Man at the Park

October 21, 2008

Assumptions are dangerous. That maxim was drilled into me years ago as a newbie journalist. But I’m not writing a news story. I’m speculating about a man at the school park up the street. He was sitting at a table, alone, surrounded by squealing kids and watchful parents. My son, Atticus, was playing nearby on the slide.

The guy looked wayward, homeless even, but orderly — lush gray beard, weathered face, stocking cap pulled to his brow, clean jeans, stuffed duffel bag, and a few items that I couldn’t make out next to the bag. On the table was a blue hard-cover notebook. Printed on the cover and spine was “Hewlett Packard.” The notebook made me think of the one I had at Intel for personnel documents.

Maybe he was passing through the neighborhood and decided to take a break. Or maybe he’s an HP engineer who was reviewing plans for a big project while soaking up the wonders of a crisp and clear fall afternoon. I wanted him to open the notebook and write in it. Or shuffle away under the weight of his belongings. But he stared ahead, stoic and squinting against the late-day sun.

Though I tried to be discreet, he might have been thinking, “Who’s that asshole looking at me?”

My melodramatic side prefers to attach poignancy or tragedy to the stranger: he was awash in memories at the sounds of kids with a soccer ball, or broken by the loss of love, or stumped by a fall from grace that he didn’t see coming but could have prevented.

I could have greeted him and struck up a conversation to clear up the mystery. A subtle interview. Now, hours later, I wonder if he’s still at the table, unsure where to head next, peering wide-eyed into the dark.