Last night, on my way out the door to grab a late snack with my young friend Ben, I noticed that trash had accumulated in the kitchen. Two full bags sat beside the garbage can, along with a couple of empty cardboard boxes. Time for a dumpster run. So, using every one of my fingers, I held and hung and balanced the trash along with my phone, keys and backpack, maneuvering sideways through doorways down the three flights of stairs and out to the lot.
It stunk outside. It often does here. Unfortunately, what they don’t tell you when you move in is that there is a sewage treatment plant just behind our community, which does night work. On warm and humid summer nights, it can be powerful. But I’ve learned to live with it.
The lot was very dark, especially in the far back corner of it, where the woods press in around the dumpster. As I made the trek there to dispose of the trash, I noticed a character in the shadows. He was not dumping anything. He was just sitting there beside the wooden picket fence that surrounds the rubbish bin, elbows on knees, looking down. He wore a hat, pulled low. I couldn’t see his face as he looked down at what appeared to be some sort of large, shallow container. It looked like something from a chemistry set. I saw a small ember of light begin to glow in his hand. Was he … doing crack? Setting up a makeshift meth lab right here in my parking lot? As I got closer, he cast a Godfather glance up at me without raising his head.
In yesterday’s post, entitled “what’s in a name,” I ended with this:
Using people’s names is just one more way to stay outward focused, instead of being all about me. Whether it is your neighbors, co-workers, gas attendants or people on the train, each has a real life. An important life. Struggles. Goals. Dreams. Families. At core, I believe we each want to connect. To matter.
We each have a name. Look for opportunities to really see people. Interact. Be vulnerable. Be genuine. Before long, what may have once seemed daunting will become a natural, full and enjoyable way of life.
And this really is a way of life for me. That doesn’t mean that I stop and talk to every person along my path. But, having just written yesterday’s blog post, the idea was fresh in my mind that even sketchy guys who sit out by dumpsters in the middle of the night doing God-knows-what … are real people.
I also encourage readers to be vulnerable and to take risks. And while I’m comfortable with people from all walks of life, the unknown factors presented here made this about as big of a social risk as I might face.
So I did.
As I began to hoist the trash in my hands, ready to toss it in through the sliding door of the dumpster, I smiled and used the sewage smell to my advantage. “Hey, what’s up! Did you come out to the dumpster to escape the smell of the rest of the place?” I threw the garbage, which landed with clunks and rattles.
The stranger looked up at me, smiling. “Ha-ha, yeah! What is that smell anyway?” He was a young guy. I could see now that the glowing ember of light was coming from a standard cigarette. He sat in a swivel chair, the kind someone might have in an office. I still didn’t know what the plastic tubs at his feet were for.
“It’s the sewage treatment plant. It’s right behind the woods there,” I pointed, “and they tend to do their dirty work at night.”
“OK. I thought it was a sewage leak. I didn’t know if I should call maintenance or the town,” he replied.
“Oh, so you must live here,” I said. “I live in Building 8 over there. My name’s Erik.”
He smiled even more broadly. “Hey, I’m also Eric! I just moved into Building 1.” He gestured to his right with the cigarette hand.
“Well, your name should be easy to remember then!” I said. “Do you spell it with a ‘C’ or a ‘K’?”
“Just a ‘C’, nothing fancy” he said, almost apologetically.
“Mine’s with a ‘K’,” I replied, feeling guilty.
“Oh, man. You’re lucky. The Nordic version. I always wished I’d gotten that one.” This guy wasn’t stupid.
“So … I have to ask,” I half-laughed with a raised eyebrow. “Why are you sitting in a swivel chair, smoking out by a dumpster in the middle of the night?”
“Sketchy, right?” He laughed. “I came out here to empty the cat boxes” [mystery of the plastic containers solved!] “and saw this swivel chair that someone threw out. I was testing it to see if it was broken, because I need a chair for my desk. Seems to be in pretty good condition. Not dirty. I always loved spinning around in these when I was a kid. So, I just decided to have a cigarette and spin around in it for a while.” He laughed again sheepishly. “I stopped when I saw you coming.”
OK, so he wasn’t sketchy. He wasn’t the Godfather. He wasn’t a druggie. He was just a real guy like me. A nice guy.
His cigarette was finished. He plopped the cat boxes on top of the chair and began to drag it toward his building. I walked with him a little ways. “Well, I’m sure I’ll see you around then. Nice to meet you, Eric.” I extended my hand.
He shook it firmly. “Nice to meet you, as well.”
My eyes got a bit wider in surprise. Hands still locked, I replied, “We seem to have a lot in common, Eric! You say ‘as well’! It’s not often that I find someone else who prefers ‘as well’ over the more common ‘too’!”
He replied modestly, “I read a lot.”
“I do, as well!” I returned. We both laughed.
“Then we have a lot in common, indeed,” he replied.
“‘Indeed’? You say ‘indeed,’ as well?” I was almost giddy. “OK, OK. We need to stop now or we’ll be standing here all night…”
We laughed one more time, said our goodbyes, and headed for our separate destinations.
Now, you may be thinking, “Well, you didn’t know how it would turn out. He could have been a drug addict!” That’s true. He could have. That’s why it’s called a “risk.” I suppose it’s possible that he could have leaped up erratically and assaulted me with his red hot crack spoon. It’s unlikely, but possible. But what I know to be true is that he would still have been a valuable person, with a name and a story. I was willing to take a chance on that basis.
As I walked toward my car, hearing the scrape of the swivel chair wheels on the sidewalk behind me, I smiled at the cool interaction I’d had with Eric: former crack addict turned erudite, cat-loving, swivel chair spinner.
Another risk well taken.
I’m curious to know: Would YOU have stopped to talk to this “sketchy guy”? Drop your thoughts in the Comments section below!