A few on the fringe

"A Few on the Fringe"

The store did not only attract business, legal and sports people; there were a fair share of those who lived outside the behavioral norms and some on the edges of life as well. Many of the stories told in this outlet represent interactions and experiences with those still within the fattest part of the bell curve, but being downtown, diversity was still king.  This post is a collection of some of those customers throughout the years.  
Let’s start with George.  I’m not sure that was his real name, but that's what we decided to call him. He acknowledged it, and in most cases responded in return.  George was a short, slender man, with long wavy sliver hair that seem to glisten. It was always neatly combed, and he ran his hands over it often, keeping it that way. Oddly it never appeared dirty or greasy. George presented as if he knew his away around a can of pomade.  His clothes were layered in a manner that indicated his body was also his closet.  There was a slight accent, English or Scottish maybe.  George could often be seen having  one, if not several conversations on the street with some of the voices he was hearing.  They were usually animated but with a reasonable volume, and as a gentlemen might, he usually paused as someone walked by, nodding if greeted. 
Joe was my business partner for the first two years and he was an integral part of getting the place off the ground.  He was the one that taught me how to handle people in George’s situation. How he came to be so proficient in this area is still a mystery.  Joe and I were housemates in college with about 6 others. We met when he was living in the upper half of a house and I was living in the lower half with a few others.  There were a few mutual friends between the places at first, but we all merged into one big group by the end of our years.  This is important for one reason, one that I had forgotten until Joe left the business.  Customers started to open up to me about their difficulties understanding him, and frankly some just thought he has was ass. I was shocked , but shouldn’t have been.  The first three months in that house at college, I thought the guy hated me.   He would barely engage in conversation, and when he did, one word answers were the norm. There was a confident tough guy attitude with a stocky build to back it up. Joe was clean cut and combed, and presented with a sporty preppy appearance. He too, appeared to always have some sort of hair gel applied.
  After the first few months we all had a better understanding of each other and I had forget all about those early difficulties.   Until of course those gusty customers brought those memories rushing back.   I recall this wonderful Napoleonic, or Naval style hat someone bought him and he wore at parties.  We nicknamed him ‘Admiral Asshole”, mainly for his personality and partly for the hat.  It was a quick reminder of those college  days, as customers started complaining to me about his attitude.  The same feedback we were all accustomed to when new people were in Joe's presence.
Don’t get me wrong, Joe is still one of my favorite people.  He was blessed with a sense of timing that made his witty seriousness flow with ease.  I can remember having a conversation with him while driving around scouting locations.  I’m sure we were talking about a certain storefront, when I thought he was adding a philosophic twist to an idea when he added “Hey, It doesn’t get any greener”, and it took me too long to realize he was telling me the light had changed from red to green, and it was time to press the accelator.
   The first time George walked in he was a bit loud but Joe just looked at him and suggested he keep it down while he was in the store. He did have a counter between them but Joe showed no fear, anger, or concern.  If he had looked at me, he would have seen all of those things. And If he had asked me, I’d have started blathering on about my concern for other customers. Joe didn’t look my way, and I am thankful. 
             He just asked him “What’ll you have?”  and might I add in a significantly nicer tone than he had with customers that appeared to have a home. George ordered a large coffee, and asked for cream and sugar. Joe pointed out that they were self serve, but George asked if he could get them for him. Joe obliged, which shocked me.  Had any other customer asked, they would have been met with searing sarcasm that often drove customers right out the door.  “Do I look like your mother?”, or “I’m sorry, did I stutter?”.  It was difficult enough to get him up from his chair for a coffee refill and now he was serving homeless George.  I never knew the reason George didn’t want to touch anything, but I would be willing to bet it was because his personal hygiene didn’t meet his own standards.  
So George had his coffee and I thought the event was over.  Joe and I could talk about this and come to my decision about serving him in the future.  Again, I was wrong. George went over to a very popular high top in the window and sat down. Oh crap. Now this is going to be a situation. Joe immediately left the counter and headed towards the table. I was relieved he was going to handle this,  good thing since he started it. Curiosity made me stay in the front of the house, just to see how it went.  Joe heads over there, sits down at the table with George and continues reading the paper and drinking the coffee he left there. That’s it. That’s all he did. Twenty minutes later George left quietly, and Joe told him to have a nice day.  Again, more than he did with most of the other customers. 
I was dumbfounded. I asked him what he thought about the effect on the other customers and he just shrugged me off and walked away. I am certain that it had an effect on some customers and they may have been nervous about coming in, but I also think it had a greater impact on others. Those that thought nice things about us for treating George like a human being.  A system that was implemented in the store from that moment forward.  We were going to do what we wanted and let the chips fall where they may.  A good lesson for this suburbanite, and a position that kept the neighborhood talking.  
George came in for years, during all seasons.  We greeted him by name, and he almost always paid with cash.  On the days he was a little short, he always knew, and asked what he could get for what he had.  Joe ( and eventually I) always gave him what he wanted regardless of what he had, and George never took advantage of this.  Soon he began approaching the counter on his way out and would fumble around in one of many pockets. At first I would have to check out what he was doing until I was in the know.  He was leaving us a “tip.” Usually a big one.  We called them “George Bucks.”  He would go to those outdoor ATM’s and take the deposit and withdraw slips and turn them into what looked like five’s, ten’s and twenty’s with pen or pencil.  Quite a bit of detail, and a little “Picasso”-esque. They were his interpretation rather than duplication of the bills, but quite creative. I am very sad to say that I never kept any of those “George Buscks”. I would also like to mention that he never tried to pay for his coffee with them either. He obviously knew the difference but he always left them for us. 
Several years and many visits later, I read that a homeless man had been found dead in an adjacent neighborhood that fit George’s description, and we never saw him again. 
It really did make me sad, and it changed the way I looked at many things in life. Did I mention my father’s name was George? It took a homeless man to teach me how to act in the same manner that my father had appeared to act his whole life. Treating those who need more of our patience with more of our kindness. Thanks George.  Both of you.

