|Through the homeless shelter came an endless parade of personalities, characters that were often so outlandish and unique that I knew no novelist could invent them.
Take the man I’ll refer to as J. His appearance alone is noteworthy. He’d earned the nickname “Walrus” due to his size, lack of waist and egg-shaped body, pasty white skin, and Fu Manchu mustache. It would have been easy to imagine him on a rocky ledge overlooking frothy white ocean water, basking in the sun, and grunting loudly.
His personality though made him larger than life. I heard him before I ever met him. I sat at my computer slaving over assessments from a previous class when he stepped inside the open doorway to our office, hidden by a cubicle wall, to give another instructor a hard time. I ignored the interruption, as I learned to do, but part of my brain listened in.
Ah ha, so this is where you hide when you’re not in class.
Yes J, this is where I hide. It was Don, a tall middle-aged instructor well liked and respected by clients.
And hard at work…not!
Of course, I’m always hard at work.
That’s what you want them to think. He was apparently referring to our supervisors.
I remember the interaction because it would become commonplace, a normal, almost expected event at the end of the workday, with only minor variations of the dialogue. Later though, after our introduction, I'd be included.
Don, I see you’re hard at work, wink, wink. Like Matt in the back corner.
You know it J.
Ha! Hard at sleep maybe! You can fool them but you can’t fool me.
Delusion, a false belief resistant to reason or facts, is a widespread characteristic worldwide. We all have them, certainly, but nowhere are they more obvious or disruptive than at the shelter. And J had his share.
In his eyes he was a real lady killer, a slayer of all women that dare to cross his path. I was aware of his delusion because I’d received reports from a certain femme fatale, a dame that worked in our department, about his constant flirting. He’d explained to her often that she was lucky to have a boyfriend because if she didn’t, she’d be his. He declared himself to her as the gold medalist of flirting. He could out-flirt the dimwits around him, us included.
So by the time he walked into my class on a bright and shining Monday morning, I was well aware of his idiosyncrasies. I’d also been given notice by a supervisor to pay close attention to his hygiene as case workers and career counselors had complained of his greasy hair, halitosis, and body odor.
He sat down in the front row near the whiteboard. He wore gray or light blue slacks that hung a few inches above his pasty ankles and a thin white collared shirt that exposed rivulets of his pallid, massive belly between the buttons. Like many of the others he objected to the requirement of attending the two week course, but his opposition came meekly. He was polite about it.
Because he too had been put on notice; his behavior, and his hygiene and appearance would be strictly assessed by the instructor, by me, by the the guy feared by many, for it was rumored that failing my class meant expulsion from the facility. The rumor was of course wrong, but each new class meant reassuring clients that not passing didn’t mean eviction to the streets. If that had been the case, no one would have failed.
J gave me no resistance. Although he brought his strange brand of negative humor, he posed few problems. He did as was requested. Resume, cover letter, thank you letter, with required changes to each. The feedback I provided to improve his hygiene and interview skills was well received. He seemed open to change and he did what I needed him to do. Everything except, well, stay awake through an entire morning. For this high offense I could have removed him from the class, but I didn’t.
As I write though I think about the morning he hurried through the glass door apologizing for being several minutes late from the allotted 15 minute break.
Now, have you ever seen anyone walk out of a bathroom with toilet paper clinging from the sole of their shoe? It is a rare sight.
J didn’t have one. Instead, he was being trailed by a white line of toilet paper hanging from his waist down the back of his pants.
That was just J though, lady killer extraordinaire, and one of the most memorable characters I met at the shelter.