Thursday, September 20, 2012

Wanted: Town Character

Barney and Andy had to deal with Otis, the town drunk, but they did so with neighborly kindness.

I miss Santa

I don’t mean the guy who busts into your house and brings you a few things from your Wish List each December.

The Santa I miss certainly had a white beard, dressed in red and had a pointy red cap.

He also walked the streets of my town all summer long, in shorts with red and white striped socks, while also making appearances at just about any public event that took place here. He cut quite the figure at the Lions Club bingo tent at the local carnival and his red hat could be seen popping out of the crowd at a school concert. Someone started a Facebook page dedicated to him.

But as quickly and randomly as the man everyone in town called Santa arrived, he also disappeared.

And no one I know seems to know where Santa went.

I miss Santa.

Santa was the latest in a not-very-long line of people you could best describe as Town Characters. I say it’s not a long line, because Santa’s predecessors held their titles for an awful long time. And it always seems when one went away, another magically showed up. It was as if somewhere, unknown to the rest of the world, there was a job board for Town Characters and it announced when and where there were openings.

We have an opening now in my town.

Every town and city has not just the local “characters” but people who are consistently there – in the background, on the street corners. What movies get wrong with extras is having different people in the backgrounds; they should have the same people there in the background, just like they often are in everyday life. Some are indeed characters, others might have drinking issues that label them so tactlessly as the town drunk. Others might be people with physical or mental disabilities that put them on a different path than most. But they are there, always there and part of the community, too.

When I lived in Des Moines, there were three: I called them Running Man, who was often seen running down the street in jeans and long-sleeved shirts; Waving Man, who stood on street corners and waved at everyone who drove by; and Box Man, who wandered the city always carrying a box.

On a recent trip back to Des Moines, I was pleased to see that Waving Man is still there, waving away at those who drive by. Many of my friends refer to him as “Mr. Happy,” and also delight in seeing him day in and day out.

Box Man wasn’t so much a character, it turns out, as a man with a mission. A friend of mine saw him at a baseball game and chatted with him. Turns out Box Man spent a lot of his spare time in search of cans and bottles, taking advantage of Iowa’s 5-cent deposit law. He made as much as $3,000 a year, just returning cans and bottles. My friend wanted to write a story about him; Box Man didn’t want the IRS on his case and politely declined.

Sometimes all it takes is a conversation with the Town Characters and you might find out there is a story there. I bumped into Santa at a garage sale and found out he had been an antiques dealer, and he was able to point out to the garage sale host that the candlesticks she was selling were more valuable than the dollar she was asking for. He also told the story of needing a heart operation a few years back and how upset he was that the doctors were going to have to trim his beard.

“I need the beard,” he said he told his doctors. “The kids call me Santa.” But alas, they shaved the beard anyway. It grew back and Santa was back in business.

It’s probably easier to be a Town Character in a small town, particularly one such as mine that sort of welcomes eccentrics more than many other small towns.

But it’s not a special tolerance that likely makes a small town a better place for those who walk a different path; it’s just that in the small town, we might know who these people are and what their stories are.

I thought of this the other day as I was out for a morning walk. I encountered Benny, who I often see walking the streets and roads of my town. Benny’s not that much older than me, and I believe he was seriously injured in a car accident years ago when I lived away. He’s not a town character so much as a recognizable figure to anyone who lives here.

On the bike path, Benny came toward me flashing a cross and saying, repeatedly, “She said see me in heaven. She said see me in heaven.”

In a bigger city or another place, I might have been a little afraid and avoided him. Instead, I looked closer at the cross Benny showed me, made from twigs glued to a piece of metal. He turned it over, and there was a thermometer.

Benny pointed to the sky. “She said see me in heaven,” he said, shook my hand and waved as he walked away.

Benny’s just a guy around town, looking forward to seeing someone someday in heaven. For now, I’m looking forward to meeting the next Town Character, whoever he or she may be.

And in this town, it’s a pretty good gig. You might even get your own Facebook page.