In the centre of town, standing with a coffee by the corner of an alleyway with a friend, I become aware of movement.
A man who is perhaps in his sixties is rooting around in a plastic bag and has changed direction so that he is now walking towards us fairly quickly.
He gets closer and closer, still rooting around, looking for something, glancing up at us.
I tense slightly and stop talking because he’s not going past us. This guy’s coming straight at us, like a man on a mission.
And when he is maybe one foot away – a bit too close, to be honest – he looks up and very loudly says… “Lost your SOUL, lads?”
I plaster on a smile because, uh-oh, it’s a renegade street preacher. He’s going to start quoting Bible verses and telling us we’re evil. He’s going to start talking about the Lord and how the coffee we’ve just bought is a bit like Jesus. We have to be polite to this man but coordinate an excuse for why we can’t give him money or listen to him and nod for the next 40 minutes.
But that is not what the man does. Instead, straight after his loud question, he pulls his hand from his bag and holds up the rubber sole of an old shoe. He waggles it in the air at us and with a huge smile says, “You gotta look after your… sole!!”
In a moment of sheer relief, my friend and I go “Aaaaay!” in that way you do when someone’s made a pun out of the blue but you’re not sure what’s supposed to happen next. Because what if this is his well-rehearsed ‘in’ and only now is he going to start talking about how Jesus wore sandals, but his soul wasn’t rubber?
But then he says, “Be lucky!” and strides away, chuckling, and turning left by some bins.
“What was that?” says my friend, smiling and delighted.
And I know what it was. It was a moment. A weird little moment in time. One where a man – a stranger – saw two other strangers drinking coffee near a wall, and thought, “Do you know what? I’m going to do my soul joke!”
And he didn’t just think it. He made an immediate beeline for us, rustling around so he could bring out his prop at just the right time, and then boom! Set-up, punchline, walk straight off triumphant, leave ’em wanting more.
“I hope he doesn’t do that to everyone,” says my friend and my immediate instinct is to agree, because I want that to have just been a moment between us.
But there is every likelihood that in that plastic bag was a whole array of props and visual gags, and perhaps he just wanders around all day, delivering hit-and-run dad jokes and walking off again.
But even if he did, that’s a contribution. Creating his own one-man underground surrealist art movement. Only ever doing one joke and moving on, like a comedy Littlest Hobo. Perhaps going up to people sitting on benches and saying, “I like the way you’re perching!” and then whipping out a perch from a fish bowl and squeezing its cheeks so it looks like it’s talking. I would like to see him approaching a gentleman sunbather in a park and yelling, “Nice balls!” and when the guy looks up, outraged, he’s just juggling. I don’t know. I don’t want to tell him how to do his act. He’s doing very well on his own.
What I think was so nice about it was that it was a surprise. The surprise we should all have in our days.
I mean, imagine if we all did it.
If each of us always carried with us one thing we could use to make a stranger’s day, or make them smile, or break the ice. You wouldn’t leave the house without thinking, “Wallet, keys, phone, rubber chicken.”
Sure, you could somehow make the argument that this would be an absolute nightmare. Even if you decided not to do it yourself, you would still have to stop 50 or 60 times each day on your way to work in order to wait for yet another stranger to find an old picture frame in their bag so they can hang it round their neck and yell, “I’ve been framed!” But so what? Get up earlier, if you’ve got a problem with it.
This moment by an alleyway with a stranger – which is not a sentence I am used to writing – was sort of like if Twitter came to life. A random passer-by telling a very silly joke, which you like, and then you never see them again.
Well, it’s like old Twitter, anyway. If it was like current Twitter, the man would have had the face of an egg, run up to me screaming Nazi propaganda, flipped Brussels the bird and turned out to be a Russian hologram beamed from a factory 2,000 miles away. Those guys are not pen-pal material.
The point is, that guy didn’t want anything from us except our delight, and that’s all we gave him. And it felt weirdly… human. So maybe I’m going to start doing it.
Anyway, I’ve Googled “perches” and this weekend I’ll be in Leicester Square, London, if you’re about. See you at the bench, yeah? Bring a frame.
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