By William J. Furney
Proof that humans are creatures of habit is on display most mornings in a cafe below my apartment building. As I warm up for an hour-long, fasted run, I pass the place — an Italian run by a lame, chain-smoking man with long, brown, curly hair and reading glasses who wears a dissatisfied look — and spy one of the regulars positioning himself into his usual space in the outdoor area by a street full of belching diesel vans, delivery trucks and empty buses. Breakfast of toxins, anyone?
Like a child in kindergarten, the regular, who is clean-cut with a buzzcut and looks like he’s in his early 40s, takes the same chair at the same table every morning he comes for breakfast; that’s most days of the week. He parks his light-grey Mini with a bright-yellow circle on the tyres across the street and makes a beeline for his cherished spot. He hopes with a feverish desperation, I am sure, that no one will have taken his place.
Over the last several months, I have developed a fascination with this man’s unwavering routine. He dresses in shorts and a t-shirt and today his shirt is a light pink. Many men, I see, are now decked out in all hues of pink, and it’s not just because of the Barbie movie. (Real men wear pink and it’s viewed as masculine and even “warlike”, due to being a more palatable version of bloody red, according to various men’s style and other publications I looked up.)
This morning, like all others, this breakfasting man spreads a newspaper out on the table and starts ravenously devouring its content while waiting for his order to arrive. It is, unsurprisingly in a European eatery, coffee and croissant.
This man’s early morning rigidity is curious but hardly surprising. What does he think might happen if he sat elsewhere in the cafe? Why does he prefer that spot? Would he not like to add some variety to his life by, at least, sitting elsewhere? What if his favoured position was taken? And why do I even care?
Then my mind somersaults more than a decade back to my former home on the heavenly Indonesian island of Bali, and dining with my family at our favourite beachside restaurant, Tekor Bali in Seminyak. Monochrome slaves to eternal habit, we sat in the same place, in the same chairs, each time we visited. Because there’s overarching comfort in the familiar and the routine.
But how dull.
On this morning, on the other side of the world, as I was exiting my building for my run, I also spied one of the main maintenance men — a portly and mildly friendly figure who is usually and languidly cleaning the outdoor floors on one of those machines you sit on and that has a steering wheel and who one day soon might be out of that job due to robots merrily doing it instead. Is there any need for him to do the laborious task when a machine can?
He is sitting, somewhat sheepishly, at a table at a Chinese restaurant and chomping on a sandwich while simultaneously smoking a cigarette. I have often seen him puffing away while riding his cleaning contraption, which is powered by batteries, as I’ve seen it plugged in.
I say good morning and jog on, until I come to another early morning regular: cheery man with little dog. I sidestep to avoid his tiny creature and say good morning as he returns the greeting and beams a big smile. He, an elderly man who may be German, doesn’t know it but he’s my neighbour. In the sweltering afternoons I look directly down from my window and see him lying on a sunbed that’s under a triangular piece of material, protecting him from the blistering summer sun, while reading a book or scrolling his phone. He has no idea how much I know about his languorous life.
As you’d expect at this time of day, many other people are out walking their dogs. Two other such preambulatory creatures are elderly women with equally miniscule dogs and who are decidedly unfriendly, scowling rather than smiling and never uttering a word as I approach and zip pass.
On BBC Radio 4 the other day, an American professor of relationships spoke at length about how seemingly meaningless encounters with people can have a big impact on your day. They are, she said, “peripheral friendships” that might only amount to a nod or a smile or even a daring “hello” as you pass someone you often see. Even to look at a person you don’t exactly know can provide reassurance and a connection that reaffirms our collective humanity, she suggested. It’s especially important for the growing number of people who live alone, particularly the elderly, and crave any kind of company, however fleeting.
And then one morning, on another run, one of the grumpy women with her dog sidestepped me as I ran through the phalanx of restaurants that fringe my boxy building. Her craggy face creaked into an incandescent smile as she pulled her mutt out of the way to make way for me and uttered some kind of timid greeting. She lives, it turns out, in my building and could even be my next-door neighbour.
Each morning an elegant woman of a certain age alights from an old, black sports car and is dressed in high heels and a classic black dress that stops just below her knees; she is not looking for breakfast nor is she, despite appearances, going to an office. Instead, she heads for a laundry in the bowels of the building where she will spend the day washing other people’s clothes (5KG wash and dry for €11).
As I turn a corner and run down the street, I spy smoking beggar man with hat. Every morning without fail, he is at his spot, sitting at a bus stop and waiting for the kindness of passing strangers to manifest itself. Only it seldom, if ever, does. He is not wearing his hat but places it on the ground in front of him; it’s almost always devoid of coins or notes. He smokes while he waits for gifts that never come.
As does beggar in bandages. I’m sure he has worn the same grey shirt and shorts for years. I’ve encountered him in shops trying to buy things but instead was shooed out by staff. He has a perpetual dirty-white bandage wrapped around his right lower leg. He shuffles and holds out an expectant hand as people pass. He has long, straggly hair and is caked in dirt. One morning as I run near him, I snap a photo with my phone and later blow up the image to examine his face: one eye appears almost closed, and he is a wreck. Some mornings I run alongside him, as he often appears at this time, wondering where he is headed. I never find out. I want to help him and contact a local church asking about shelters.
Surprisingly, at this breakfast hour, many more peculiar folk abound, a kind of mirror image of witching hour. There’s the neighbour with a neck so crooked that his head hangs by his shoulder as he walks his dog. There’s the man in his ever-flowery shirt as he also does his early perambulation with his best friend. And there’s sporty guy in headphones and barely there shorts walking a twin set of dogs, a trio of man and mutts enjoying their constitutional before the world goes mad.
As I approach the entrance of my building at the end of one run, I encounter a woman in a flowing blue dress who I haven’t seen before. She’s standing before the intercom and its row of buttons, not pressing any. I offer to let her in, and she thanks me.
“You’re out here running every day,” she says with a smile and seemingly waiting for something — a reply at least.
“Yes,” I say, and she waits, for more.
But there is no more, so I move on and she moves in.
- Title photograph by William J. Furney.