I was across the water, on my way to a meeting. I had parked the car and was navigating my way toward an office building when I passed a man sitting on a bench. I said, “Good morning.”
“Good morning to you, sir,” he replied. I noted the formulation—it was as precise as it was unexpected—but I was running late and hurried on my way. My meeting was not long, a half hour at most. I retraced my steps to the car and found the gentleman still sitting on his bench. “Friend, do you happen to have two dollars to spare?” he politely asked me.
Whatever happened to a dime? I patted my back pocket. “I’m sorry,” I said. “The cupboard is bare. I don’t have a cent on me.” (My wife can confirm this is not an unusual state of affairs for me.)
“That’s alright. Not to worry. You seemed in a hurry; where did you go?”
“I had a meeting. As a matter of fact, with my financial advisor.”
His eyebrow arched. “Oh; you have a financial advisor, do you?”
“I know; ironic right? I have a financial advisor, but no money.”
“Incongruous. You might consider another advisor.”
I was struck by his calm demeanor, the timbre of his voice, the cadence and distinct patterns of his speech. His voice was rich, mellifluous. Maybe a bass, but certainly a baritone. His diction was precise, confident. This was an educated man. He held my eyes when he spoke and there was no distance between us. I looked around; maybe I had unwittingly barged into a live audition of Waiting for Godot. No; just us.
“I noticed your footwear,” he said.
I looked down. I was in meeting attire—button-down shirt, moleskin pants—but I was wearing flip-flops. “My usual summer attire,” I said, somewhat apologetically.
“They wouldn’t let us wear those in the army,” he said. He was cleanly dressed, pressed shirt and pants, blue canvas shoes, laced but untied. I pointed to his shoes. “I like your footwear,” I said.
“My feet hurt; I never tie my shoes anymore.”
Then we just fell into conversation. I don’t really remember what we talked about—small talk, I suppose—but all the while I couldn’t help but notice the way this bench-sitter commanded my attention. He was worldly, wise. Insightful. At one point, he said something like ‘you looked like the Lone Ranger when you walked by the first time. A man of stature. A man of your stature shouldn’t be wearing flip-flops. To a meeting. With your financial advisor.’ There was no irony in his comment, just an observation. I didn’t disagree.
At some point during our conversation—me standing, him sitting—I became aware of the time. I had told my wife I would home for lunch. “I’d better be going. The boss is waiting for me at home.”
This caught his attention. “Oh; you have a boss at home, do you?”
I nodded. “You better believe it.” I patted his shoulder. It was solid. “I enjoyed talking to you.”
“As did I.” We parted.
The next day, I went to the ATM and took out some cash. I made sure I had two one-dollar bills. I went back to the place of my encounter with the bench-sitter. He wasn’t there. I’ve gone back a few times since, hoping to rekindle our conversation, but he’s never there.
The image that accompanies this Musing is titled “The Park Bench.” It is by Horace Pippin, an African-American artist whose work was greatly influenced by slavery and segregation. Born outside Philadelphia in 1888, he worked primarily from a studio in New York. He died in 1946. When I thought to do a little research on Mr. Pippin, I looked him up on the internet. I was stunned: the photograph that accompanied his biography looked exactly like the man sitting on the bench.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com