I never knew him by any other name than that which I called him, “Daisy-twirling Man.” I saw him nearly every day of my working life walking the sidewalks within my delivery route. He was always afoot, distinctive with his pigeon-toed gait, his hand extended at arm's length, holding a flower, spinning it constantly. When Daisy-twirling Man was waiting for a light to change so he could cross the street he would rock back and forth in place, front to back, still spinning the flower.
He was tall with long, bushy reddish-blond hair and a matching beard, and every six months or so he would appear clean-shaven with his hair cut close to the scalp. Then the cycle repeated itself and after a couple of months he would again become hairy. I thought he might live in a group home, or with parents who would finally get tired of his hair and beard and cut them off. Underneath the hair and behind the beard he was a nice-looking man, even if it was obvious he had some condition that kept him from being “normal.” He looked to be my age, and as part of my workday for over 30 years he was such a familiar person in the area that when I described him, doing my imitation of his rocking and twirling motions, people would usually say, “I’ve seen that guy!”
I never knew Daisy-twirling Man’s story. There are people like him, everywhere. There is something wrong with their brains, maybe from injury, disease, or accident of birth. They’re people sometimes called the walking wounded; ambulatory, but obviously not all there mentally.
When I’d see him his mouth was usually moving, and because I was out of earshot I assumed he was probably babbling incoherently. I thought it was what my mother’s doctor called Mom’s dementia-speak: “word salad.”
A few weeks ago I was in a thrift store within the area of my old route, looking at used books. I heard a man speaking. When I looked up Daisy-twirling Man was standing in the next aisle, also looking at books. I saw he was in his cleaned-up state, with a buzz haircut and no beard. He was rocking back and forth with a book in his hand, talking to himself. He was saying things like, “Now this is interesting,” and then he’d read a sentence or two out loud, so I knew he could read, and well. I watched him out of the corner of my eye for about five minutes and it was obvious he was carrying on a conversation with a person I couldn’t see or hear. He was saying, “The author claims…” and then he went into a short description of the first months of the Civil War, giving a history lesson. My three decades assumption that he was babbling was shot down. There was nothing wrong with his speech or the way he constructed sentences. It was just that he was carrying on a conversation with a person who did not exist. The conversation wasn’t contentious, although he did correct the party he was speaking with a couple of times, based on some point that person had apparently raised.
When I left I had a new appreciation for Daisy-twirling Man. I had always seen people he was walking toward give him a wide berth, as if such a benign individual was dangerous rather than just odd or afflicted. I felt almost happy to see him talking to someone, anyone, even if the person was invisible. I thought how convenient it would be to have someone always there off whom one could bounce ideas, or just pass the time of day. In that way Daisy-twirling Man, who had always been on his own for all the years I saw him out walking, was actually strolling with a friend.