It was my last night in San Diego when I saw “the man in motion.”
I was walking to supper east along Ash Street, a downtown street mostly empty after quitting time; the people who work in the office towers had already merged their cars with the traffic streams draining downtown.
I glanced down a side street and saw the man a baseball pitch away. He shuffled and waved his arms about, talking with someone only he could see. His body jerked with sudden movements. A bony wrist shot out of his cuff when he gestured; he wouldn’t have weighed 120 pounds.
He was a black man of vague age dressed in black shirt, black pants and a black baseball cap turned backwards. His dark clothes were consistent with those of the homeless men I’d seen here. Their clothes seem dark, whether by choice or from dirt of the street—maybe both. You see them in the distance—dark figures drifting languidly across the scene, invisible spirits people pretend not to see.
But the man in motion was anything but languid; he buzzed with misdirected energy. His clothes, though dark and a bit shabby, appeared recently laundered. Breaking the black theme, his sneakers shined brightly white. I couldn’t help but notice that. The white shoes described his foot trajectories like reflectors on bicycle spokes.
He glanced in my direction. I turned my gaze frontward and hurried on, not wanting an encounter with a panhandler.
I had come to San Diego for the Rock and Roll Marathon, a race famous for its glamour and noise, its Hollywood-like atmosphere. You feel like you ought to make a pilgrimage to it. By most measures I ran well, clocking 3:15 to earn second place in my age division. This was in 2003, before I entered the 65-69 age group.
A highlight came in mile 25 when I was beginning to struggle. I passed Frank Shorter going the opposite way! Amid all the hoopla, the only American man to ever win an Olympic gold medal in the marathon was out for a casual morning jog. Astonished, I turned and yelled to another runner, “That’s Frank Shorter.” But the race had tken my voice. The runner didn’t understand, or maybe he didn’t know who Shorter was.
My race was successful and memorable, but I discovered that the street life was equally interesting. I stayed a couple of extra days to look around.
Now on my way to get supper, I hurried down Ash Street, leaving the man in motion behind, shuffling, flapping and jerking, talking to spirits. I had walked along this same street two hours before daylight on race morning, dressed in my running clothes then. The distance to Balboa Park, where the race started, was two miles. The street was dark and lonely at that time of morning. I saw only one person then. At a parking lot where homeless men sleep, a man stood on the curb urinating in the street.
On this last evening, I went into Caparelli’s, a neighborhood bar and restaurant on the fringe of downtown. It faces First Avenue, just off Ash Street. It was my customary place to eat. The salads and spaghetti were good, and those had been what I needed before the race. I needed the same food still, to recover from the race. The patrons were all local—and not many of them, at that. No tourists at all—save for one: me. My waitress was a high school girl in a tight sweater top.
I sat in a booth and looked through a wide window at the traffic on the street outside. The cars headed north, out of town on the one-way street. But the rush was over now; traffic was light. Directly across First Avenue set Mixon Deli and Market, a convenience store. Customers came and went at the store. I watched as I ate.
A car stopped on the curb in front of the restaurant. I was vaguely aware that someone got out of the car. A two-and-a-half foot tall man entered the restaurant. He walked to a table where two men sat—he was barely as tall as the table. After a loud conversation making arrangements of some sort, he left, and the car pulled away. I wanted to see how he could operate the car, but my view was obstructed. Did the car have hand controls like a motorcycle? Does he drive standing in the seat? I don’t know.
After the short man left, the man in motion appeared. He stood on the walk in front of the store, still jerking, flapping and talking to the wind. The white shoes flashed. He had energy. But he didn’t have anything else, any visible possessions. Most homeless men carry some belongings, if nothing more than a dirty blanket across their shoulder.
I finished my supper and watched a vignette unfold in front of Mixon Market. The man in motion yacked, and shuffled, bony hands flapping. My waitress came. She seemed to know people in the neighborhood.
“What about the man in black, do you know him?” I asked. She studied him through the window a second.
“I thought maybe he was a local character,” I said.
“Nope. Never saw him before.”
She wasn’t interested.
A sedan stopped on the curb in front of the store. A tall black man with a shaved head got out. His clothes looked expensive, professional at the least. He was big. He could’ve played linebacker for the Chargers. He talked across the car to the man in motion a bit. Then he walked around the car and stood towering over the little man, who talked and gestured fast, only now it was to a physical presence. Whatever he was saying, he pled the case with emotion.
“Parole officer,” I was thinking. The man in motion is going to get busted for violating parole. The tall man pulled out a cell phone, turned away from the man in motion and made a call, while the little man talked to his triceps. The squad car will be here soon, I thought.
Error is the risk of guessing. I was wrong. Soon, without ever entering the store, the tall man got into his car and pulled away, leaving the man in motion on the walk by himself, still talking and flapping.
The man in motion went into the store. He returned to the walk with a bag of chips. He waved each chip like a baton while he talked and chomped. The store clerk, a tall skinny white man, came out and ran him off. The man in motion retreated to the side of the store, an empty parking lot. He leaned back against a metal post, the kind that stops cars from hitting the building, and ate the chips. Chips dropped to the ground without his notice.
Suddenly he wheeled around and looked intently at the post he’d been leaning on. It seemed a new discovery. The incessant motion ceased. He bent forward and tenderly caressed the post, a new thing he’d found. A few seconds passed while he gazed at it lovingly, like a mother watching her baby sleep.
The moment passed: suddenly he dismissed the post and turned his back to it. It was just a post. He casually propped on it again and resumed waving, chomping and yacking. Finally he drifted from the store to the center of the empty lot, where he stood talking and flapping his hands.
I paid for my supper and crossed the street to the convenience store. I wanted to buy a snack for later on in the evening. I laid my snack items and money on the counter in front of the tall clerk.
“What’s the story on that man in black waving his arms all around?” I asked.
“He was in here a few minutes ago—he waved his arms around...” I said.
“There was a black woman in here.”
“...had on black clothes and his cap turned backwards,” I continued.
“It was a woman freaked out on drugs...or something.”
“I thought it was a man,” I said.
“She’s freaked out on drugs, or something.”
I thanked him, took my snack sack and headed back down Ash toward the hotel. The man in motion stood in the middle of the parking lot waving and talking just as before, white shoes flashing. Only he wasn’t a man.
The man in motion was a freaking-out woman.
It was the last lesson San Diego taught me. I left town the next morning.