I walked to the post office to mail three copies of my latest book, Of Dogs and Meaning.
It was a fine weekday morning and the last of the cherry blossoms fell like so many poems about falling cherry blossoms.
I looked across the street and saw a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk surrounded by his worldly possessions. Cherry blossoms fell on him, too. Didn’t Jesus say something about that? Or was it about rain or mercy or justice? No, that was Portia in Merchant of Venice, who gave the greatest soliloquy in the history of literature.
The man was reading a very large hardback book, a real door stopper. I was elated to see this.
I said to myself: if he’s still reading that book when I return from the post office, I will engage with him and ask him what he’s reading. I just can’t be that person who always walks by this kind of human being and says nothing if something distinctly human is going on with that person, such as reading a fat book while sitting on a sidewalk as cherry blossoms fall on him. Something like this is a human poem in motion and cries out to be observed.
I’d seen the man before. He was a regular on this sidewalk with two other homeless men. From time to time, I’d eavesdropped on their conversations as I passed them and chuckled at the outrageous profanity that accompanied their stories and insults. They were more like a comedy troupe than a trio of vagrants.
“What are you reading?” I said.
He looked up at me with an expression of joy. He pushed the book toward me.
“It’s by Jean Auel, who wrote the The Clan and the Cave Bear. This is the sixth in the series. I’ve checked them out from the library.”
I didn’t catch the title but knew the series and that each volume ran to almost 1000 pages!
“I know the books. I’ve read The Clan and the Cave Bear and loved it.”
This was true. I’d found a paperback edition in a dive bar library six months ago and read it over three-day stretch.
I said goodbye and wished him a good day. As I walked away, I overheard him explain the series to another homeless man who had been standing nearby and edged closer after I left. The last thing I heard was the sound of enthusiasm in a man’s voice.