The man walked inside my exhibit tent, wearing an old T-shirt, tattered cargo shorts, running shoes, and a pair of mismatched socks. He was about 30 years old, average build, and quiet. I said, “Good morning” to him and a few others who began congregating in the booth. Everyone responded appropriately, except for the man who now stood close to one of my paintings, craning his neck and squinting his eyes as if undergoing an inspection. I couldn’t help but notice his mismatched socks that had peculiar designs. From where I stood it was hard to make them out, so I sat down in my chair and discreetly leaned forward to get a better look. We were now two men simultaneously inspecting each other’s property—one possibly intrigued by the sweet fruits of creativity or just killing time, the other by socks.
Bicycles. Each sock had a different bicycle design repeated on them. The athlete in me looked at his calves. They were developed, like they had endured plenty of pedaling. Having a past of eating up the miles racing road bikes, I asked him, “Excuse me, but road or trail?”
He looked down at his socks, “Road,” he said. “All road.”
“Do you race?” I asked.
“Hardly. I ride to work,” he said, then returned to his quiet self that I took as being rather uninviting.
Behind him was a small table displaying my children’s books. A middle-aged woman stood nearby. “Would you sign one to my mother? She collects books like these.”
“Of course,” I said. “I’d be happy to.” I personalized her book, and took care of a couple of print sales as well.
After everyone had left, the man turned his attention to the books, then walked over and began flipping through the pages of Unexpected Tails. “Your work is really clever,” he said. “It’s very New Yorker…cerebral. These situations in which you depict wildlife—unusual, yet conveyed so well. And the humor…I just love the humor.”
His demeanor seemed average, like the type of person at a party whom I might avoid because I knew there wasn’t going to be much to talk about. But this man suddenly lit a spark. His word selection and literary reference just didn’t seem to match who I thought I was talking to. Yet who was I talking to? Who had I made him to be? Not that educated was perhaps my first judgement. But there was so much more to come. This man was not only about to shut down my shallow, all-knowing conclusions, but lead me down a path unfolding some telltale signs of his life that were…well…may I say, indicatively beautiful.
I was curious about his biking as well as intellect. Funny how quickly the tables turn. One moment you’ve passed him as an average Joe, and the next you don’t want Joe to leave.
“So, you bike to work,” I said. “Is that difficult in San Antonio? I mean so many cars.”
“Not at all. I take a scenic route. No better way to travel.”
“And good exercise,” I said.
“Oh, so much more than that. I’m not encased in a car. I’m outside and listening to all the birds. Nothing like the sound of birds in the morning.”
I would have been completely content had this been the only person I’d encountered at the show. I could never have made a single sale, and I would’ve gone home a far wealthier man than when I began that day. Not a dime in my pocket to show for a single sale, yet my pocket would be stuffed. This man was an observer who saw the pieces of the whole. And it was the want of his curiosity that not only fulfilled him, but had drawn me in as his audience of one.
So we talked about birds. He said he found it interesting how such a foreign language intrigues us. “We have general ideas about their communication, but we don’t know if they speak with inflection.” Now he had my mind going… Is there something going on between the chirps, like nuances of expression? Is there dialogue? Are there two birds out there arguing over who did a half-ass job constructing the nest? Riding his bike into a cool breeze on his way to work was one thing. Add an endless series of musical trees along his way, and it was all he could ask for.
“So, where do you ride to?” I asked. “Where do you work?”
“And what do you do there?”
Without hesitation, he smiled and said, “I clean up after the animals. I clean up their poop.”
“That’s your job? Like that’s what you do?”
I wasn’t getting the full story. And I wasn’t about to let his intellectual insight and mismatched socks just walk away from me to remember him as that guy who swept up poop. I knew I was two questions away from tapping into what really made him tick. It’s not easy getting personal with someone you’ve only known for ten minutes, but…what the hell…
“Okay,” I said. “I have to admit, you have me very intrigued. You’re smart, you’re educated, and you see the world in a way that most people don’t. You’re not just an observer, but rather someone who dives into what he’s seeing. You get into it. But this zoo job of yours…I mean that’s what you do…I get that…but why? I mean what about ambition?”
For the first time, there was a pause in his answer. He lightly bounced his head as if conceding, Okay, you win.
“The job—it’s all about my mother,” he said. “She’s ill, and can’t really take care of herself. So I looked for a job that was easy, outside, and close by with flexible hours. No, it’s not a dream job, but it works. I’m able to give her a lot of attention.”
As if that wasn’t enough for me to praise the guy, he then went on to address my second question…
“Ambition? I’m pretty familiar with it. I have a double-degree from Boston University in psychology and biology. I plan to move up as a specialist animal caretaker. This current job is just a stepping stone. It generates just enough money to keep me afloat for tending to mom.”
He looked at one of my framed originals titled, Fear Of Heights, which depicts a lioness sheepishly looking upwards as she walks through the legs of a large group of giraffes.
“You know,” he said, “There’s so much behavior in animals. And so I share a lot of my knowledge with the people visiting the zoo. I see the caretakers in their uniforms, but I don’t see them engaging with the public and educating them, like going out of their way to talk to the folks. You can only imagine what I must look like, walking up to them with a poop collector in one hand, a broom in the other, and then telling them about ostrich mating habits. Understandably, they’re not quite sure what to make of me, but I think that all quickly fades as they can tell I know my shit.”
We both laughed as he concluded, “Well, you know.”
Soon after that, our conversation ended. He purchased a few note cards, then we shook hands as I wished him well. I told him I’d try to make a trip to the zoo so that he could give me his inside animal information tour.
And who knows, if I leave early enough, I just might find him on his bike commuting to work. He certainly will be easy to spot—the man smiling as he pedals, and listening to the music in the trees.
Copyright Ros Hill 2017