The Renaissance Hobo
A serendipitous encounter in the Fall of 2013, outside of a post office, on a chilly September day
“Oh, he isn’t actually a hobo.” The lady behind the counter glanced out the window of the post office at the subject of the man’s inquiry. “He lives near here… comes here to pay his rent. He’s harmless. Quite eccentric, though.” Her explanation felt rehearsed, like she was a tour guide introducing a local landmark to gawking tourists. The man seemed unconvinced; as he left, he took care to make a wide berth around this “hobo” I couldn’t yet see.
“Six dollars, please.” The clerk’s voice drew me back to reality. My business finished, I walked outside the building, shivering in the cold. I was a new transplant to the Northeast from Texas, and the September breeze was freezing me to the core. I turned a corner, and there he was, the hobo, staring straight at me.
Unlike myself, who was fully encased in a cotton cocoon, he seemed comfortable in only a beat-up red flannel and a pair of ratty old jeans, both filled with holes, the grunge factor of which Urban Outfitters would salivate over. But what most captivated my attention was his beard. What a beard! It was splendid, a magnificent specimen that would make Tolkien’s dwarves jealous. A beard so large and bushy, it forked into sub-beards, each individually braided; a literal fractal of beards; a Mandelbeard. A beard that would make lesser men shave in shame. A beard to end all beards.
“You seem cold.” It was the hello of someone used to cutting to the chase. I blinked, jolted back to reality again, I’m new to the Northeast, I said. I had just come from Texas, where air conditioning was likely still operating at full power. “Texas? That’s a long ways away. What brings you to Connecticut?” Ooookay, so he wasn’t going away. Well, he was surprisingly polite and articulate, and didn’t appear to be concealing any shivs. And hey, I wasn’t doing anything else at the time.
I stumbled through my origin story. I grew up in Taiwan, but no, I’m an American citizen. I’m kind of an immigrant, but not really? I was born here, but then moved back to Taiwan, but went to an international school, and then moved to Texas for college. (And now I’m in Connecticut for grad school, where it’s cold and I don’t know a goddamn soul, I thought to myself.)
He interrupted me. “Your English is very good.” I’ve heard it a million times, and every time it still makes me wince. But he continued. “I knew you were Taiwanese. You know how I could tell you were Taiwanese? You barely have an accent, and Taiwan is more Westernized. God, I know so many students from China, who come here and never try to learn English. I mean, I just don’t get them!” Um, ok, crazy old racist guy, I don’t know how you know enough international Chinese students to make an informed judgment on the matter, but thanks for the compliment, I guess? “You’re Californian, right? You talk like you are. Oh, also, you mumble. Next time you blow your nose — like that — spit it out instead. It’ll help.”
Huh. Yes, I was born in California. And demographically, Californians were very overrepresented in the international school I went to in Taiwan, which probably had a larger impact on how I spoke than the past 4 years I spent in Texas. And yes, I did just blow my nose — once — during that conversation.
As I considered his surprisingly accurate observations, he resumed his spiel about foreign students. “They say they want to learn, but then they just insulate themselves into their own groups, and five years later they leave, still barely speaking a word of English! Oh, of course there are exceptions. There are a lot of exceptions. But UCONN isn’t like Rice. Rice is small… everyone talks to everyone. UCONN is huge — very impersonal. It’s easy for them to just fall into their own groups.”
He’s familiar with Rice, to the degree where he has a general idea of the size of the student body. I was already used to getting a blank stare when I said I went to Rice. And “five years” was an oddly specific number. He was likely in the academic community, I thought. So you’re a professor here? “Post grad, actually. I’m really not that much older than you.” I took a closer look at his face, and realized that he really wasn’t that old at all. It was the beard, man! The beard clouded my judgment!
