On the price of a smile and a wave
How a man on the side of the road adds value to the world every morning
In Washington DC, I have a different running path for different moods. If I feel energized and keen to indulge my ego around passersby who could care less about my pride in my running speed, I will run between Dupont Circle and Logan Circle, taking in the scene in each posh neighborhood. If I feel contemplative or melancholy, I will run down Embassy Row, where I see more statues than living, breathing humans, and can think amidst my 2000s hip hop.
During my contemplative runs, I always pass a certain gentleman. If decades from now I am asked to recall who I remember seeing the most during the pandemic, aside from my wife, he is increasingly a contender for that memory.
This man is a bit of an enigma. He is always dressed in a black suit. Poorly fitting but not disheveled. A boombox sits at his feet, sometimes playing loud music, but on this particular morning, quietly keeping him silent company. He is always in the grass strip between the road and the sidewalk. Far enough from the grand adjacent building to be considered loitering or causing a disturbance, but close enough to be inextricably linked with the very same building.
Commuting vehicles swoosh by, one by one. He waves. He smiles. He hollers "Good morning!", just a mouthing to the drivers but clear enough for them to hear him with their eyes. Every time I see him, he's saying hello, lifting spirits.
As I run by him, I wave, as well. Though we have never spoken other than a brief exchange of pleasantries, I almost feel like he could be an uncle. Our skin tones aren't dissimilar. If we spoke, he would address me as "Young man…"
If he was cast in a 1990s mass-production film, that smile would have been accentuated with animated radiance and high-pitched sound.
I wonder. Who is adding real value to the world? As commuters swoosh by, to desk jobs or errands, I wonder about the automaton nature of the everyday. In contemporary society, we send emails, we write documents, we make calls.
But he is different. This man just waves. He just smiles. He just purely, unprejudiced, just wants you to be happy.
Amidst a pandemic no less, with so many people lonely, so many people grieving, so many lost, who doesn't need it?
Yet he is the outcast. He stands on the grass. He has a suit but no job. My mind swirls between The Matrix wondering if the commuters are living in a senseless simulation, to Dostoevsky's Idiot who was derided for appreciating the wonders of everyday life even though we all know deep down that's what matters, to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
In a world where many measure success by bank accounts and prosperity by gross domestic product - yet deep down we all admit the search we are on for purpose and human connection - I wonder about the price of a wave and a smile.