Betty Duffy

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Nutty Professor

I don’t know. Maybe I’m not a very good driver. I’ve never had a speeding ticket, but I keep finding myself driving around town at night without my headlights. And, I’ve had a few near misses. There was the thing with the dog, and today I nearly ran over an old man on a bike.

I could attempt to relieve myself of culpability by pointing out that this man is sort of eccentric, the kind of guy who might be a nutty professor, or a member of the homeless gentry. He wears round spectacles and hangs out at the library near the circulation desk so that he can talk to whoever comes through to check out books. He looks at the books in your stack, and strikes up a dialogue, or a monologue actually, because he’s the resident expert on absolutely everything. I have spoken with him in the past on organic beekeeping, “The Fighting Sullivans,” and Alice McDermott.

In any case, I need to say that the reason I almost ran over him is because he was reading a book…while riding a bicycle. Indeed, if he had been manning the larger vehicle, he would have run over me.

These days, it’s not so uncommon to see people walking around looking down at their blackberries while they push their groceries out to the car. My husband spends a lot of time in airports and he says that almost everyone you see now spends their wait texting or reading on a smartphone. But not that long ago, to see someone reading anything while doing something else was the exception.

I had a weird friend in high school who used to insist that she was capable of reading a book while driving. She played viola too—not while driving—but that tells you the kind of person she was—absolutely discontent with the mainstream. I never actually saw her read and drive. I really think she just said so in order to make people uncomfortable.

A friend of ours in our old neighborhood could every-so-often be seen walking the sidewalks for fresh air with his nose buried in a book. I remember very specifically calling my husband to my window to say, “Check out Bob. He’s reading while walking.”

“It appears that he is.” And we watched him until he had passed by our house.

I like reading as much as the next person, but reading while walking, riding a bike, driving…it’s sort of weird, I think. I could very easily turn this post into a diatribe on people walking, driving and biking while using their personal electronic devices, but it’s almost too obvious. Put the suckers down. It’s the old man that’s on my mind, anyway. Having spared him his life this afternoon, I saw him this evening in sort of an unexpected place.

In a small town, people stand out. I drive through the same intersections each day, several times a day, and after awhile you begin to take note of people’s habits and way of living. Some people are more obvious than others.

There is a three way intersection where one road Ts with another, and right on top of that T is sort of a ramshackle house where a group of hecklers regularly gathers on the front porch. They are all men with longish hair and sunburned skin. One of them has no legs. They sit out there at all hours of the day with coolers of Nat-lite and red soda pop and yell at the people passing by, saying things like, “You call that a *@%#-ing stop?!” They make kissy faces to the women, or say things that only they can hear and then explode in uproarious laughter.

At this intersection, I tend to avoid eye contact, or pretend I’m engaged in an index finger debate with the other drivers at the intersection over who has the right of way.

Today when I passed by, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, something out of sync with the scene. Up on the porch, along with the peanut gallery, was the bike-riding reader. He sat there with his legs crossed one over the other and his palms pressed together under his chin. He appeared to be talking about something in his typically serious mode, and the long-haired men sat around him, almost—though not quite—looking sober.

You never know what brings people together. Maybe it was the booze that made the nutty professor nutty, and maybe it’s the booze that has lured him up onto the peanut gallery porch. Or maybe, when a man in round spectacles strikes up a conversation with you about whatever the hell is on his mind that day, it is just really hard to not to listen. In any case, his gray hair and pale skin made him look like sort of an angel up there amongst all that hair. And for the first time ever, when passing that house, I have wondered what the porch sitters had to say.


Jamie said...

My husband had a friend in college who read while driving. They went on, like, a 16-hour drive together. He did not complain when this guy read at the wheel. {boggle}

I think about that guy sometimes still. I wonder occasionally if I could pull it off, because I am spending too much time driving. Mostly I wonder if he is dead, because lordy that sounds like a bad idea.

Young Mom said...

I've always said that the day I figure out how to exercise while reading is the day I start exercising.

Emily J. said...

It's not all that hard to read at red lights.

BettyDuffy said...

I was going to call you out, Emily, for reading while (fill-in-blank), but I thought you might get mad.

eaucoin said...

Well, if I go that way (while reading), people would certainly say that I died doing what I love (perhaps that's what he was going for--if he likes riding a bike and reading, he might have died doing everything he loves).

Suburbanbanshee said...

Reading while walking isn't difficult if you have good peripheral vision and balance. (And no tendencies to carsickness.) It combines the pleasures of a journey and a good book, while adding an element of pleasant difficulty. What's not to like?

However, given how uncomfortable other people get with it, I find that audiobooks on an mp3 player are a more socially acceptable way of combining reading with walking (or exercising, for that matter).