I had to go downtown.
Okay, I didn't have to have to.
But downtown Anchorage is where the kind of burgers I like are and despite the fact that my hearing is damaged enough so the VA pays me a tidy sum for the impairment, I was pretty sure I could hear one of those tasty sandwiches calling my name.
So I had to go downtown.
You can’t ignore the voices, folks, you know how it is.
Now, naturally, it being downtown and winter, I couldn't park anywhere near the little dive I like. I found a spot half a block away and walked.
That's when I noticed him.
I mean, I saw him standing there, of course, out of the corner of my eye. Twenty years of anti-terrorism training and service in hostile countries, I tend to notice the people around me. So, yeah, I saw him in the crowd, he seemed a little … off, but nothing jumped out at me as anything special. And honestly, Anchorage is full of people who are a little … off. Average height. Average age. Average build. Average clothes for this time of year in Alaska, maybe a little shabbier than average but nothing you'd notice without a closer inspection. We’re all a little shabby this time of year, bundled up against the cold like big puffy marshmallow people. Average features in the usual arrangement. You know, your basic average guy. A nebbish. One of the people in the walls. Window dressing. Part of the faceless multitude that strolls the sidewalks of every city in the world.
He was standing near the crosswalk, just out of the right of way, talking energetically to invisible people and jabbing at the air like you do when you're driving home a point - which is also pretty average. I encounter dozens of people every day who are talking to unseen friends. I see them driving down the street, in the checkout lines and coffee shops, chatting away.
Normal everyday people.
Talking to themselves.
That’s how much the world has changed in recent decades.
Up until a few years ago, you saw somebody standing on the corner carrying on an animated conversation with themselves, you’d have thought, Whoa, look at that craaaazeeee bugger, please, please don’t let the voices tell him to eat my face. I just want a sandwich, I don’t want no trouble. Please don’t eat my face, crazy man!
Suddenly everybody is wandering around talking to themselves (Also, there’s a lot more spontaneous face-eating. Coincidence? Sure. Probably nothing to worry about).
And you know, a cell phone makes good cover. I’m pretty sure that at least half of the people I see talking to themselves are really just talking to themselves and using the phone to hide that fact.
I got to the burger place.
There was a line, mostly working people from the rail-yard and the port, couple of soldiers from the base. It’s that kind of joint. A little seedy, a little sketchy, my kind of place. I like to eat in my office, so I got my sandwich to go and headed back to the truck …
… and as I waited for the crosswalk, I realized that the guy was still there.
He was in the same spot on the other side of the intersection, just off the right of way. Still punching at the air and talking to invisible people. He’d gotten a bit louder. At first I could only hear fragments, but as I got closer things became clear.
Well, sort of.
I’m sure the people walking past figured he was talking to a earpiece hidden under his knit watch-cap. Just some working stiff from one of the local business buildings, stepped outside for a smoke maybe, talking on the phone. Nothing unusual.
Except he wasn’t.
Wasn’t on the phone, I mean.
He was babbling, a mixture of mangled bible passages and, oh hell, I don’t know, gibberish – or rather, more gibberish depending on your point of view.
This guy, well, he really was talking to invisible people.
And nobody noticed.
Because it’s nothing unusual nowadays.
Everybody talks to invisible people.
“Hey, buddy, you okay?” I asked.
He just looked right through me, still talking to an audience only he could see. His eyes were wide and shiny and red around the edges. He was high or sick or crazy or maybe all three. He sort of shifted his weight from one foot to the other and back and didn’t acknowledge my question. Angels or demons, whoever or whatever he was talking to was more real than me. I was invisible to him.
“Hey, you okay?” I asked again.
His clothing was a little more worn and shabby than I’d first realized. One of the city’s numerous homeless mentally ill, turned out into the cold and dark, left to deal with invisible demons on their own.
We were right up the hill from the Brother Francis shelter, likely that’s where he had come from before fetching up here.
He didn’t look dangerous. He didn’t seem likely to jump into traffic. He didn’t look like he was in any physical distress, he had a jacket and gloves and a hat. He seemed healthy enough. He just wasn’t tuned in to reality.
I moved on, there wasn’t much I could do.
I circled back in the truck, I had some vague idea that I’d call the APD and see if they’d check on him. But he was walking down the hill with two other folks, both of which were obvious street people. They were headed slowly more or less in the direction of the shelter.
You know, the encounter bothered me in some obscure fashion, I didn’t know exactly why. I mean I know why it should have bothered me, but if I’m going to be honest here, well, it wasn’t that.
I thought about it all afternoon.
Until it occurred to me that it’s no longer possible to easily distinguish the supposed sane from the supposedly insane. It seems these days that we’re all talking to invisible people.
And maybe that’s the whole problem.
Afterword: It's a true story, it happened to me today, but it's also a metaphor for larger things. It may be the most subtle piece I've written in a long time. I'm well pleased with it // JIm