ENID, Okla. — Editor’s note: This column was originally published Sept. 21, 2003.
A park bench is a great place to spend a quiet moment, watching as the rest of the world goes about its business.
Park benches are perhaps behind only airports and crowded shopping malls as prime spots to observe humanities in its many forms.
A bench in a quiet park also is a prime spot to read, soak up some sun or perhaps enjoy a bit of lunch.
It was with the latter aim that my wife and I recently headed for a park bench on the grounds of Westminster Abbey in London.
A visit to a small corner grocery store yielded sandwiches, chips and soft drinks, everything we needed for an impromptu picnic.
The bench we had our eye on, vacant before we bought our lunch, was occupied when we returned. Not far away, half of another bench was unoccupied, so we made straight for it.
The large concrete and wood bench was divided by an armrest. The other half of the one we settled into was the temporary property of a young, dark-haired, somewhat disheveled man with a ruddy complexion.
He greeted us as we were unwrapping our lunch. We muttered a hello and went back to our task. A closer look revealed that disheveled was a kind description of the young man.
He and bath water had quiet evidently been strangers for quite some time. Likewise his clothing and the inside of a washing machine.
The young man was determined to talk. We were determine to enjoy our lunch, which, we did, while talking.
He was Irish, it turned out, and quite interested in the fact we were from America. He had relatives in America, in Chicago. He seemed to have only a vague idea of Oklahoma’s location in the crazy quilt of U.S. geography.
“I’ll go to America some day,” he said, sounding sure of himself.
We told him of our Irish heritage. He feigned interest. After all, as Irish rocker Bob Geldof once said, “Irish Americans are about as Irish as black Americans are African.”
“Do you know U2?” he asked between puffs on a hand-rolled cigarette in which something other than ordinary tobacco smoldered. “The band, U2?”
Assured that we did, he pressed on. “Do you know that song, ‘The Hands that Built America’? They did, you know. The Irish built America.”
His brogue was thick but understandable, despite the fact his ruddy complexion was not caused by his time in the sun, but by the presence of alcohol in his system, a condition made evident not only by the beer he occasionally sipped from, but the smell of it on his breath and clothing.
“You know the Revolutionary War? The Irish helped America win that war,” he said.
He’s right. The American Heritage Project estimates between one-third and one-half of George Washington’s troops, including nearly 1,500 officers, were Irish.
During a momentary silence, three pigeons took an interest in our repast and began advancing on our position. One was smaller than its fellows, its feathers tattered.
“Give it a bit of food,” our companion said, “go on, it’s starving. Just a bit of food. How about a Pringle, give it a Pringle.”
Certain of the squawking, feathery chaos that was about to ensue, I flipped a chip in the direction of the small pigeon. The chip broke into several pieces. The larger pigeons immediately bumped the smaller one out of the way and took the larger pieces, but the smallest one managed to get a few scraps.
“What are you doing in London, then?” He asked. “On holiday?”
We said we were.
“Do you like London, then?”
We said we did.
“I don’t. I hate it. It’s a big, cold, dirty city.”
We didn’t know quite how to answer. It struck me the Irishman was not unlike the smallest pigeon, bumped aside by life and scrambling for any crumbs it offered.
He offered to show us a card trick. It was a good one, but not that good.
“People have given me money to show them that trick,” he said.
At the mention of money we finished our lunch and left, in some haste. We wished him well, and he wished us the same.
Sometime later, as we again passed within sight of the park, I looked back at the bench. Our Irish friend was still there — a lone soul, lost in himself, watching life go by, but decidedly at odds with his surroundings.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.