Oh Danny boy!
Some time had past after the death of George and before Danny first appeared in the neighborhood. His arrival coincided with the conversion of an old office supply warehouse on the block into an Off Track Betting parlor. The business had been there for decades and it was certainly showing its age, inside and out.  Danny spent his days at the OTB, along with many other regulars. A common occurrence which I learned from the staff as they started to frequent the store.  Danny, unlike George, had a home and we learned later that he lived with his mom in the old German sections of the city.  Like most people, he too needed a place to go every day, and on his way there he started feeling us out as his “pre-work” pit stop for coffee. 
Danny was short and stocky, and although mostly shaven (there was always several large patches he missed over several attempts), he did have an inordinate amount of hair in his ears.  His eyebrows looked as if they could reach out and grab something.  He usually wore an old baseball hat, slightly cocked, that had nothing to to with fashion. His clothes were thrown on him with a blend of poverty and concern that indicated someone had certain level of concern for his appearance, but perhaps not enough energy to keep up.  No doubt he had a learning disability which in turn probably caused his social disability, however, he handled himself quite well in the store.  He was obviously different and had a caution about him when it came to people or conversation. His distinctive gait was one of confidence and purpose though his legs seemed to step away from his body while his torso remained stiff. There was a small hunch in his back that made him look shorter that he was. He wasn't the type of person that people might cross the street to avoid, but when noticed, there was no attempt at contact.
What was most striking about Danny was his voice. Deep and monotone with a confident indifference. “Coffee water.” That was his order every day. No pause between words, That was it. No more conversation. One cup of coffee and a cup of water.  He would sit and look at the paper,  but I never confirmed whether he could actually read. When he was done with the paper he would sit looking out the window with his legs crossed like a proper aristocrat, slightly leaning back against the booth. And when he was done, he would put the papers back in the proper location and bring his two cups to the counter.  This was better behavior than 75% of my regular customers.  One of my employees just loved Danny and did an endearing impression of him. He always greeted him by name and tried to engage him most days with very little luck. And although he spent his days at OTB, he never gambled. He would occasionally talk to the other patrons, but rarely. 
Danny also disappeared one day before the OTB shut down. We heard rumor that his mother passed away and he moved in with a relative or to a home. 
I don’t have any antic dotes about Danny that lend itself to behavior, but I thought his story should be included here.

