A while back I wrote a column about people I see every day but who remain perfect strangers to me. I mentioned the people I see while jogging, the ones I meet in the elevator at work, those on the subway in the morning and the man in the neighborhood who walks around and puts trash in a plastic bag. Is he a good citizen or a nut? I asked.
Now I know.
After that column was printed, I got calls from a number of people telling me who they were. I also got a call from the wife of the man who picks up trash. She was furious. She said I had held her husband up to ridicule and explained that he had suffered a massive heart attack and walked around the neighborhood as a form of exercise. As long as he was walking, she said, he decided he might as well do something useful, and so he picked up trash. I keep using the word "said" to describe what she told me, but it's the wrong verb. "Yell" is more like it.
I felt awful. I didn't mean to ridicule the man. He easily could have been left out of the column. He was only one sentence. I didn't need to mention him at all, and I did so without much thought.
Once again, I was reminded of how the slightest mention in the press is like getting a glancing blow from a freight train -- how people who are not used to seeing their names in print attach incredible importance to the fact that someone mentioned them in the newspaper. Even now when I see my own name mentioned, I get a rush to the heart and the desire to tell everyone I meet that what was written was not true -- not the whole truth anyway . . . lacking nuance . . . not the way I meant it. It's rough when you lose control of your image and rougher still when your image of yourself does not conform to what you see in print.
Anyway, for some time I ducked the man who picks uptrash. If I saw him on the street, I'd either cross to the other side or hang back and wait until he was gone. I wasn't sure he would recognize me -- even if he had read the column -- but I took no chances. I didn't want a confrontation, didn't want to have to explain myself and, frankly, didn't think I could. I wanted my anonymity -- wanted it, I suppose, as much as the man who picks up the trash wants his.
Then about two weeks ago, my German shepherd, Max The Wonder Dog, got sick. Once again, he lived up to his name. He had worms, an ear infection, prostrate trouble and God knows what else. The vet probably took one look at Max and called his stockbroker. I took one look at Max and reached for my checkbook. I gave my son a check to take to the vet. He lost it on the street.
Let me tell you about that check. I wrote in no amount. That's because I didn't know what the bill would be. Let me tell you something else. It wasn't made out to anyone, either. That's because I was rushing out of the house and couldn't remember the name of the vet. And let me tell you one other thing. I had signed the check.
I called the bank in a rush and asked to stop payment on the check. What's the amount? the clerk asked. No amount, I told her. Hmmm. Who's it made out to? It's made out to no one, I told her. Hmmm. What's the number on the check? I looked at my checkbook. I'm not sure, I told her. A "stop payment" would not do, she said. I needed an "alert." I shifted into high anxiety.
All day I worried about that check. I imagined the worst -- someone looting my account. I went home and all through dinner I brooded about that check. Then the doorbell rang. I got up and went to the door. Through the glass I could see it was the man who picks up trash. I hesitated. What was he doing here? Then I saw he was holding my check.
"This is yours, Mr. Cohen," he said. I didn't know what to say. I was afraid he would bring up the column. "I found it on the street," he said, handing me my check. "Do you remember? You wrote a column about me." I nodded and asked about his health. He said he was fine and then, as if he remembered the question I had asked about him -- good citizen or a nut? -- he said, "You see, every once in a while I find something valuable."
And every once in a while, so do I.