Thursday, January 05, 2012


I’m sitting at the top of the Micheltorena stairs with my smart phone in my hand, thumbing through text messages and emails. Down the stairs I see, near the spot where the family of raccoons likes to cross, a man standing, looking toward the embankment where I know an orange tabby cat often climbs. He is talking to himself. When I say this, I don’t mean I can hear him or that he is muttering under his breath. I mean, he is talking to himself with his hands. Not sign language exactly, more like pointing fingers, fluttering hands, swooshing arms. I am overhearing, none-the-less, a conversation. Yet, similar to someone speaking quietly at a distance, I can’t make out the meaning. I can’t tell if the orange tabby is his audience or if he is talking to the trees.

I don’t want to startle him, or worse, appear to be eaves dropping, although that is precisely what I’m doing, so I clear my throat and fake cough. Then it occurs to me that he can’t hear me one way or the other, so I lift my hand and scratch my head, find some invisible cobweb to brush away from my face, scooch a little from one side of the step to the other, hoping to be caught in his sight line.

He sees me (likely thinks I’m crazy) and returns his attention to the trees, painting the air, shaping things unseen.

Eventually, he turns and starts up the stairs, stopping a few steps from me. His round weather worn face is home to soft eyes and a sweet smile, with cheeks that pull into a kind, if not mischievous, grin.

I quickly wave and offer a half smile, the kind of wave and smile that are more farewell than hello. But he stops and starts to talk to me. With a flurry of fingers, he points down the stairs and asks, I think, what I’ve seen down there. I say, “I’ve seen the orange tabby. And a skunk. And a family of raccoons and a coyote, once.” I look at him to see if I’ve guessed his question correctly. He just smiles and spreads his arms wide. “You went flying?” I ask. He doesn’t answer. Duh, bird, I think, but feel too awkward to offer. More gestures, more flapping, more tapping. His mouth makes small shapes, definitely not syllables or sounds.

When he points across the street, puts his palms together, and lays his head on his hands, I say triumphantly, “Sleep! Yes! I sleep over there!” He smiles again, not confirming or denying my guess. A few seconds later I say out of nowhere, “It’s nice to meet you!” He smiles back. More digits dancing. More guesses. More smiles offering me encouragement for my attempts. He seems to expect nothing more than I try to understand. And I do try, drawing on the bit of sign language I learned in high school, and charades, and the deep belief that we are meant to meet strangers on the stairs and have some kind of human connection no matter what makes us different.

I finally stop guessing and just smile back. He walks up the few steps between us and, as he passes me, pats my shoulder. I reach up and pat his hand back.

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