A WHITE FIGURE 8
It’s around noon and I’ve just sat down to dive into my work at PublicUs in the downtown district of Las Vegas. I can never study in total silence. I think too many thoughts at once and background noise helps drown out the voices. A man sits down in front of me digging through his things looking for a thick marker, but since he can’t find one he asks me if I have one. Actually, I’m constantly buying art supplies I never use (a symptom of my bipolar disorder), so I run out to my car and return a few minutes later with a thick art marker. I’ll always donate to the cause of art. This man shows signs of mental illness, and I can tell he probably gets people following him around a lot “checking in” with the people he interacts with, in case he’s bothering them. I understand their concern, but I tell the man who’s walked up to me to check in that it’s okay, that he isn’t bothering me. I don’t sympathize, since I myself have had a long history of mental health issues. Our interaction feels more like camaraderie.
My companion sits in front of me making jewelry out of random trinkets. He has an art box in the shape of a very large Lego. Red. He also has some kind of gemstone that’s cut nicely. “This is from my mother. I guess I should keep it with me huh? It is mother after all.” He said this as he pressed it to his palm and closed his other hand on top. Before he put it back into his Lego, he pressed it quickly against his chest.
Throughout our conversation there is a lot of muttering about various family members. Some I’m not sure are actually family, or if maybe he considers and refers to friends as family. He mentions a son, and then mentions a daughter half way through the conversation.
Midway on, a clear little glass box appears, accented by gold around the edges. My friend tells me it’s from his grandmother. He then starts to pull things out of his Lego box, placing them in between of us. It was a show and tell of colored pencils, pots of watercolor paint, matchbooks, cigarette butts (his boyfriend’s), and trinkets. Sometimes he’d say, “Oh this is yours!” And place an item closer to me (“How did it get in here I wonder?”), just to snatch it back a few minutes later (“Oh wait this is mine”). I really wanted to know how he knew certain things were mine. People (in general) tend to place strangers into imaginary worlds the moment we see them. “They look like the kind of person who would do this and wear that. They probably like to…” It’s automatic for us to create worlds for others. I think it’s a defense mechanism against the unknown, or loneliness. Maybe it was something a little like that. Or maybe I just really look like a matchbook collector.
The moment I remember best was when my friend pulled out a light pink paint pot and placed it in the center of everything. He had been naming all the colors of the paint pots, and this one he proclaimed, “White!” And immediately put it back. The rest of the colors he named correctly. (Or maybe we’re all wrong and pink is white and white is pink.) [… We could be wrong.] Pink was white to him in any event, and no other logic really matters. His hands bore the distinctive look of an artist. He is obviously someone who deals in fidgeting and rummaging and splattered paints. Graphite dusted his palms and was crammed under his fingernails. I smiled to myself; hands that show personality are fun and easy to love.
My companion had on a very flattering tan shirt with red stripes. He told me he wants to be a hairdresser and that he was 50 years old. Actually, he doesn’t look this age at all. Though his face did look aged, his stature was that of a 25 year old man. If I had to guess, I wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint.
The artist muttered under his breath quite a lot. A trait I can relate to. I wonder if the people around him daily are dismissive by now; tired of making an effort with someone who keeps talking while not being privy to who he’s talking to. He’s talking to you, maybe, but with the air of getting his story out — just in case you forgot; in case you never met him again; in case he forgot; in case the world ends at 9:23pm tonight, Eastern Standard Time.
Our friend pulls out a book from his bag and shows it to me when I ask what it is. Its cover is long gone, and has probably been pulled from a library bin sale. He lets me take a picture so I can remember what it was. (I wonder if the highlights are his?)
“Oh look at me, I’m acting like my sister. She got locked up in the loony bin.” I blink in reply. “Ah well, I need to get my life together.” He says this as he puts everything back into the Lego for the… I lost count. At this point I know everything in the box. (Though more paint pot colors kept coming out every time and I wondered how many more there were.) I smiled at him, “I think we all need to get our lives together.” We really do.
I gestured towards my things laid out in front of me, “I need to study, though I’m glad to meet you.” “Oh! Of course! Thank you for the marker, you’ve made my day. I like you. I like you a lot. You get it.” I know what he means. Our conversation was invigorating. He gets it too. He shakes my hand, and exits the shop to have a cigarette. Before he leaves he places in front of me a little piece of shrub that’s been ripped from its parent (probably a whim while passing by the plant in question), and a tiny number 8 refrigerator magnet with no magnet left in it.
It was white.