“Act like we’re friends and pretend we’re having a conversation.”
“What?” I ask. I know what he said. “What?” is my way of processing it. I watch his scraggly gray beard rustle under the dim white light as he repeats himself.
“Act like…we’re friends…and pretend we’re having a conversation.”
The possum convulsing on his face is mesmerizing in a way, like watching the static dance on a broken TV screen. He’s wearing a hairy wool coat that smells as though it’s been doused in alcohol and rotting yogurt. If “live and active cultures” thrive in edible yogurt, then his coat must be where they go to die. And tights. He’s also wearing tights.
“Come on,” he mutters anxiously. “Or they’ll throw me out again.” His bugged-out eyes stop spinning and now fix on me like I’m a fly ready to be lapped up. I’m sitting on a hard black bench in the Rochester NY Greyhound Station, waiting for a bus home to New York City. To my right is a deranged homeless man. His firm and steady gaze has me thanking some benevolent force out there for the arm rests dividing these seats.
My eyes dart around the faint yellow interior of the station, trying to find anything else to focus on. They spring towards the plastic wall clock mounted across from me. 7:04 P.M. Two hours until the bus arrives. They blink out a futile S.O.S. towards onlookers attempting to look busy. Finally, my eyes land on the sketchpad in my lap. On it is a crude drawing of the man staring at me. My hand creeps over it in a not-so-subtle attempt to cover it up.
I shouldn’t have drawn him. Everyone else had the common sense to avert their gaze. Why do I feel the need to preserve these peculiar images?
He picks at a loose thread in his checkered neon green and black tights never taking his eyes off me. This is my punishment for staring.
“Here, I’ll start the conversation,” he kindly offers. “HOW ARE YOU DOING TODAY, MY FRIEND?”
The “fr-” in his “friend” catapults a light mist of sour dribble onto my cheek.
Ignore him. Ignore him.
“PRETTY COLD OUT, ISN’T IT?”
He’s looking around at everyone in the station for approval as if to say, “Look how well I can impersonate a sane person!”
His crooked brown fingernails slither in and out of the holes in his tights, violating every orifice. Suddenly, a stout station agent waddles by. My savior.
“Sir!” he pipes. “We’ve already let you eat your dinner in here. If you don’t leave, I’m gonna hafta call the police!”
“HEY! I’M JUST SITTING HERE TALKING TO MY FRIEND…what’s your name?”
Pick an alias. Something cool like Rick or Sergio.
“Marx?” he says.
“No,” I correct him. “Max.”
“YEAH, I’M JUST TALKING TO MY BUDDY MAX,” he slurs at the station agent, swinging his head back for a second to wink at me. “IS THAT A CRIME? YOU CAN’T KICK ME OUT!”
The station agent shakes his head and walks away. The Man in the Neon Green Tights breathes an audible sigh of relief. Rum fumes and the faint scent of Cool Ranch Doritos tickle my nostrils.
“You some kind of Korean?” The Man in the Neon Green Tights inquires.
Don’t answer his questions. He’ll walk away eventually.
His ghastly blue eyes dig into me.
“Chinese, huh? CHINESE?” His face turns even redder than it is and he begins to cackle maniacally because he’s in on a joke no one else is. A panicked woman nearby quietly tiptoes out of her seat, firmly ushering her two kids ahead. The other people in the station follow suit. There’s a ring of empty seats around the two of us now.
“Whew…” The Man in the Neon Green Tights says, wiping a tear from his eye. “But really, the Chinese are good people. I’m a war vet, I should know!”
I nod because how else do you reply to something like that?
“And that’s why I’ve come to you, my friend. Listen, I need a favor.”
This is the curse of the overactive dreamers who find themselves trapped on the edges of public benches. The curious ones who happen upon muses in SkyMall catalogues and moldy bread. The planners who draw potential stories from Subway ads and online forum posts and homeless men in the Greyhound Bus Station. When The Man in the Neon Green Tights extended his twitching hand for me to shake, I didn’t immediately think, “Where is my hand sanitizer?” I thought, “Where did those scars come from? Where did you come from?”
