He Is With Us Always
There is a man I don’t by any means know. I see him most days, ambling around in his dusky beige overalls, carrying a rake, say, wheeling a wheelbarrow, sometimes with a green cloth strapped over his mouth to prevent, I must assume, the dust and sundry stuffs that are the workaday hazards of his job from marring his health. Hard to estimate his age – men like that, men ostensibly at the bottom of the ladder of employ, men who work hand-by-mouth – well, they may look to be in their late forties when they are just tippling over thirty. Beneath his scrawny sandals his scrawny brown feet, bedraggled and callused no doubt. I might have said that he sported the kind of beard, long, pointy, black and screwy, one comes to associate with some kind of stereotype of tribal fashion – but there is very little sportive about the chap, his situation, that is. That’s what I might have supposed, anyway.
Because there is something, this inkling I can’t help but feel emitted from his aura after the interface of our chance meetings now and then, something almost choric about him. As though he were somehow a seat of wisdom, ambling around in his dusky beige overalls, a beast of proverbial burden unnoticed by all but those who must give him directions for his toil. He isn’t blind, of course, but each time I wave to him my hale-fellow-well-met he waves back, and the impression I nearly always have is one of chirpiness, almost – as though he’d an insight into things that soared with limpid grace among the birds that also flit, making small spirals in the sky. It’s as if his burly labor, day by day, has left him wholly unscathed; as if he were a prince in a pauper’s drab clothing. And perhaps after all he might be. The freest man among us, on this campus of bright peach and cool stone. Perhaps the man who really has nothing, and thus nothing to lose, perhaps he is the closest of all of us to achieving some sense of sustained happiness. I like to think of him as my talisman, a lucky-charm and a wiseacre, say, watching over me, and the rest of us too, as we bask in the shallower waters of merely mental labor in this university in the desert.
He’s not always alone of course. Sometimes, later in the day, I might see him strolling that dusky gait of his partnered by a chum. Sometimes I see him actually pairing up with another worker to orchestrate some duty that needs more than two hands and two feet. But always this placidity emitted from his whole form, bent-backed, knock-kneed, what have you. Always this lake-like aura of gold. Spent, no doubt, by his toiling business, he lacks the wherewithal I’d guess to trouble himself with the trivialities the rest of us, far better off in the material sense, take for mountains or whales of import. By being harried so, driven by the gusts of chance and penury, somehow he seems to my privileged eye to have lifted-off from the mealy earth, because, as I say, there is a birdy-ness about the man, such a lightsome stoop, such a smile, such a benignant smile. It’s as if the scraggy shape of his six feet of body have melted somehow, by some arcane mystery, into airiness, into spirit. I can’t say I admire him, because that would be to claim some kind of knowledge, of which I’ve none. Only – and yes, I think this is right – that I admire myself most of all when I watch him or greet him gently of a morning. Because the two of us are usually the first two at work on campus, I walking towards my office building, he, busy weeding, say, or shearing the apple-green grass, or piling small grey pyramids of dead leaves into big black bin-bags – while the bulk of the staff of blue-dressed custodians and white-shirted detail for security are only just arriving by minibus to start their day, or to take over from the nightshift, when that is warranted.
I must imagine that he is not married and has no children. I must imagine that because to imagine otherwise would hurt. Would it be absurd then to say that over the last two years, never once exchanging a word with the man, that I have grown to love something about him? Or, perhaps to make it clearer, something about myself when spurred by my regard of him? A simple explanation might be that he offers me, this deeply indigent man, a feeling of safety. That he exists in my line of vision to let me know that were I to fall from the heights of my too-privileged berth in this suffering world, that even then I might find the grace somehow to be happy. It’s a nice thought; a comfort.
Meanwhile, I must get on. The wife hollers for me to stop my doodling, scribbling my lot of fanciful fare, and to get on with what is due. And so she should, it’s her right. But, my friend, my unknown friend, if you are indeed listening, watching, show a kind eye, a girding, kind eye. We have a baby on the way after all, our first.
Dr. Omar Sabbagh