met you.”
“Me too. You were just in from what, Texas, right, Austin?”
“Yeah. You make me feel better every time I see you. Thanks for every single moment.”
“You too, it brings me up every time I see you! And I love what you’ve come up with, being King and all. Nobody else out here has even thought of puttin’ together a cool outfit like that, havin’ some fun with it. You know?”
“Hey, I’m trying to make Seattle happier one smile at a time!”
“I think it’s down to just you and me doin’ that, but I think we’re doin a bang-up job!”
“I think so too. I just don’t like fallin’, man.”
“Yeah, fallin’ down’s no fun. Falling can be a bigger deal than people think.”
“Yeah it is.”
“But even a King needs a lil’ help every now and then.”
“We gotta help each other out, right?”
“You make me feel appreciated, Nathan.”
“Right back atcha.”
“I’m so glad it was you. I love you, brother.”
“Love you too, man. I’ll see ya soon.”
He stepped off on his own, slowly. You could say regally. Travis pulls off the king act so well because he’s humble. He’s an educated man, well-spoken and with a sizable knowledge of the law. He has reason to be proud, but he isn’t. The gaze of pride is inward, and as such it risks blindness. Travis walks with his eyes open.
“That’s the king right there,” I said to whoever was in earshot, half to myself, as I drove away. I felt lucky to know the guy.
A figure seated behind me called out in response: “yes sir!!”
Two weeks later Travis’ longtime girlfriend would step aboard my 7. I don’t know her name. She’s almost pathologically quiet, but on this day, and for the first time in the four years I’ve known them, she would lift her eyes up to me and speak. She said, “Hey. Travis told me you helped him up onto the bus when he had fallen down.”
The years of silence beforehand, knowing of her introverted character, vested the moment with enormous size. It was the type of sentence you worked on, rehearsed, you who for whatever reason don’t like speaking, find it hard to talk to strangers. But you did it on this occasion because it was important.
“Yeah, I did,” I replied, my jaw slightly agape with wonder, still processing the fact that she had just spoken. “He’s a good guy.”
“Yeah, he is. Thanks for doing that.”
“Oh, of course.”
I never heard her speak again.