“Come not between a dragon and his wrath.”
 It is always appropriate to quote the bard.
At the risk of sounding too obvious, not all people who appear to be living on the streets or are slightly outside the bell curve are approachable or safe. 
One such character was dubbed King Lear by the aforementioned employee.  He received this title not through family lineage or the conquering of a nation, but by other similarities to the tale. He wore a cheap cigar like a piece of favorite clothing.  He was short but walked with a kingly strut that was open and inviting as if asking the world to challenge him. Most days he was neatly attired in some casual wear, and his clothes didn’t indicate his state of mind.  “The King” would walk by the front of the store a few times each day like he was making the rounds in his city, checking on his constitutes.  He would finger the coin return of the paper machines for change that may have fell through and he did this barely stopping.  He walked with his shoulders pushed back and had a plastic bag in one hand, his cigar in the other. He hasd a beard and a stern attitude. I suspect most people were afraid to make eye contact and certainly practiced avoidance of him on the streets. 
 On many days he appeared to be having an argument with some evil of the world. Unlike like George, a serious violation had occurred and he was going over the argument out loud. If he caught your eye, he would stop.  If you greeted him, he would return the gesture like someone who knows he was espied with an ongoing issue but was polite enough to pause and acknowledge. He never came in the store but at least once a month I would spot him around downtown having a one way argument with an oncoming city bus. The king would be standing in the space between the road and the sidewalk pointing and screaming at the bus as it approached, and then partly chasing it, as if he had put the fear in it that made it flee. If it was only once, it could be construed as the driver missing him at a stop and the king being late, but it happened often. He was well known in the city, but only by us as King Lear.
I haven’t seen him for some time, but something tells me he is still around, and hasn’t settled his dispute, still fighting those fire breathing "dragons".

And finally, only for the purpose of this little verbal walk-about, there was Cleveland.  A tall, thin, very dark skinned black man. He had nappy dreads that were usually sporting the remnants of wherever he may have slept the evening before. He strode like a clod, lifting his feet up higher than most and clopping them down hard like a dancing clown with over sized shoes. Probably a proper metaphor since his boots certainly didn’t fit and his clothes hung on him like those falling off a hanger.  There was no beauty in his movement and his mouth hung open as he moved down the road. He spoke loudly with a deep resounding voice.  As he plodded down the sidewalk he could be heard asking for someone’s attention on either side of street.  “EXCUSE ME, SIR! EXCUSE ME, SIR!”. He looked a bit like an actor in a Zombie movie, only faster. You knew he was coming for you when you heard his voice and most people, myself included, were scared half to death of this guy. It mostly ended with him finding another soul to target for change but it was still a scare.   The police have told me on several occasions that he was dangerous, and to be cautious. That could have been just from the many reports from frightened people, or there could have been some truth to it.  
Cleveland visited the church behind the store often for whatever they were providing that week. They were kind people and often a parishioner would offer to take him to breakfast rather than give him money. That was the only time he he came into the store. Cleveland was the prototypical homeless urban man.  He needed medication, which he received infrequently, and it was noticeable when he was without. On those days he never lasted long on the streets, and I am certain the authorities took him into custody to get cleaned up and drugged up. One day I witnessed a police officer gain Cleveland’s attention by yelling his name in an authoritative voice, stopping his approach on a nervous pedestrian. Cleveland seemed to jump into a submissive state when he heard his name, and apologized to whomever could hear him and walked away.  I tried this a few times, when the fear in some random walker escalated as he approached, and the reaction was the same. I figured he thought I was some sort of police and he wasn’t interested in taking a ride that day.
I was sitting in treatment one recent morning reading the obituaries. If you don’t already practice this, just wait (that is if there are any newspapers left). On this day was listed a clean looking, very black man named Cleveland.  He resembled city Cleveland, but you could easily miss it.  The texts starting coming in that day asking if I had seen the news, as many friends knew him.  I confirmed the obituary was his from a friend on the force and this made me wonder even more. Homeless individuals usually do not have printed obituaries, and very rarely with a photo. After pondering this for a bit it occurred to me that he had a family here in town. One that was aware of his condition and couldn’t control him. They must have tended to him, but not completely. Cleveland needed help.  Although someone was thoughtful enough to put his obit in the paper, they were unable to keep him inside that bell curve of behavior.
Earlier I stated that my King Lear story had no moral epiphanies for me, but I think the combined stories of George, Danny, King Lear, and Cleveland may provide me otherwise.  It is easier to fear (or hate) someone who falls outside the little circles of the lives we create, and that fear is better maintained with less interaction or knowledge.  Nothing ground breaking here, just a little personal recognition.

Economic, mental, or physical differences create quite a lot of fodder for many who haven't had to experience outlying issues in their lives.  My personal disability now puts me in contact with a number of others who are going through similar and often more trying health problems.  The conclusion for me hasn't changed.  You don't have to ignore the differences you may see in others, but the approach and tone don't have change either. I find that people want to be treated in the same manner as those from a group that they have often been excluded.    

 Let’s finish this open thought with a final quote from you know who: 
“O! Let me not be mad, sweet heaven;

Keep me in temper; I would not be mad.”

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