On a spring Tuesday in Morgantown, West Virginia—a classic one with its bright skies; 60s temps; and sidewalks sprinkled with dog walkers, stroller pushers, leisurely lunchers, and college clique-ers—there was one particularly interesting creature under the overpass of the university's Personal Rapid Transit System, or PRT as townies call it—which, by the way, was modeled after Walt Disney World's PeopleMover.
As I approached the nearby stoplight, I noticed Underpass Guy right away. Average height, skinny, shaggy haired, and wearing a tee shirt and baggy jeans a la college quasi-hippie, he was the only person in the intersection, although that's not what kept my gaze. I had to watch the strange gestures he made with his entire body, movements that became all the more clear to me as the red light didn't bark its typical Stop this instant! but something more like You're Welcome, have a good day. (If you've never decoded the language of stoplights, I encourage you to pay closer attention.)
See, this particular light was beckoning me to enjoy a small piece of the immense Universe that is filled with reasons to smile, especially on sunny days. Because, see, Underpass Guy wasn't having a medical emergency or a severe hangover. He was dancing. To whatever was playing on the earbuds connected to his smartphone of whatever brand. He was dancing like no one was watching. And it was a magnificent moment of Simple Pleasure. I don't take those moments lightly, largely because I'm generally as high strung as a Wallenda, except thankfully, like that clan of rope-walkers, I'm aware of the necessity of balance.
As I watched Underpass Guy, I was grateful. Hey man, thanks for being you.
I wish I could be like Underpass Guy. I'm not entirely unlike him. In my past life—the one in which I had close gal pals around—I had a penchant for stoplight dance parties. Sidewalk grooving in UG's style, however, isn't likely. Because I don't walk with earbuds. I prefer to hear the cacophony of birds, kids, woof!, beep! beeeeep!, vroom!, and the rare whoosh! of the wind if you listen closely enough.
As I watched Underpass Guy, I wondered if he saw me looking. If he did, I bet I entered and exited his consciousness as fast as the lone bit of litter that was kicked up and dropped with the soft breeze near his feet.
How we see others is as varied a view as how we see ourselves. Our collective eyes form a kaleidoscope whose colors and shapes are always changing. Some of us will see ugly where others see beauty, and vice versa. Sometimes we'll see nothing at all, because maybe we aren't looking or we aren't even aware that we should or could be.
On that same Morgantown Tuesday on which Mother Nature donned her seasonal best, I took a walk, as I do nearly every day when Mother's mood permits. My place is merely two minutes from the bridge in my lovely neighborhood that leads into town. On foot, I took in even more of the sights of spring in University City.
The tall, thin, old man whose skin matches the miniature pine cones my son loves to gather from the neighbor's bushes:
He's often walking the main street in town, distinguished by a slight limp and primed with a friendly greeting for all. Recently I was told he's homeless and that he found a place to stay that's far from town, too far to walk for someone without a car. A home, yet no means to get downtown where he makes his mark on the vast universe by spreading smiles. What a happy-sad situation, I thought. I was glad to see him that day. Maybe someone gives him a ride to town now. There are people who do those things.
The proprietors of the barber shop that is almost exclusively patronized by young men:
They stand outside the door in couplets or occasionally in a group of three. Each time I pass them by, which is often, none of us acknowledge the other. It's not an uncomfortable silence, although next time maybe I should say a simple Hey or raise my chin in that way youngish people do to say hello without actually saying it. Is 38 still youngish? I think so. My soul feels so.
The motley crew that hangs on the steps of the Baptist church:
As I pass them by, I'll usually hear "That's a beautiful dog you have," of my slender, spotted canine love, Private Joker. Or "Pretty soon he'll be pushing you" of my three-year-old son, who might be smiling or scowling in his stroller, depending on the day...or the hour, or how I broke his piece of cheese the "wrong" way, or the fact that I didn't praise him enough before flushing his potty masterpiece. Three-year-olds can have as many personalities as that crew that holds court on the church steps, with a few exceptions. The step-dwellers, they're typically smoking, usually cursing, often unkempt, and occasionally unruly—even slightly frightening in cases like the twentysomething kid who has obvious rage issues—and rarely infuriating, in isolated instances like the young mother smoking in the face of her baby captive in a stroller. Overall, my interactions with them are pleasant or at least innocuous.
We have to take care not to let our eyes do the work of our minds. What we encounter through sight is unrefined. It is the mind that processes those images and—if our souls are so inclined—allows us to see under the surface.
Underpass Guy and all the others I've described, they make my world a colorful place to behold. I consider myself fortunate to see them that way. Life gives us so many reasons to look at others with disdain, so any time—or the many times—we overcome that urge, it's a win for humanity.
We aren't all destined to become the old man threatening kids to get off his lawn. It's possible to become more tolerant with age. I believe I'm doing it. And I owe it, I believe, to intolerance I've encountered in my own life. Pain is a wise teacher. If you allow it. If you're able, or perhaps just lucky enough, to find yourself in discovery.
Do the work. Find yourself disappointed in yourself. Resolve to do the work some more.
There's also this: A beaming sun, bright skies, and balmy breezes make living in the world much easier. Maybe we should all move to the beach.