I still remember the shock I felt the first time I saw the transient. It was December 1, 1978, the day before my ninth birthday. It was snowing. My father and I were on our annual excursion to a camera store on the West Side of Manhattan that sold Super 8 movies. Each year at my birthday party, after lunch and cake, my father would set up the S-8 movie projector and portable screen in the cramped quarters of his wood-paneled office. With the help of six or seven kids, darkness, and a little imagination, my father's office acquired the magic of an old movie palace. In one afternoon we would see Charlie Chaplin in The Circus, Bela Lugosi in Dracula, and Boris Karloff and Vincent Price battling in The Raven--all conveniently shortened to fit the S-8 format, which allowed us to get in a game of kickball before it got too dark. The last movie my father threaded through the projector was always the new addition to the collection.
My father and I spent an hour at the store poring over the horror movie selection--our favorite category. In the end, we could not decide between One Million BC and Frankenstein, so we chose Them instead, the cult classic about giant radioactive ants. We promised ourselves that the following year we would pick a com-edy. After we left the store, we tested the accumulated snow's snowball potential and found it lacking. When my father asked me what I would like to do next, he could not keep from smiling; he knew what I would say. Twenty years later the American Museum of Natural History is still one of my favorite destinations.
Although I grew up only thirty minutes north of Manhattan, in Pelham, a small town on the Westchester-Bronx border, I remember my trips to the city with my father as the big adventures of my childhood. I felt happy and proud walking along the crowded streets, holding my father's hand. We were never out-of-towners visiting the big city; we were conquerors surveying our domain. Climbing the wide steps to the museum entrance, my heart began to race with excitement. We walked by the sixty-three-foot-long canoe filled with replicas of Northwest Coast Indians without so much as a glance, ignored Birds of the World and African Peoples, and did not stop until we arrived at the Carl Akeley Hall of African Mammals, where we spent the afternoon staring back at the glass-eyed stuffed elephants, lions, and antelopes. I could talk about animals all day at that age, and my father seemed to share my affliction.
Later, in the Hall of Ocean Life, walking back and forth under my favorite display--the life-size replica of a female Blue Whale that hung suspended from the ceiling--I told my father one of my greatest secrets: I had decided that I liked animals better than people. I expected him to be shocked and impressed by my declaration. Instead, he smiled, kissed me on the forehead, and said that sometimes he felt the same way.
We ended our visit at the display that scared me too much to qualify as my favorite, but just enough to be captivating: in low lighting that suggested the ocean depths, a sperm whale and a giant squid were engaged in a battle to the death. Pressing myself up against the glass, I told my father that the sperm whale was my favorite whale because it had teeth. My father told me that his favorite was the humpback whale because of its songs. We stared for a few more minutes at the awesome scene, then my father reminded me that we were expected home for dinner.
After taking the subway to Times Square, we decided to walk across 42nd Street to Grand Central Station rather than transfer to the Shuttle. We had not yet given up on the idea of playing in the snow. As we climbed out of the subway, holding hands, feeling good about our day and what we had accomplished, the transient appeared. He was very tall, almost as tall as my father, and very thin, with long unkempt hair, a matted beard, and dirty, ill-fitting clothes. A fine layer of snow had collected on the shoulders of his coat, in his hair, and in his beard. I could smell him from where he stood. I was not scared until he tried to speak to us. His voice terrified me. His breath came out as puffs of smoke. He spoke quickly and sounded angry. My father pulled me away before what he said had a chance to register.
The streetlight stopped us at the corner. I held my breath, tucked in my chin, and looked back slowly over my shoulder. He was standing in exactly the same spot, talking and gesticulating furiously in the falling snow, as if he still saw us standing at the entrance of the subway, listening attentively. I squeezed my father's hand and leaned into him, grateful for his presence. I knew instinctively that I was witnessing something terrible, something that was not supposed to be. There is something unnatural about a man talking out loud to no one at all. It violates a basic principle of human behavior: when you talk, you talk to someone. The light changed. I kept looking back over my shoulder as we crossed the street. Sensing my fear, my father explained in a low voice that once in a while a person can get lost in his thoughts the way he or I might get lost walking in the city.
From that day on, every time I visited Manhattan I saw the transient. His face changed, but his uniform always remained the same: weathered skin, soiled clothes, scraggly hair. Eventually, the alchemy of time transformed my fear into irritation and indifference. The transient slipped quietly out of my consciousness, entering the part of the mind that is reserved for the commonplace. He became a fact of urban living, no more no less, like rush hour or taxis.
On the evening of January 2, 1995, a fifty-one-year-old man died of a heart attack in a decrepit second-floor apartment on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont--a small city three hundred miles north of New York City. The landlord found him the next morning on the floor by the bed and called the police. Police dispatch responded by sending an officer over to investigate. After inspecting the body, the officer turned his attention to the apartment, which was uncharacteristically run-down for downtown Burlington. The more he looked around the more curious he became about the dead man lying on the floor. The water-damaged plaster, the stained, worn-out carpeting, the absence of a kitchenette or hot plate, and the thrift store furniture all suggested extreme poverty. In contrast to this, sitting on top of a small bookshelf by the bed was a neatly arranged stack of paper--copies of the man's resume. The officer was surprised to learn that the dead man had been a professor--a sociologist--and had written books. Education was supposed to ward off this kind of ending.