He responded to my stunned silence by diving into his own life story. “I did my bachelor’s at UCONN. I majored in mathematics and quantum physics… also electrical engineering and materials science! And I got a minor in physical chemistry because I didn’t have the time for a fifth major. Oh, and I really didn’t want to, but I had to take computer science courses in the engineering school… so I also got a minor in that as well. I’m still the only person ever at UCONN to have four majors and two minors. Whatchu think bout that!?”
After graduation, he stayed at UCONN for his masters and PhD. Now he led a nonprofit research company. “Yeah, I could probably work somewhere else, for a lot more money… two hundred K, likely more. But there are so few people in the world capable of doing the type of interdisciplinary research I do, and hey, as a nonprofit I get tax breaks!” As he spoke, a wistful, longing look crept across his face. “I wish I could do more stuff with chemistry, though… all I’m doing now is engineering and physics. And coding… god, I HATE coding!” This man was truly a Renaissance man. A Renaissance Hobo.
I mentioned how I had taken an introductory Physical Chemistry class back in college. As a liberal arts-inclined school, Rice required students to take courses outside of their major to graduate. I was in over my head, and didn’t do well in the course. “Well that makes sense, thermodynamics isn’t something you just go into… still, a psychology student taking thermodynamics is pretty impressive. Interdisciplinary is good. You’re smart, and I’m lucky I met you. I’m seriously a stupid person magnet… I don’t know what I’m doing wrong with my life! Everywhere I go, it’s stupid people wanting things from me!”
The Renaissance Hobo had some choice words on stupid people. “I don’t mean people lacking in mental ability when I say ‘stupid.’ If a mentally challenged person has motivation and direction, he’s smart in my book. No, it’s the willfully stupid people I hate. Like the foreign students who refuse to learn English. People who are so secure in their own lack of knowledge that they never seek to expand their knowledge. And you know what? Sometimes these stupid people succeed. It’s dumb luck.”
“I’m the most unlucky person in the world. I really don’t know what I’m doing wrong with my life. You study psychology. Tell me, what is it about me that draws stupid people to me? Why am I so unlucky? I’m lucky to have met you. You’re like me. You know, there are two types of friends. Some friends only come to you when they need something from you. And it seems like nowadays everyone I know is like that. Do you have what it takes to be a good friend?”
I paused. Despite having captivated my attention, this was just a stranger on the street. The implication of the question — will you be my friend? — was clear. “Sure,” I responded with a noncommittal shrug. My split second of indecision did not go unnoticed. “That’s hesitation. Hesitation is indicative of second thoughts. You see, for some reason, a lot of people don’t want to be friends with me. I don’t sugar coat the things I say, and some people can’t take that. Even though ultimately I’m just trying to be helpful. Not telling people the truth is frequently more harmful. And I’m not well groomed, unlike you — ” I glanced down; apparently sweatpants qualified as well groomed these days. “Still, look at me. There’s no comparison. A lot of people don’t want to be seen associating with me… like some part of me would rub off on them,” he said. His voice was accusatory, and his eyes showed a hint of tears.
It was at this moment where I really saw the Renaissance Hobo for who he really was. He wasn’t “the crazy bearded dude that hangs out at USPS.” He wasn’t “the eccentric polymath with four majors and two minors.” No, he wasn’t just a trope. He was a person; a real, actual person. A desperately lonely person, yearning for true social connection.
Loneliness, the most dreaded of feelings. A feeling that, despite your best efforts to bury it within the deepest recesses of your psyche, would rattle and rattle, forever trying to escape, eating through all the masks and barriers put in its way, until it permeates your soul.
I ended up writing my email address on a piece of notebook paper and giving it to him. He rejected it. “Not your university address, your real e-mail address. We’re not lab-mates, we’re not classmates. We’re friends now, genuine friends.” I acquiesced, and we parted without a handshake or even exchanging our names. I looked at my watch — holy fuck, we’ve been talking for over an hour. Good-bye, Mr. Renaissance Hobo, til we meet again, good-bye, good-bye.
I never heard from him again.