I was about 17 when I first saw him. He never talked to the other neighbors or chatted with anyone. I heard from my girlfriend at the time that he lived alone and that he had recently lost his wife. There was nothing extraordinary about his appearance but every time I walked past him, I felt gripped by a cloud of anxiety and silence. I would stare at him awkwardly not knowing whether to drop my head, say hello, or keep walking nonchalantly.
I never said hello and more often than not, I dropped my head to avoid awkward eye contact. Still I noted his appearance every time I saw him. He seemed quietly desperate, almost bursting with something but I couldn’t figure out what. When I was told he had recently lost his wife, I felt immense pity. Imagining a life of such startling sadness was difficult. I was hardly an adult and this man had seemingly suffered beyond my comprehension of what life could do to people given the chance to go awry.
I feared such an existence but also wondered what sparked the silence around him. Being fairly innocent, I assumed he was just weird or that something else was wrong with him. Maybe he was simply crazy and everything that happened to him could never happen to someone like me; someone so favored by luck and good fortune.
He was worlds away when he would walk past and I let him disappear from my mind for weeks only to be reminded of him when we would occasionally cross paths in the neighborhood. My life was so busy with parties, friends and fun that I had no time to wonder about the fate of such men.
One day, while I was feeling particularly happy, I felt the need to acknowledge him so I said hello. He didn’t say anything back. I considered if he was rude or maybe even a snob. How could this weird guy think he was better than me? He hadn’t given that kind of impression before. I set aside my feelings and settled on the thought that he was probably strange, just as I had imagined earlier, or arrogant.
Soon after 9/11 happened, things changed forever. Our lives were never to be the same and tragedy had struck through the middle of our city and through the heart of my fragile young existence. People disappeared from each other’s lives and society had been rocked at its foundation. I didn’t understand much about what had happened and how it would impact us.
One evening, I was walking through the neighborhood with my girlfriend when I saw him again. She greeted him and he smiled and waved. I turned to her surprised.
“You know him? He’s weird” I said, taken aback.
“I know. I feel bad for him,” she said.
I wondered if he lost more family in the terror attacks.
“I know he lost his wife. I hope he didn’t lose more family?” I said.
She looked at me and her tone changed. I felt the strange silence again. I turned around to see him walking off in his yellow polo shirt and khaki shorts, alone as always.
“Many years ago, a plane crashed in the Potomac river. He jumped in the water and tried to drag people to safety. A lot of them died in his arms. He’s a hero. I didn’t tell you this?”