If you happen to be walking in Park Square, that area of Boston famous for its parks, expensive restaurants and even more expensive boutiques, you may notice a man who seems very much out of place there, but then, he looks out of place almost anywhere. He is small man, perhaps sixty years of age. His clothes look like he pulled them out of a dumpster. He himself looks like he spent the night in the same dumpster. His hair is dirty and disheveled; he probably has not shaved in days. Behind old, horn rim glasses with badly scratched lenses, his eyes seem to be as out of focus as the glasses probably are. If he notices you, he will sidle up to you, and with a face as expressionless as a cement block, and a voice almost devoid of inflection, ask you for a dollar so he can buy a cup of coffee or some rolling tobacco. His name is Joe, and he visits me at my store every day, after he has scrounged up the necessary two dollars to buy a pack of Bugler tobacco.
Joe’s visits are never uninteresting. He suffers from mental illness, schizophrenia perhaps, although I’m hardly qualified to make that diagnosis. Over the years, he has told me he’s an operative in the CIA, or a General in the Army, or an Admiral in the Navy. He once told me he was suing Lennon and McCartney for plagiarism.
His visits always follow the same pattern. He shuffles in, totally unselfconscious. He greets me with a deadpan expression that would have made Johnny Carson envious. “Hello. How are you today. I’d like a packet of Bugler.” Just like that. Always the same. I sell him his tobacco. Sometimes he tells me about his latest career, sometimes not. But he always gives me a knuckle knock, and shuffles out into the street.
But Joe is no ordinary beggar. Somewhere beneath the scattered rubble of his intellect, there is an educated man. Ask him a question about anthropology, or classical music, and he will astonish you with his knowledge of these subjects. The first time he lectured me about the relative merits of Brahms and Beethoven, I suddenly understood what it might feel like if my cat started speaking to me in Old English, and then maybe rattled off the lacrimosa dies illa for good measure, just to see if I was paying attention. Joe doesn’t know what day of the week, or even what year it is most of the time, but he knows when the pyramids were built, and by whom, and who is buried in each one, and why that’s important.
But it is the mention of chess that really gets Joe to poke his head up from the underbrush of his illusions and suddenly step back into the real world. The man’s knowledge of chess is nothing short of astounding. King’s Gambit, Petrov’s Defense, Queen’s Pawn Game: you name it, Joe knows how to play it. There is not a doubt in my mind that he was once a first rate chess player. The only problem is that after a few minutes, Joe gets tangled up in his hallucinations again and will inform the listener that he plays chess regularly with Bobby Fischer. The rather inconvenient fact that Bobby Fischer is dead doesn’t trip him up at all. Joe plays him every night. Telepathically. And apparently Bobby Fisher isn’t the only one.
And there is one other recurring theme in Joe’s narrative: there is Maria. “I’m going to meet Maria at the Ritz today” he will tell me in all seriousness. “I hope she’ll be there today. I haven’t seen her in a long time.”
He tells me she is his wife, but he hasn’t seen her in many years. Another figment of his already overworked imagination? Something tells me no. On some level, I think this has some basis in reality. A change comes over him when he speaks of her. For a moment his face becomes a little less expressionless. His voice becomes a little more animated. There is a hint, just a hint, of a deep sense of loss when he talks about her. When he comes in the next day, to tell me that Maria wasn’t there, the disappointment in his voice is palpable.
I sometimes find myself wondering who Maria is, or was. I strongly suspect she was a real person in his past. A wife or girlfriend, perhaps. Joe was clearly not always as I see him now. Once he was young, and educated, maybe even handsome. Perhaps Maria left him when his mental illness began to manifest itself.
There’s no point in asking Joe. In his mind, he is always just one day away from being reunited with this woman he clearly loves deeply, be she real or imaginary. Each day brings with it the same series of events: he eagerly anticipates seeing her again; his hopes are inevitably crushed. He buys tobacco and coffee.
She is his personal Godot. In this, Joe is no different, no different at all, from the rest of us, we who in our conceit call ourselves sane. His hope is no less real and his disappointment no less painful because they seemingly have no basis in what we call the real world. What is different is that he goes through this cycle of hope and loss each and every day of his life.
The endless maze of streets that is Boston presents less of a challenge to him than the ever shifting corridors of his mind. Sometimes he finds his way out, only to wander back in and get lost again. That he was once highly educated seems plain. I can only conjecture about when and how he started down the dark deceptive path that led him to a life on the streets.
I’m told Joe has been living on the street for over twenty years. Somehow, he survives. And some day, in one of the dim, shadowy side streets that traverse the fog strewn labyrinth that his mind has become, Joe may find his Maria waiting for him there.