An old man outside a bar asked me where the sacred city was. I said it was everywhere, and he said I was wrong. He asked if it was New York. I said definitely not.
The night was cold and sad. I was reading a book and smoking a cigarette. The old man asked if I smoked. I held up my half-smoked cigarette and he asked again, Did I smoke? He was drunk. I wasn’t.
He asked if the sacred city was Petra in Jordan, where they make the most expensive wine. I said maybe. I hadn’t been. I couldn’t be sure.
He asked if it was Salt Lake City in Utah. It’s beautiful there, he said, by the lake. I agreed it was beautiful.
So it’s there? He asked. Again, I couldn’t be sure.
The young man on my other side offered a homeless woman change, he said, If you’ll just be normal. He was drunk. I wasn’t. I gave her all the coins in my pocket, which wasn’t much, and asked her not to be normal. I did it just to make a point, but no one there was listening.
The woman didn’t smile. I’d like to think I would have, but I couldn’t be sure.
The old man doesn’t have a computer. He doesn’t have a TV. He likes to listen to the wireless. He read about Mahmoud Abbas, about Palestine, about southern Lebanon, about Hezbollah protecting the Christians. He read about it in the New Yorker, which you can usually trust. He read about it on paper, not on the Internet. You can’t trust the Internet, he said. That’s why he doesn’t have a computer.
I said I think you can’t trust anything you read on its own. Read widely. Travel. Talk to people who’ve been there, go there yourself. Even then, you can’t be sure.
He told me readers ought to talk to people. Real readers make conversation. I told him I wasn’t really a reader, I was a talker. That was why I didn’t want to talk.
He asked what I wanted, and I said silence.
But where can you get it? He asked. The answer was, apparently not here.
I moved to a different table next to a group of French men. My French is bad enough now that I couldn’t understand them. It just sounded like noises. That, in the city, is the best silence you can hope for.
A car went past. I could hear it was a big one. It went from left to right. I could understand its language better than I could the French.
The old man walked by again, ignored me. He cursed the French men. They told him to be nice. They said it in English, I think so he could understand. I wonder if he listened.
The homeless woman returned to ask for change again. She didn’t remember me. She said she didn’t want to live anymore, and I said I knew what that felt like. Not how she felt, not what her life was like, but I knew what that felt like. I said the world was cold and sad. I said I wished I could say something better. She didn’t smile. I don’t think I would have either.
The truth was, I didn’t have to say that. She never asked me to say anything. But me, I’m a talker.
The men kept making French noises. The beer kept on being cold, like the world. When I turned my face up towards the heater, though, it was warm.
I left the bar after one drink. If anyone asked why, I would’ve said because too many people spoke to me and no one said anything. No one asked, though. But I had the answer ready, just in case. That’s what talkers do.