It took a long time to understand the men who creaked around particular edifices. One drank coffee outside the Flat Iron building, one cleaned the windows of the former Bon Marché, one cuddled a bottle on the curb under the bridge leading out of town.
None of them were young, but they didn’t age. The white of their beards dulled a bit from time and the elements, but they continued with their tasks. One window at a time, one cup of coffee after another. The man with the coffee sat at a café table in his tweed jacket and trilby, looking ready for a chess match or a heated discussion on European politics. No one engaged him, but he kept sitting, kept waiting.
And the man under the bridge. How long could he sit, in and out of seasons and through the years, nursing a malt liquor tall boy and a black eye? It seemed, on alternating days, sad and angering that he sat there, battered and drunk for all to see. But he was resolute in his duty, a troll at the underpass demanding a toll of spare change to buy the next bottle. Even in his soiled jacket, long since stripped of its royal blue color, there was something honorable in his charge. Who among us never takes a sick day or a vacation, or at the very least leaves our post for a long lunch?
The window washer kept at it, too, though he grumbled while he worked. He also took smoke breaks, further yellowing his stubby fingers and his long white beard with nicotine. He might have looked like Santa Clause once. Though he’d gone bald on top, the rest of his hair was snowy white and fell to his shoulders in soft ripples. His cheeks were round, his nose like a cherry, but summer or winter, rain or shine, he faced the day in a white t-shirt and faded jeans. There was no known Santa iteration who washed windows or wore an undershirt from a plastic-wrapped three-pack.
None of the men were what they appeared. Nor did they even necessarily appear at all — not to most people. They blended in or were completely invisible, bottle and dirty jacket just two more pieces of trash left under the bridge. Tweed trilby the perfect camouflage for Autumn’s decent on an outdoor café. White beard just another puff of smoke, a wisp of low-hanging cloud moving through rain-soaked city streets.
The buildings groaned and settled, more than a hundred years already weighed on their foundations. Old bones sang with ache and quieted again, roots of steel and brick sunk deeper below asphalt and concrete to drink from the mineral-rich middle earth. Rooftops were watered and sun-baked and blanketed by snow to sleep another month or six.
The edifices call their souls back from the sidewalks, back into the depths of boiler rooms and basements, back into the dark places where buildings dream the visions collected by their human spirits. Their consciousnesses and pulses embodied in the forms of men who look, upon closer inspection, like the structures they inhabit.
Even the bridge, open on three sides to the wind, has a deep heart where deck meets truss and shadow is never dimmed by daylight. There, the troll waits out the storm, bottle clutched tight to chest, already home while the outside traffic rushes on forever to get there.