Londoners cherish cloudless days as if they were summer flings. We treat them with care and do our best to enjoy each fleeting moment. Last Sunday was gorgeous, so I claimed a bench in a favourite local park – a green patch wedged between two café-filled streets – and cracked open a book.
A man was sitting on the bench across from me. He wore a leather vest and a T-shirt with the word “squirrel” emblazoned onto the front. We sat there for a while, me reading, him grinning, both of us enjoying the sunny afternoon. Then he started talking.
At first it was occasional outbursts of commentary, directed at everyone and no one in particular, about TV adverts, politics, the weather, old films that he enjoyed. But then they became more frequent – and funny. His conspiratorial comments on the free food samples being handed out around the park were brilliant.
A young father passed by, holding up both of his infant daughter’s arms as she walked ahead. “Now that’s a real father! Good Dad right there!,” Bench Man said, pointing at the two. By this point, I was used to the afternoon being narrated and those of us who occupied the area long enough began to laugh. He did, in fact, seem to be a good father. No harm in pointing it out.
Cities need eccentrics like this. I don’t mean the superficially strange, the self-consciously offbeat, those who cultivate odd habits such as mismatched socks or strapping a wristwatch, à la Gianni Agnelli, over a perfectly tailored French cuff. No, not sprezzatura. I mean the genuine oddballs, the characters and cranks who maintain their own completely unique views of ‘normal’ public behaviour.
A man from Hackney, the east London neighbourhood, strolls around with a massive ginger cat on his head. Salvador Dali walked lobsters on a leash. One of my favourites is Joe Gould, the late Harvard-educated bohemian who, for decades, claimed to be writing a massive history of the world, composed of all the conversations he had heard in his life. After he died it was revealed that his masterpiece didn’t exist. But Joe was a character and had helped define New York’s Greenwich Village in the era.
All cities have such citizens who defy the norm, and though they may not fit neatly, they’re essential parts of the city’s social fabric.
I became so lost in thoughts of Gould and New York, where I grew up, that I somehow didn’t notice my new friend sneak off. A clean-cut 20-something plucked from the pages of a Ralph Lauren catalogue occupied the spot now. He yawned and chugged a bottle of water and folded up his Brompton bike. Everyone went about his or her business, reading, cycling, lounging.
And that’s fine. The flow of the city goes on, uninterrupted. But I missed Bench Man. What was his name? What was it about his interjection into public life? What other quiet city scenes would he interrupt with his observations? And could I tag along?