This Old Thing?

One of the greatest drawbacks of working in the same store for many years is watching robust middle-aged customers become frail old customers. Where they were once relaxed and affable, willing to hang out and bullshit for a while they now seem distracted, anxious & eager to get home. They used to talk about their kids in college, they now mention health concerns. As terrifying as this is, in a way it makes me appreciate life a bit more because I can see what’s coming down the pike. There’s one guy in particular that serves as an hour-glass for me, an uncomfortable reminder of my own inexorable decline. I would have first seen him about fifteen years ago, an effeminate, fiftyish, guy with a moustache. Slender, ginger, great posture, squared shoulders, a slight build but well muscled, not graceful but with a certain rigid poise, a former dancer, I’d always guessed with precise movements; a rapid walker. A strange guy, he’d come in with just one or two newish books to sell and really give a good hard haggle to get the best deal he could. Nothing wrong with that but he did ‘exasperation’ a little too well to make it a pleasant transaction. Not friendly or unfriendly but, ‘harried’ is probably the best word. He acted like a guy who might have been in a bit of a tight spot, a little upset, put upon; desperation was creeping in. He must have lived close by because you’d see him a lot. He came in one night and asked for a pair of nail scissors (?) There are so many nuts day-to-day in any NY neighborhood but this guy stood out because of the gaudy bath towel he always wore wrapped around his head.

The rest of his outfit was normal; pale blue, skin-tight jeans, white t-shirt, sneakers, so far so good. If he was wearing a crazy outfit the bath towel wouldn’t be quite so jarring but as it was, capping out this fairly pedestrian get up, it just smacked of insanity. It wasn’t a plain bath towel but a deep green, thick, lush, bath towel, with a heavily embroidered flower motif in royal blue. A luxury towel that could only have been manufactured in the late eighties and its wrapped around his head Carmen Miranda style, as if he’s a lady just out of the bath, but he’s a fully dressed man and he’s walking down Broadway.  Why? Why! It’s one of those mysteries that niggle and gnaw at you. Why a bath towel? If it has to be a towel, why not a plain towel? Why a towel at all? What’s wrong with a hat? Whatever the need, surely a hat would suffice in this situation? Does it come off? What’s under there? What’s his take on it? What would his reasoning be?  “Well why don’t you just ask him?” someone said. “No. No no no.” I say, “You ask him!”   Does the towel have significance? Does it have sentimental value? He’s not doing it to irritate or provoke, I’m sure of that. Why though? Why is he wearing a bath towel on his head?

We came up with the ingenious nick name of Towel Head Man to describe him, as in; “Towel Head Man came in last night and bought a dollar book with twenty nickels.” I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him sprinting down the street one day screaming with laughter, chased by a couple of wheezing guys in scrubs and facemasks, but he didn’t ever escape and the towel never came off and I saw him today. He’s quite frail now, stooped and shuffling, no poise, no muscle mass, his skin is sallow and loose, his mouth hangs agape, he peers around but seems more out of it these days, is he muttering? And yes of course its the same towel & its deterioration is shocking. It’s up there 365 days a year & it’s starting to get threadbare, lost is its luster, no longer plush nor vibrant. This formally luxuriant headdress is faded now, not as alarming as it was in its audacious prime. No longer vivid and neither is he and (if I can remember bright towel) neither am I. But for me, after all these years, the mystery remains acute. Why? Why not change the towel? Get a new towel! A new towel, a new you! Hmm, the towel wasn’t ever changed, this must mean something. It’s a clue. Of course a native New Yorker wouldn’t care, “Who cares? He’s Nuts!” That’s all you need to know. But I do so want to know. Why don’t I just ask him? Surely I wouldn’t be the first to have done so. “Hey, what’s with the towel?” “Excuse me sir, can you tell me a little bit about your towel?” What would he tell me?     “It belonged to an Aunt.”  “It keeps my head warm.”  “It’s Dior!”   “What towel?”   “Mind your own business!”

I realize now, after this much time has passed, that no answer could satisfy me. Tied up with this towel are larger questions for me about aging and habit, foibles and blind spots, about the vast differences between people who are all supposed to be essentially the same, about communication, indifference and life in a megalopolis. We all have our towel obsessions; these beguiling aberrations that throw us for a loop because we cannot understand or explain them. And of course, we all have our own towels too.  What’s my towel and why won’t anyone call me on it?

About dorian thornley

bookseller, dad, manhattan
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