I always find sparks of creativity in the most inconvenient places. To me, discovering ideas is like frog-catching. Once an image has my attention, I have to grasp onto it firmly, lest its slimy form slip away. Ideas are fleeting and quick to escape. If a homeless veteran who raided a Goodwill from the 80s happens to drift into my line of view, I don’t let his image leap out from my hands.
The first frog I caught was in my 7th grade science class. The teacher, Mr. Ford, was an inspiration to me. Not in the sense that he taught me to love science or to “be a better person”. Mr. Ford just looked a little funny and acted a little quirky. Appearance-wise, he was Steve Urkel from Family Matters if Steve Urkel grew each of his appendages out an extra two feet. Horn rimmed glasses engulfed his thin face and a wrinkled button-up draped his gangly frame. The lanky man was about 6’4” but stood hunched at 5’7” with his swamp green tie dangling like a snake from his neck. The greatest things about Mr. Ford, however, were his pockets.
In his gray slacks, Mr. Ford carried pens, pencils, markers, rulers, protractors, and rolled-up test papers. That was just his left pocket. In his right pocket, he literally carried the whole world. One day, a student asked him where in the world a certain country – maybe Bosnia – was. Rather than pull down the world map from the front of the classroom, Mr. Ford reached his enormous hands into the black hole he called his pocket, fumbled around, and recovered an inflatable globe. In a single, sputtering breath, Mr. Ford breathed life into the world and observed its surface.
“I believe it’s somewhere in Southeast Europe.”
From this instance alone, I had the premise for my new comic, “Fordd Destroys the World” (I added the extra “d” because I was afraid of being sued). I pulled out a sheet of loose-leaf and began drawing boxes. The comic was a powerful, introspective look at the lives of unsuspecting Earthlings seconds before the great colossus Fordd would deflate the Earth with his giant hands. On my desk was the story of the greatest imaginable threat to our world. Standing in the middle of this dinky classroom was the ordinary man who inspired it.
This is the curse of the overactive dreamers who would later find themselves in trouble with offended science teachers.
“What?” I ask. This time, “What?” is my curiosity getting the better of me. Logic and experience tell me he’s most likely looking for some cash. My imagination, however, wants me to believe the favor he’s asking for is something different. It wants to hear a story as colorful as his tights and as peculiar as his various odors. Maybe The Man in the Neon Green Tights is recruiting me to help seek vengeance on the gang who killed his wife.
“I need a favor,” he begins.
This is it, Max. The beginning of a whirlwind adventure. The whole reason you started drawing him, you crazy bastard.
Maybe he’s collecting parts for a time machine and he needs my help finding the last one.
“Been stuck in this station for the past week and I’m trying to get home. I just need 12 dollars and I can buy my ticket home.”
Maybe he just wants money.
“Sorry, I don’t have cash on me.” This is a lie. I have two singles in my wallet and I want to buy a $1.75 Sprite from the vending machine. I’ve heard every variation of the “just trying to get home” story back in the city and I won’t fall for it here.
Then I look at him. I look at his pale wild eyes and his mangy beard. I glance at his ripped neon green and black checkered tights and the faded black KISS sweatshirt under his stinky yogurt coat. I think of all the possible stories he’s provided me and how maybe this isn’t a curse after all. Maybe off-putting exchanges like these are a small price to pay for any frog worth catching.
He looks at me, eyes shooting back and forth between my face and the smartphone I’m clutching.
“I know you have cash, man.”
With a sigh, I pull out the two dollars from my wallet and hand it to him.
He chuckles and says, “God bless you, Koreans.” My muse staggers away but I won’t let him slip from my grasp. Quickly, I open up the Notes app on my phone and type in “homeless man collecting spare parts for time machine to go back to 80s. Green tights.” I have an idea.