My neighbourhood library has individual seats that line up at a long shared table which face those sitting there to a glass exterior wall letting us look out onto the street. It’s a busy street and a busier library. The seats are usually all taken by the time that I arrive at 10:03am, three minutes after opening time, to do my work. Whenever I do get a seat and take my place at the window, it’s sometimes hard to get work done because I’m addicted to people watching. My insatiable curiosity always gets the better of me and instead of getting that article written or that talk finished, I end up dreamily watching the fascinating people of my neighbourhood walk by and this leads me down trails of imagined stories about their lives.
Nearly every time I’m there a scruffy, dishevelled but kind looking old man walks up to the window and stares at the people sitting there facing the street. First he will smile at us. If he gets no reaction then he will stick his tongue out at us. If we still unflinchingly and stubbornly refuse to acknowledge him, he will pull faces at each person testing us as to who will look up first.
It’s always weird and wonderful at this time of the day in the library. We who sit inside furiously tapping away at our computers, planning our already way too driven lives barely noticing one another see this man, this clown, as a distraction. Some people make a bit of a “tsk” sound in the quietness of the library space. We all hear it. Others sigh, wishing him away in their thoughts. Some people look up, give him a little wave barely raising their hand above their sides, and a faint smile, hoping this will satisfy him and make it go away.
I always find all of this amusing. Why is he pulling faces at us? Does he simply want people to notice him? Is he lonely? Maybe he believes in the power of humour to bring a community together. He is on a mission to unite our neighbourhood with all its subcultures living together in tension, and create closer community perhaps? Is this attributing to him an altruism that is not there? Or maybe he is an artist. He does not know why he does what he does and we the interpreters are free to wonder what his intention is.
I must admit, when I sometimes walk past the library and see all those people lined up sitting there working intensely perhaps on how to solve the world’s problems, I too am tempted to knock at the window and say “Lighten up”. Maybe this street jester pulling faces at the window is spreading this message; “Relax. It’s not that important. Look up, Engage with your surroundings”.
What this jester of the streets does often make me think about however, is the way that I am prone to disconnecting from my surroundings, that I forget to look up and notice the person right before me who might bring me a gift of joy, laughter or even sadness that day. That person might teach me something about my humanity, his humanity, her loneliness or the need that I could meet in them.
My neighbourhood today is going through change yet again, slogans are being manufactured about our community in order to try and weave our neighbourhood together in the midst of challenging times. Sometimes I grieve at the change that is occurring, other times I have hope. I mean progress is a good thing right? That’s what they keep telling us. We have been promised a slicker, sleeker and more contemporary neighbourhood after the work is done. But I worry that in the same way a middle-aged women nervously gets a face-lift when feeling anxious about ageing, my neighbourhood will also look plastic, artificial and that real people will be sidelined in favour of an “updated” society.
So I’m glad for this jester, this provocateur of the streets who reminds me to stay grounded in this place. I’m glad he provokes a “tsk” from people, I’m thankful that he refuses to go away and he takes opportunities to confront people where they can’t avoid him. I’m grateful he makes me laugh and in a most unexpected way, brings this “community in progress” together.
May there be more people who pull faces at us in library windows to remind us of our shared humanity.