I slowed my bike down to watch an old guy wearing a sandwich board sign slumped over on the sidewalk in the New Orleans summer heat. He was not quite standing, not quite falling, but didn’t look…well. The sign seemed to be kind of holding him up.
So I pulled my bike over and asked if he was ok. I asked quietly because I’m shy though, so at first he didn’t hear. Also, like I said, he was old. Real old. And a streetcar was rattling past at the time, which sorta drowned me out. I almost got back on my bike to let the old man return to his slumping, uninterrupted. But before I could do this, he looked over at me.
When he lifted his head, his floppy old hat hid his eyebrows, but pulled his eyes up as if he were very surprised. Or maybe he was surprised, I dunno. “What? Okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. Are you ok?” I noticed that his sandwich board had sandwiches on it. Which I know is not why they’re called that, but I still think it’s worth pointing out.
“I’m teaching myself to read upside down,” he explained. “‘S hard.”
Nodding, I tried to look ready to ride away. Didn’t think he was gonna talk to me, just like, nod or something. “I bet.”
“I smash my face down like this?” he said, giving himself a triple chin and no face, as his hat covered everything but the chins. “And I can read, ‘grilled cheese, Reuben and club’ but not much else. Think I saw, ‘pickle’.”
“You did.” I pointed to “pickle.”
“I even read the newspaper upside down,” he told me. “Sometimes. Just to practice. I find a newspaper and read it upside down.”
Trying to picture a crazy old sandwich board dude sitting on the curb and reading an upside down newspaper made me wanna leave even more. I placed one of my feet on a bike pedal as if I were busy, had busy places to go. “That must be hard,” I said, looking the other way.
“It’s certainly not worth the effort,” he sighed, removing his hat and wiping his forehead with a spotty forearm. His eyes were indeed surprised; they just stayed that way, wide open, even without the hat.
His sigh kept me from going anywhere. We stood on the sidewalk in silence for a few seconds. “There are glasses you can wear that reverse the image of what you’re seeing,” I offered. “You could maybe get some of those.”
He squinted until his wide open eyes were almost closed shut. “Why would I do that?”
“Well then, upside down things’d look right side up.”
He shook his head. “Wouldn’t help much with my training.”
“No, I guess not.” I spoke slowly in case he was crazy or drunk or addled, ’cause he seemed all three. “Plus – and this is cool – your brain eventually reverses the image, so when you walk around without the glasses on? Everything’s upside down.”
The old man stared, leaning his chin on the sandwich sign. “Daiquiri’s do that, too. Say! Wouldja get me a daiquiri? I could pay you later.”
I laughed. “Sure.” There was a daiquiri place up the street and I figured it would get me out of this conversation. “You allowed to drink on the job?”
“We’ll find out!” he giggled.
When I returned with his daiquiri, a light rain was beginning to fall and the old dude has resumed his slumped over posture – back to his training, I guess. Or maybe hiding from raindrops. “Hey!” I tried to shift him by holding the drink under his chin.
He didn’t react and didn’t take it, just took a sip from the straw like a toddler would. He kinda smelled like a toddler, too: powder and pee. Plus smoke and booze. Like a toddler with a few bad habits. “Hamburger,” he said. “Except from the picture, it looks like they serve it on toast, which is incorrect. Not classic form.”
I pushed the daiquiri into his bent, spotted claw and looked into his remarkably unlined face. “Cheers!” I said, meaning, drink up, turn upside down and also, bye!
“I ain’t old,” he said, sounding pissed off, “i just look it.” This made him mad. “I ain’t tired, I just feel it. I ain’t even…” he trailed off. The rain was falling harder, his floppy hat getting floppier. “It’s upside down. All of it.” He stared off angrily and sucked down half his daiquiri.
I had no idea what to say. It IS all upside down. Shouldn’t be. No wonder he’s pissed off. Waving, I took my leave as the rainfall became a rainstorm.
A few hours later, I rode past him, across the street; he didn’t see me. His daiquiri cup was smashed on the ground, his chin back on his chest, his hat dripping.