A Fellowship Of Silence

9 06 2007

When I began working at my new job two months ago, everyone warned me about Mark. “He’s…different,” seemed to be the consensus of opinion about this slightly overweight, middle-aged man. I’m not one to form an opinion of people based on such off-hand remarks, but when a lot of different people say essentially the same thing about a particular person, it is difficult not to develop some preconceived notions. So, never having met or spoken to the man, and based entirely upon the preponderance of public opinion, I initially regarded him with some apprehension.

I was sitting in the break area by myself, eating lunch and reading. It was my second or third day on the job. Mark walked in and sat down at another table to eat his own lunch. Here it comes, I thought. For those of you who have never worked in an industrial environment, I’ll let you in on a little secret. There is something about the sight of a person sitting in a break room reading (anything, a book, a newspaper, a magazine…doesn’t matter) that is antithetical to the sensibilities of the average industrial worker. I’m not knocking industrial workers, or calling them unintelligent. I’ve worked in industrial environments off and on all of my life. But it is a fact that the sight of another person reading in a break area is apparently highly offensive to most people, and brings about in them an irresistible urge to interrupt the person reading, and engage in some conversation. Excuse me. I’m in the break room now. You don’t have to bother with that boring old book anymore. You can talk to me, instead. Actually what they say is something like:

“Say, gotcha a book there, huh? Whatcha reading?”

“Well, it’s…”

“I read a thing in the paper this morning (at home, where people should do that sort of thing) about where Paris Hilton got out of jail for having a rash. A rash! You think they’d let a regular person out of blah for a little blah blah blah I’d still blah her brains out, though blahblahblahblahblah.”

BLAH! Not counting my ex-wife, I’ve probably never been as close to strangling another human being than I have been when someone wants to interrupt my reading so they can run their mouth about some idiotic nonsense.

So there I sat in the break area, waiting for Mark to ask me if or not I thought George Bush should be impeached, or who I’m pulling for on American Idol, or whatever, and the longer that it didn’t happen the more distracted I became. Finally, I looked up from my book to see him quietly eating his lunch and reading a book of his own, a great big ol monster of a hardback. I was so surprised and pleased by this unexpected fellowship of silence that I committed the very sin for which I’ve called so many other people to account. I blurted out: “Say, whatcha reading?”

I’ve never actually farted in an elevator, but I would imagine that the look on Mark’s face is a close approximation of the ones that I would receive if I were to do so. He recovered quickly, though, and in the brief conversation that followed I learned that he was a fan of science fiction, and that in his younger days he had attended a lot of SF conventions and had met many famous authors. I also learned that he was an aspiring screenwriter, and that he had an unfinished script upon which he had been working for over a decade. That was rather interesting, I thought, but by then my lunch period was over, so I couldn’t pursue the subject any further. I left the man to his book and went on my way.

Due to the vagaries of my work schedule, I didn’t share a lunch period with Mark again. That, or he saw to it that my ignorant and uncultured ass was never around when he wanted to eat his lunch and read, sans interruption. I kept an eye on him, though, and I came to the conclusion that the reason so many other people didn’t respond well to him was that they were a bit intimidated by him. He was highly intelligent and articulate, but for the most part rather quiet and reserved. He brought cakes, cookies, and brownies in to share nearly every other day, and in a passing conversation I learned that he liked to cook and bake. In snippets I learned that he was liberal in his political ideology, and that he had taken acting classes at one point in his life, which explained the somewhat annoying manner in which he would get on the warehouse intercom and deliver, in a James Earl Jones like baritone, the proclamation: “INbound, door SEVenTEEEEN. INBOUND, door SEVenTEEEEEEN.”

Friday, June 8, I had just arrived at work and was getting ready to begin my day when the manager walked over to me. “I have some bad news,” he said. “Mark died last night. His wife said he had a heart attack.” Even though I didn’t really know the guy very well, and we weren’t very close, the news came as a shock to me. I had just seen the man the day before, and I couldn’t recall anything unusual about him at that time. “It’s not really very shocking,” the manager told me. “Not if you knew him. He’s had a lot of health problems, and he didn’t really take care of himself.” That struck me as a rather crass summation, but I reminded myself that these were the same people who had warned me in the beginning that Mark was different. Indeed he was.

Indeed he was.

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