Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Backpacker

Several years ago on a nice mild New York spring evening I was waiting outside a small off Broadway theatre where a series of short plays by gay and lesbian playwrights were being presented when I was suddenly approached by a middle aged man. The first thing I noticed was the very large backpack that he was carrying and his rather disheveled appearance. “Excuse me I don’t want you to think me forward, but I was wondering since you seem interested in theatre would you perhaps be interested in going to see some plays with me in the future? Now don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not gay hell I’m not even bi-sexual, but you look interesting and I thought that you might be open to this idea of mine.” I was taken aback by this offer, I mean I should be used to weird encounters, since I’m a native New Yorker, but this one really took the cake. I didn’t know what to say at first, but the guy seemed sane, and as we got talking I started to take a liking to him. He seemed intelligent and was very knowledgeable about theatre and plays among other things. “I’ve been going to theatre in New York since I was a teenager, and I’ve seen so many plays that I’ve lost count. I have a huge collection of playbills and programs that I have carefully organized according to the year I saw them, and keep them all neatly filed away. Some of my favorite ones I have framed, and others are mounted on a nice room divider that I keep in one of my spare bedrooms. I didn’t know what to say, but I gave him my name and number and told him to call me and if there is something that we can both agree on seeing then why not. “Oh that would be great” he said as we made our way into the tiny lobby, as his large backpack knocked several people in the face. “Maybe we can have a cup of coffee after the performance; I know a nice place not far from here, so much nicer than Starbucks?” “Sure why not” I answered, as I tried to avoid his menacing backpack. Our seats were not near each other, but we met up in the lobby during the intermission and he still had his backpack on, which I thought odd. “Do you ever take your backpack off” “Oh sure, but I never know when I might need something in it.” After the show I decided that I didn’t really want a coffee and made my way to subway back to Brooklyn. I had totally forgotten about this rather strange man, when a week or so later my phone rang and it was him. “Hello Ira Joel this is Ben, remember we met at the gay plays a few weeks ago” “Oh sure right of course how are you Ben?” “I’m real good, Ira Joel and I have a list of plays here that maybe you might be interested in seeing with me.” I hesitated, and Ben reiterated that he wasn’t gay, that he was just looking for someone to go to the theatre with.” “Ok Ben shoot what’s on.” After he finished reading his list I told him, which shows interested me, and that he should go ahead and get the tickets. “Oh that’s just swell, how great, I mean this is wonderful, I’ll get back to you when I have news of the tickets.” As soon as I hung up I regretted my decision to get involved with this odd guy with the huge backpack, but it was too late to back out of it. The following week Ben called me to tell me had tickets for the show that we both agreed on and that we could maybe meet a few hours earlier and have a bite to eat. “I know a real nice cheap Italian place not far from the theatre, how’s that sit with you. “It’s sits well with me Ben, and I will meet you at the restaurant.” I was a little early and as I waited in front of the restaurant I saw Ben slowly walking towards me, a bit stooped over, and as he got closer, I saw that he had the backpack. “Isn’t that heavy for you to be carrying all over the place?” “No not at all, one never knows when one might need something” “But it’s so big, where are you going to put it? “Well I can sit it on an empty chair in the restaurant and I’ll check it when we get to the theatre“. Luckily the waiter showed us to a table for four so that Ben was able to put his backpack on the chair next to him. As we looked over the menu I asked him what he carries around with him in that bag? Oh you know stuff, a fold-up chair, notebooks, you know just stuff.” A fold up chair? I thought. This guy is strange indeed, and what have I gotten myself into? As we were leaving the restaurant I picked up the bag, and I thought I would break my back. “My God Ben this weighs a ton, this can’t be good for your back.” “Oh it’s fine.” The evening with him was pleasant enough and I saw him several times after that. Besides going to theatre I took Ben to several museums and once again he had that damn backpack with him. I just could not understand his reasoning for carrying that heavy thing everywhere he went, until one evening over dinner he told me his story and I suddenly understood his carrying of his backpack everywhere he went.

Ben’s story

I was born in Queens and studied accounting in college, where I met my future wife. We were pretty happy for a while there, but soon after our son Joshua was born Miriam started to act strange. She didn’t take to Joshua, and I found myself caring for him most of the time. Miriam would not breast feed him and even refused to hold him. We went to a marriage counselor but he didn’t help much, and Miriam went deeper into her self and her depression became worse and worse. Finally one day I came home from the office and there was a note from her waiting on the kitchen table. “I’ve left. Joshua is next door. Miriam.” Just like that, hello and goodbye, nice knowing you. From that day on I took care of Joshua myself. I hired women to watch over him while I was at work, but on the weekends I would carry him on my back everywhere. I took him to the park, to nursery school everywhere. I carried him all over on my back and loved the feel of him, the weight of him so close to me. I loved smelling him, and his baby breath on my neck. Finally he became too big for me to carry him around on my back. We were very close. I lived my life for my son. But as he got older, he became difficult, he was angry and sullen all the time. He had very few friends and he would fight with them until they stopped being his friend. He started to get into trouble at school. As he got older the problems got worse and worse. He started to steal, and take drugs. I had to have him put away because he became violent with me. He once came at me with a knife and I had to call the police. His mother was now where to be found. We became strangers with each other, estranged lost and bitter. I have not seen Joshua who is now in his late 20’s for several years, and there is a big hole in my life because I no longer have my son with me.


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