The officer walked over to one of the two small windows in the opposite wall and opened it a couple of inches to offset the heat from the radiators. Movement on Church Street caught his eye. Several families with skis in tow were walking slowly up the street, their children zigzagging in front of them excitedly. The children's voices came in with the cold air. In front of the window was a folding card table cluttered with several containers of Chinese take-out, four empty beer cans, a plastic cup overflowing with cigarette butts, and a pile of opened mail. The officer looked through the mail and found a half-dozen rejection letters from colleges to which the man had recently applied for teaching positions. Fanned out on the floor in front of a moldy armchair by the other window were several academic-sounding books checked out from the local library, a tourist guide to Burlington with a photograph of New Year's Eve fireworks on the cover, and the alumni directories of the Poly Preparatory Country Day School in Brooklyn and the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
Half hidden by the William and Mary directory was a large spiral notebook filled with notes written in a tiny uneven scrawl. The officer was still thumbing through the spiral notebook when the medical examiner arrived. "It doesn't make sense," the officer said, half to himself, half to the medical examiner. "The condition of the place and this unlimited vocabulary he has written up in a notebook. An intelligent man like this gets down to this point--how did he get to be in this apartment in Burlington, Vermont?"
After returning to the police station, the officer did a background check on the man. His police record consisted of a string of citations for misdemeanor crimes like trespassing, panhandling, and theft of services. Most of the crimes were committed over a four-month period during the winter of 1993. The record revealed that the apartment he was living in at the time of his death was actually a significant improvement over his living conditions the year before: from March 1993 through January 1994 he had been homeless, living on the streets of Burlington.
When the officer pulled the man's file he was shocked by his arrest photograph. The man in the photograph had been a notorious transient on Church Street; his name had been known to every beat cop in the downtown area. He bore little resemblance, how-ever, to the man on the floor of the apartment on Church Street. The man in the photograph had long, scraggly dark hair and a big bushy beard, and was wearing a soiled winter coat. The dead man was clean-shaven, had neatly trimmed hair, and was wearing inexpensive but conservative slacks, an oxford shirt, and dress socks. The officer confirmed that they were the same man by checking the statistics on the back of the arrest photograph. Both the man in the photograph and the man on Church Street were Caucasian, had brown-gray hair and hazel eyes, and were approximately six-feet four-inches tall. The description matched in every respect except one. The man the officer had seen in the apartment weighed about 210 pounds; the weight of the man in the photograph was listed as 140 pounds. Seeing those statistics, the officer realized that the transient had almost starved to death living on the street the year before.
Later that day, the medical examiner called the officer to give him the results of the autopsy: the cause of death was heart disease; the manner of death was natural. All that remained to be done was to locate the next of kin. A card in the man's wallet indicated that at the time of his death he had been a client at the Howard Center for Human Services, a nonprofit social service agency in Burlington. The officer called the staff at the Howard Center and learned that the dead man had been involuntarily committed to Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury on January 26, 1994, following his arrest on a panhandling charge. His diagnosis upon admission was paranoid schizophrenia. He was subsequently stabilized on psychiatric medication and released at the end of November, five weeks before his death.
When the officer heard the words "paranoid schizophrenia," the inconsistencies in the case suddenly seemed less confusing. Over the years he had responded to many complaints against mentally ill transients, usually for misdemeanor crimes like those committed by the man. From time to time a transient would, while protesting his innocence, lay claim to an impressive array of past accomplishments, but the officer had always dismissed this as delusional fantasy. He had never been able until now to corroborate their claims; nor had he ever had any reason to connect their diminished present circumstances to a past--a time before they were, simply, the transient.
The staff at the Howard Center told the officer that a first cousin, Clifford Eriksen, was listed in his psychiatric records from Vermont State Hospital as his family contact. There were also several references in the records to an ex-wife and a son. No contact information was available, however, for his ex-wife or son, and the records indicated that he had been out of touch with them for several years. The officer called Clifford and informed him of his cousin's death, bringing the case to a close. Clifford called my mother. My mother called me.
I was living in Manhattan when my father died--the destination for so many of our old adventures, and the dominion of the transient. The night before his funeral I dreamed about the day in 1978 when I first saw the transient. In the dream I saw myself from a distance--an eight-year-old boy standing alone on a street corner, looking back over his shoulder. The transient was standing at the entrance to the subway, shouting and gesticulating furiously, not to himself, but to me. I could not understand what he was saying and he did not look at all like my father, but somehow I knew that he was my father, and that that was what he was trying to tell me. I wanted to tell him that I knew, but I could not move or speak. I just stood there helplessly, watching him. The dream went on and on all night long with him trying to tell me and me standing there mute and the streetlight blinking red and green.
Before falling asleep, I had forced myself to reread in chronological order all of the letters I had received from my father over the years. I wanted to find something appropriate to read at the service I had planned for the following day. I also wanted to examine critically my handling of our relationship over the years, which, following my parents' divorce in 1981, had consisted almost entirely of correspondence. I saw my father only twice after the divorce. He called often, but his behavior was so strange and disturbing that my mother was forced to keep the answering machine on in the house twenty-four hours a day. She tried to censor his letters as well, but she was not always able to get to the mail before me. There were twenty letters in all, the first dated 1982, the last dated 1991, four years before my father's death.
The letters arrived sporadically, on average one every few months, and were usually accompanied by bizarre and frightening enclosures: self-published delusional pamphlets that attempted to prove the existence of a widespread conspiracy to steal his independent research in sociology; Polaroid snapshots of my father's face the night after his nose was broken in a bar brawl; graphic pages torn out of a porn magazine with handwritten captions identifying my father as one figure, my mother as another, and a woman with whom he had had an affair as a third. The letters themselves were predominantly loving and parental, but there was usually a paragraph or two in each that revealed his paranoid and delusional thought processes. I kept all of his letters and most of the enclosures, but seldom wrote back.
Excerpted from The Outsider by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer. Copyright © 2001 by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.