I was walking one day recently in the old-fashioned downtown area of one of these cute central Virginia towns, just taking a pleasant stroll, and I remember being fairly hypnotized by a great locomotive passing by more or less parallel to the sidewalk I was traveling on. It was pulling innumerable faded black and yellow freight bins that were beautiful in a way, and I marveled at how the chain of industrial boxes seemed to stretch on semi-forever. They had the responsible clean markings of the companies and plenty of unauthorized graffiti also. It was like a hobo Berlin Wall mega-tramping through the land.
But the containers finally ran out and when they did my ears picked up on another heavy though more organic sound. I traced it to a tall lean old man standing across on a street corner about two blocks down. He was speaking to no one in particular, maybe preaching. The man appeared to have made of himself a cardboard and prophet sandwich, as he wore a stiff dress fashioned out of two pieces of brown board held together at the tops by a long cut of sturdy red twine threaded through four holes and knotted. There were neatly printed messages in bold black ink on front and back.
As I moved closer I realized he was probably blind since he wore dark glasses and a white cane was standing against the big blue mailbox near the curb. I sidled up further and took position against the brick façade of the post office.
He was reciting what sounded like poetry in a deep southern accent, one I fancied could have been forged in Biloxi, Mississippi or Alvarado, Texas or some such far down place. Though his manner of speech might have indicated a charming old black man, he was white, while the inflectional flourishes seemed somehow to belong to a bygone era, like the 1920s or 30s I imagined. The man appeared undernourished, definitely on the skinny side. He was bald in front and up top but elsewhere sported longish hair, with strands of silvery white from the head’s upper back and high sides dancing intermittently in the breeze, sweeping back and forth across his shiny pate and briefly standing, as if in salute, before lying limply back down. He had at least several days’ worth of same-colored facial hair.
The front of his sign read: THE 1990s DID NOT INAUGURATE THE END OF HISTORY, DUH, DUH, DUH. WATCH AND SEE.
The man turned in slow circles, and I soon glimpsed the words on back: OUR DAY AND AGE IS BETTER CONCEIVED OF AS: STILL PRETTY CLOSE TO THE BEGINNING OF HUMAN HISTORY, WHILE CIVILIZATION IS NOT EVEN PUBESCENT YET. JUST WATCH, OVER THE NEXT TEN THOUSAND YEARS OR SO, AND SEE.
By now I was beginning to appreciate that this particular man was unlike many of his counterparts in that he did not intend to announce, or otherwise commentate on, any kind of Armageddon or pending catastrophe. He was not, so to speak, your stereotypical sidewalk wacko.