By Watts Dixon
Illustration by Stephen Haynes
He’d been walking around the shop for 15 minutes or so, silently taking everything in. Occasionally he’d stop and examine a particular bike … squeezing a brake or running a hand across the tread of a tire … staring fixedly at a fork crown … or absently at a disc rotor. Finally, he approached the counter and with an upward nod toward the monitor I was staring at said, “Hey, man … You got internet on that computer?”
Ronald has been coming into the shop for at least five years. Well over 6 feet tall and solid in ways other people are soft, he’s an imposing figure and a bit of a neighborhood fixture, with a slow, easy drawl of a walk gently propelling him to what seems every corner of the city. I remember the first time he walked into the shop. We were having an event—a customer appreciation party of sorts, with free beer and pizza—and when the door opened and a large, disheveled African-American man stepped slowly in, there was a collective murmur of unease among the middle-aged white patrons, in their own ways as uptight as they were “liberal.” To look at Ronald, you can tell there is something off, with a glaze to his wide eyes and an elusive distinction to his face indicative of some form of obvious developmental delay. When he looks at you, there is no reading his expression or intent, and therein lies a part of his discomfiting nature. When he asks a question and you answer, there’s no indication that he’s heard you, and it’s only sometimes, when his follow-up question follows a discernible sequence, that you realize he has. And while he comes in with some frequency, he’s never a nuisance. He walks around, checks everything out, asks a question or two and then leaves, never failing to get the hint if we’re busy.
There have been other characters in the past who were not as easy. “Cash-Money” with his drunken staggering, impromptu tai chi, and dropped and shattered 40-ounce bottles. “Tall Alan,” with his body odor and the unmodulated volume of his increasingly agitated voice and hyperawareness of and insistence on aggressively engaging female customers and employees. “Lumbering John,” with his Coke-bottle glasses and distressing skin condition. A bus would let John out right in front of the shop and, seeking refuge from the heat, he would usually walk straight inside. Some of it is my own fault for having a “lounge” area. A welcoming nook made for customers and patrons waiting on a bike repair, or an easy place to sit and go over the details of a custom build. Some of it is my inability to say no and for having bought a few Popsicle-stick crafts that John made during project time at the group home he lived in. John’s inability to read body language, lack of understanding of personal space, and dogged persistence in refusing to take no for an answer could be . . . taxing. Especially so when he had a seizure on the floor of the shop one afternoon. Or when he arrived early one morning and banged and pulled on the doors for close to an hour before finally shuffling off.
Ronald wasn’t that way. And sometimes we’d talk for a bit about childhood. About growing up riding bikes. He’d repeat stories about the “milk bike” he’d had as a child, and ask if we had anything like that. His “off” was gentle and surprisingly lucid.
“Yeah, man . . . There’s internet on this computer.”
A barely perceptible nod on his part, and then silence. After a moment or two: “Are you able to find people on the internet?”
“Hmm . . .Yeah? You can look people up on the internet,” thinking he meant a celebrity or public figure of some sort.
“Can you look up [a woman’s name]?”
A long pause and then . . . “Sure” . . . knowing the results would be beyond ambiguous, but obliging him for reasons that were a mystery. When nothing matched what he was looking for, he asked if I could look her up on my Facebook account.
“Man,” I said, lying. “We’re not allowed to use this computer for Facebook.”
Another barely perceptible nod and a long silence. And then . . .
“Hey, man, you ever do one of those Craigslist things? Like tell someone you’re trying to find them?”
“You mean a Missed Connection?”
“Yeah, man. You ever do that? Can you do one of those for me?”
“Dude,” shaking my head in negation. “We can’t do that.”
Then leaning back and more silence. Then a sigh. “Man . . . you ever . . . see somebody? Somebody you ain’t see’d in a real long time? And it gets you thinkin’? Gets you thinkin’ about all the stuff that might have happened? All the stuff that could’ve been? Like . . . in your whole life?”
Dumbfounded, I replied, “Yeah, I know all about that.”
“I just . . . keep thinking . . . You know?”
“Yeah . . . I do know.”
After a long moment, I pulled Craigslist up on the computer . . . “Hey, Ronald . . . What do you want it to say?”