Monday, February 13, 2012

Wrapped in Plastic

Monday had been my pastoral day off for many years.  Though many pastorly types take off Friday, I never quite understood that.  On Friday, the sermon still gnaws at your brain, and Sunday's busyness looms.   On Monday, you're spent from Sunday, particularly if you're an introvert and every last social synapse has overheated and is in system shutdown.

Now that I'm a part-timer, though, Mondays are often busy as I spread my sabbath through the week.  Today includes not just the ever inescapable Tribble-like piles of laundry, but also a Presbytery committee meeting, orthodontist appointments for both boys, and a drum lesson.

Once the boys were fed and watered and off to school, this morning also involved service on a recall for my aging Honda minivan, so that the airbag impeller in the steering wheel would not send shards of metal into my head when it went off.  While that might be useful in stopping zombie carjackers, it's otherwise not one of those features you want in a family vehicle.

The dealership is nine minutes and three point one miles away by car, but as the morning was free-ish and I needed the exercise, I decided to walk back.   And so I hoofed it, the bright sharpness of a February morning on my face, the half-moon still hanging in the brightening morning sky.  Whenever I walk, I'm reminded of the inhuman scale of the 'burbs, how structured they are for car and van and 'ute, but not for the creatures that actually live in them.

Part of that reminder is the near total absence of other human beings.  There are plenty of metal boxes whizzing by on the road, but almost no bipedal hominids in evidence.  My return walk...two point seven miles and forty five minutes, as I cut through neighborhoods and through a park...involved encountering exactly two other human beings.

One was an elderly Asian gentleman moving slowly along the sidewalk, slightly rough around the edges.  As I approached him, he let out a percussive belch, and my greeting only stirred a sidelong glance as he shuffled past.

The other was Plastic Man.  He's homeless, and a recurring feature in the area where I live.  I've passed him dozens of times as I've driven the roads around Falls Church and Annandale.  He wears an outfit that is wholly made of plastic bags.  Coat.  Jacket.  Hat.  Pants.  All garbage bags and duct tape.

He moved in the direction that I moved, as we both walked by the stores in a decaying, half-abandoned strip mall.  He walked slowly, uncertainly, with the self-doubting, ever-pausing drift that comes with mental illness.   Coming near, I saw how neatly the bags were taped together, and that even the pack on his back was entirely made of Hefty-sourced plastic.  It was incongruously precise, every seam sealed, evidently created with care and a peculiar sort of survival craftmanship.

I passed him walking briskly, and as I passed, I wished him a good morning.

From within the plastic, a grizzled half-shaven face showed surprise, and as I made eye contact, his struggled to focus from behind thick glasses, momentarily blinded by the bright morning sun behind me.   He made a gutteral sound, as if trying out a voice that didn't see much use and finding it wasn't working well, and then looked away.

When the time came to return to pick up the hopefully less-lethal van, I returned on my ancient, rusted, much battered and well-used mountain bike.  It was a far swifter ride back, just a tick over 10 minutes.   With the cold reddening my face, I cycled through the seedy strip mall.

Plastic Man still stood just a dozen yards from where I'd passed him.

He watched me approach, and I met his eyes, smiled, and gave him a nod.   He nodded in recognition, and smiled back as I passed.

It really is good to get out of the car now and again.