My favourite person in Wellington is a guy with a huge bristling moustache, bleached yellow hair – one of those tufty, crested-canary-like hairstyles; he used to have a dark brown bowl cut – and who looks to be maybe in his mid-twenties. I see him most days. Usually he’s wearing trackpants and sneakers and a backpack, as if he’s setting out on a long walk. He is intellectually disabled, but I’ve never seen him with a carer or anyone else; he’s always on his own. For years now I’ve passed this guy on streets in town, out walking around Mount Victoria, at the supermarket, on quiet stretches of the south coast, at the bookshop where I used to work. He’s everywhere.
I always know when he’s approaching because he is never not making a noise. Sometimes he’ll be talking to himself. As I waited next to him at pedestrian crossing on Willis Street once, he was shouting, ‘I don’t want to…. DIE. I don’t want to … DIE.’ When the lights changed he ran across the road, his backpack bouncing: ‘Heeeeey! Heeeeeey!’ Yesterday I passed him while out running – I heard him coming around the corner, long before I saw him – and he said, meditatively, as I passed, ‘Aaah, she’s running, she’s running –’ like a horse racing commentator, then resumed his monologue of beeps, guffaws, heeeeys and robot noises. Sometimes he sounds like Ernie, sometimes Bert. His most frequent noise is a sort of half-shout, half-laugh. Remember Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott in Shine? There’s that really brief scene where David is the passenger in a car and he’s leaning out the window shouting excitedly as the car speeds by. Moustache guy sounds a little bit like that. He is his own speeding car.
A friend of mine was at a noodle canteen for lunch recently, and the guy was there. He had his plate piled high with food, and was standing up to eat it with his hands. Food was all over the table, all over the floor, all over his face and in his moustache, and the guy was making noises and having a great time with this food. The man behind the counter didn’t know what to do. He pointed at the guy. ‘Sit down,’ he shouted. The guy sat down for a few seconds. But he couldn’t contain himself – he stood up again and kept eating, noodles falling off his plate, flying from his hands. Causing a scene. The man behind the counter was visibly distressed. ‘Sit down! Sit down!’ Eventually the guy finished his meal, then wandered out contentedly, a wasteland of noodles in his wake.
I worked weekends at the bookstore, and there would often be slow afternoons, when the city felt empty. A few customers would drift in and out; some of them would fall asleep under their books in the problematically comfortable armchairs. At the front counter, I would take to staring out the window, idling over what I’d do that night. Then I’d hear him. ‘Heeeeey!’ Far away, somewhere down Lambton Quay, getting closer. ‘Heeeeey!’ Sure enough, he’d soon go rolling past, a travelling jukebox, his moustache fuller than ever, his yells resounding through the shop. Everyone I’ve talked to about the guy knows who I mean. At the bookstore my workmate Andrew was a fan of him, and he knew I was too, so we’d share our encounters. ‘I saw him yesterday sprinting down the street yelling.’ Or, ‘I just saw him laughing on the waterfront. I love that guy.’
Apart from the times when I’ve waited next to him to cross the road – and even then he’ll be jiggling around, bouncing on the balls of his feet – the guy is always moving forward, his eyes fixed on the mid-distance. He tends not to look at other people, just at the path ahead, and he is a fast walker.
I hope that somebody’s looking out for him, that somebody knows where he is when he’s out walking. Wherever he goes, he attracts attention, which makes him more vulnerable. I hope that other people get as much delight out of bumping into him as I do, but I’m sure that there are lots who cross the street, who look away, who make a face at the person they’re walking with, or who are frightened of him because he seems unpredictable. It’s unusual to hear a person casually vocalising, experimenting with their voice, as they stride along alone, the same way that you might fidget with your iPod or your phone as you walk, and I guess most people’s impulse is to walk quickly by. But when I hear him coming, I have this immediate, uncontrollable reaction – I cannot stop grinning.
Noise carries in my neighbourhood, and as I write this, I can hear the guy outside. I’m serious. I can hear him somewhere in Hataitai, so he must be out walking. ‘Woooooaaaaah! Heeeeey! Heeeeey!’