George the Bum
Perception is not always reality.
He would walk up the block in his ski cap, red flannel jacket, a day or two’s growth on his face. We would stop whatever we were doing and run for our lives. He scared us. We never really knew why. He just did. George the Bum, we called him and every day he would walk up the block around the same time and laugh at us frightened kids fleeing back into our homes whenever we caught sight of him. I imagine he got a great kick out of that every day, wondering what it was about him that frightened us so much.
There were all these stories about him, of course. He was a kidnapper. He ate children. He slept under the ramp near the expressway. You name it, you could probably attribute it to him. The bottom line was that everything stopped whenever we saw him coming up the block.
One day, I decided to say hello to him, of course, from the security of my locked gate. Everyone else had fled into their homes, everyone thinking I was crazy for even attempting to say anything to him. He said hello back. His voice was gruff, raspy, just like we always imagined it would be. And he was smiling, most likely because he saw the fear and apprehension in my six year old eyes.
Then he did something strange. He removed a piece of wood from the garbage that had been awaiting pick up from in front of my house. He laid the piece of wood down across the top of two of the trash cans and proceeded to karate chop it in half. He looked at me and laughed and I ran inside, listening to him laughing as I slammed the door behind me and hid, my parents wondering what the hell was going on. After a few moments, I peered through the curtains to see that he had gone. Relieved, I went back outside, looking around to make sure he was actually gone. Little by little, the rest of the kids came back out and resumed whatever they were doing.
“I told you he was crazy,” my friend said. “You’re lucky that he didn’t do that to you!”
Over the years he disappeared and none of us ever saw him again but he always remained something of a legend in our minds. Whatever happened to George the Bum? Well, as it turned out, the poor guy wasn’t a bum at all. It was just our perception of him based solely on how he appeared to us. He was just another poor soul, like everyone else in the neighborhood, trying to to get by in this life, probably coming home from a dead end job, having to put up with crap all day long. He got off on us kids running away from him, afraid and trembling. It was probably the only time in his life where he felt that he had an effect on something in this life. At least that’s what I would tell myself over the years. Even that turned out to be a falsehood.
The truth was, as I found out many years later, that he owned two corner magazine stands in the neighborhood. The guy had money. He was a businessman. He just didn’t look the part. All the whispers and all the rumors were patently untrue. Our perception of him – and the perception of some of the adults in the neighborhood – were far from the reality.
Sometimes I think of this whenever I feel myself being quick to come to a snap judgment of someone. The truth is, we sometimes don’t know. We couldn’t possibly know. We only think we do, based on our own prejudices and impressions we often glean from other sources. Sometimes the most “normal” looking people turn out to be the most hideous monsters. The truth is, we just can’t know for sure sometimes.
America today is most definitely a “perception is reality” kind of society. I suppose this is why Madison Avenue has traditionally done so well and continues to do so, marketing everything from products to news, to lifestyle – all in an attempt to cater to that all important “perception” and of course enrich themselves in the process. Sometimes there is a hell of a lot more than meets the eye.
George the Bum is still alive too, retired now, raised a family and is living a very normal life. I sometimes wonder if he ever thinks about those days when we ran from him in fear and if so, I wonder if it still gives him a good laugh. It ought to. Apparently he had been laughing all the way to the bank all these years.
Tags: apprehension, bottom line, bum, curtains, fear, few moments, flannel, garbage, hell, karate, kidnapper, laugh, parents, perception, ramp, ski cap, trash cans