Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Man with the Brown Cigarettes

Living in a small-ish town has its benefits - shorter lines at the movie theater, very short commutes to work, and the comfort of continuity. It also affords the opportunity to see the same people over and over again on a regular basis - which can be a positive thing, or a negative, depending on whether you mind stopping to talk to people in the grocery store. Pullman was a small town, and often times, you knew of nearly everyone's business - but the town was just large enough so that you didn't know everyone's name or where they lived or worked. You pretty much knew if someone was a farmer, or if they worked for the university, or what business they owned in town. But there were a few people that you saw on a regular basis who didn't fit the mold of any one occupation, and they kept you wondering.

I worked at the newly-opened Serv-a-Burger during the summer of 1987, leading up to my freshman year at WSU in my attempt to raise enough money for fall tuition, which I remember as being $933 a semester back then. Serv-a-Burger was located in what is now Tam's Place, a family restaurant where most locals have eaten a breakfast or two over the years. Behind the counter at Serv-a-Burger, I served up burgers and fishwiches, milkshakes and onion rings to a mixture of summer students, WSU staff and locals who came through each day, calling out "number 34, your order is ready" over the loudspeaker, and doing my best to keep the cooks from serving up beef patties that had fallen to the floor after a bad flip of the spatula.

Of all of the customers who came through the door that summer, I remember one man in particular. He came in every day at about the same time, would walk up to the counter and say, "coffee," without a smile or an inflection of his voice, no additional chit-chat, no comments about the nice weather we were having, just a barely audible, "coffee". I'd seen this man before, but unlike most other people in town, he was a mystery to me because I'd never heard a story about him, didn't know where he lived, and didn't know anyone that knew him. What I did know of him was that he walked everywhere he went - with his head slightly bent to the ground as if he didn't want anyone to look him in the eye, and slowly, with a steady pace, his hands in his pockets and a book tucked between his arm and his side. His face was always the same too - expressionless - and somewhat sad, so that I imagined him without any friends or anyone to talk to. It made me wonder where he worked, because surely, no one would hire a person if they didn't have anything to say and were so quiet. I became convinced that he worked for the university because he didn't own a business in town and no farmer would be walking around town every day in the summer, but what sort of job did he have at the university that would allow him to be so introverted and how on earth did he get through the interview?

He was probably in his 40's and wore some sort of muted polyester pants with a button-down shirt that always had a front pocket. In that pocket he carried a pack of long cigarettes - the kind that were wrapped in brown tobacco paper - I'd never seen anyone smoke cigarettes in brown tobacco paper, which made me wonder about him even more. The only word I ever heard this man say was, "coffee", and even that word didn't come out with any flair or interest. After a few weeks of his patronage, we learned that he wanted his coffee black and didn't want anything else to accompany it - no fries, no banana split, just the coffee. I imagined him being from the East Coast, where people tend to be less sociable and don't look anyone in the eye - but maybe he was just painfully shy. While he didn't seem like a mean man, I wondered how happy he was, not thinking that I could do anything about it except to have his coffee ready each day without asking him if he wanted "fries to go with that". He always paid in cash, so I never saw a check from the man that entire summer and never learned his name, or where he lived.

I saw him a few years ago when I was in town. Still walking, still wearing polyester and a button-down shirt, with a book under his arm and a pack of long brown cigarettes sticking out of his shirt pocket. I guess I'll never know what he does for a living or where he lives in town, but I have him to thank for reminding me that Pullman wasn't too small of a town, because there were still a few people that I didn't know. Here's to you, man with the brown cigarettes - I hope you're a happy man. - Jana