Finding Maria

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.


17 Responses to “Finding Maria”

  1. August 12, 2008 at 2:30 am

    Poor Joe. Perhaps it was the loss of Maria that started him down his current path. Saddening tale. I hope he finds what he’s looking for.

    Interesting theory. Hard to tell which was cause and which was effect. I, too, hope Joe someday finds his Maria.

  2. August 12, 2008 at 3:02 am

    I loved the way you wrote this.There are so many Joe’s in this world and your post might make people think more about them as they hurry on by.

    Perhaps. It took me a long time to get to this point with Joe.

  3. August 12, 2008 at 7:03 am

    Lines like these are the reason your readership forgives you your absences and with increasing anticipation returns every day. It was perfect.

    High praise indeed. Especially coming from you. Thank you.

    And so many things, in and in between the lines.

    And thank you to Joe, for giving himself as the inspiration of this piece.


    Joe says you’re welcome. Telepathically, of course. 😉

  4. August 12, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    I agree with those above. Excellent blog.

    Thank you!

  5. 5 Red
    August 12, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    I’ve written. I’ve deleted.
    I’ve written more. I’ve deleted.
    I’m having a hard time finding the words for this. I’m in awe right now.

    Well, that’s kinda the idea: keeping you in awe. 😉

    You’re an amazing man, Smith . . just for caring. Just for writing this.

    God knows, I try. 😉

  6. August 12, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    Sadly I have seen many Joe’s in prison. Our mental health care system is in shambles and jails and prison are a resting place for many that need help not locked up and forgotten. One inmate in particular comes to my mind. I escorted him one day from lockdown to see the psychologist. He was rambling to the psychologist and when his session ended, I escorted him back. Later on as I was talking with the psychologist about how the inmate was extremely learned but somehow lost in his own world. He asked me what I meant. I explained to him about what the inmate said while at the session. The psychologist didn’t know some of the names that the inmate dropped such as how the inmate explained how he landed in prison. The inmate had told the psychologist that he was involved in a methamphetimine lab with Rudolf Hess and Gertrude Stein. I explained that only a learned man would have known these two names to drop. Then I had to explain to the psychologist who Rudolf Hess and Gertrude Stein were.

    It is indeed a strange world.

    It is indeed. Maybe that’s why some people feel compelled to retreat into their own world. It’s safer there.

  7. August 12, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    Sorry about the long assed comment.

    Evyl, you need never, EVER apologize for any comment you leave here, long or otherwise. Your opinion is always welcome on this blog, my friend.


  8. August 12, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    You done Joe proud, T-Bone.
    Wonderful and insightful post into the life of someone we see everyday.
    I do agree about Maria.
    I only pray that Joe sometimes feels love.
    Joe’s soul truly thanks you for this.
    Wonderful, Smith.
    I think you’re getting this blogging thing.
    This is stuff people don’t know about

    “getting this blogging thing”? Well, maybe. If I am, I have you in part to thank for it. Once in a while I hit a home run, I suppose. I’m glad you enjoyed this piece.


  9. 9 Sam
    August 13, 2008 at 9:04 am

    What an amazing and intriguing man, as well as his story through your eyes; I hung on your every word.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    I have a slight desire to visit Boston to both visit the man and the one who’s written about him.

    Only a “slight” desire? Oh, come now, admit it: you’re BURNING with desire to come to Boston! And if you do, the beer’s on me! 😉

  10. August 13, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    Yo Smith:

    That was a pleasure to read. Everyone has a Joe or two in their life.

    Thanks for taking the time to let us peek in on your Joe.


    My pleasure. Glad you enjoyed it.

  11. 11 Lolly
    August 14, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Nice writing, Smith.

    Thank you, Lolly.

  12. August 18, 2008 at 11:53 pm

    A belated thank you to everyone who commented on this post.


  13. August 21, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    I’m slow in getting here to read this but I loved, loved, loved it! It saddens me that there are people living on the streets but I know that for some, they would have it no other way and will accept no other assistance than the occasional handout. I don’t understand and I am not sure I ever really want to know. I just fear for them – I mean it is one thing in California or in milder temperature zones but in Boston, with unheated sidewalks and the bitter cold – ugh. I can’t stand the thought of someone out in it. It makes me thankful for the shreds of sanity I do have but I always wonder how thin that line is that separates myself from someone like Joe. I do hope he finds his Maria and that he has some peace in his own little world.

    Hey, Teeni! Thanks for stopping by. You’re right: whenever I see Joe I’m thankful for the many good things I have in life.

  14. August 28, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Thanks for sharing your glimpses into the strange and fascinating world of this man… I too wonder what his story is. It’s so easy to see people who are homeless and/or mental illnesses as one-dimensional characters where their problems are the only things that matter, when in reality there is so much more to be said. Beautifully written too…

    Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Joe is indeed a fascinating human being, if only one takes the time to get to know him as a person.

  15. August 28, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    Hey Smith,
    This was very touching – I have encountered a Joe or two in my lifetime – and you can find a place in your heart that understands them – enables you to see the humanity that most miss. I hope he does find his Maria again one day. It may bring him peace. Wonderfully written.

    Thank you, Annie. I really enjoyed writing this. I see Joe almost every day, and one day it just occurred to me: I should be writing about him. He is indeed fascinating.

  16. 16 belongum
    September 1, 2008 at 1:50 am

    Wonderfully done Smith… thanks for sharing the yarn – I ‘tripped’ over you via Anonymum… glad I did as I thoroughly enjoyed that! I was sitting here trying to trick my brain into writing something partway entertaining and informative today – and as I was procrastinating, I wondered across this place… Cheers mate 😉

    Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I hope you’ll feel free to stop by often.

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