He smiled — and apparently ate — like the Buddha.
It wasn’t his Buddha-smile that attracted me to the strange, enormously fat man propping himself on the iron railing guarding the collection of beachside shrubs between the bike trail and condo blocks. It wasn’t the shirt colored what people who’ve never hear of clouds or pollution call sky blue. It wasn’t the big, black suspenders and comically undersized dog which both seemed to have no purpose other than to make the huge man seem huger. It was none of those things that attracted me to this beatific Ollie Hardy sunning himself along the shrubs and sand.
It was his silly-ass boater hat.
Yes, an actual boater, a real-life version of the Styrofoam cappers you’ll see at political conventions. It was a refugee from a 1920s college campus, screaming to be paired with a floor-length fur and a pennant saying “Princeton #1.” Ain’t we got fun? Charleston. 23 skidoo.
He smiled knowingly at my question. He’s been asked this before.
“eBay,” he said, smiling that Buddha-smile as the bikes whizzed by and his little dog whined for attention. “I paid $5. I was looking around at the shops and they wanted $150, $200. But today’s Labor Day, so it’s the last day I can wear it.”
He expected my follow-up question so much that he cut me off a bit at the end.
“Tomorrow, I start to wear my bowler hat. And in winter, I have an authentic Russian military hat with the insignia and the flaps.”
I’m sure people were going by, but I don’t remember them. I’m sure there was a scene to be set in the highest show-don’t-tell dictum of your standard creative writing class, but I can’t recall. I can’t recall anything but standing there straddling my bike, listening to a red-faced man with a tiny brown dog describing his many hats.
And then, the $64,000 question: Why? Three little letters that, for the first time in his obviously well-worn speech, made him pause and falter.
“I just like the hats,” he said, before launching into a more familiar paean to the comfort of the boater.
“And it’s perfect for the weather in summer. It’s light, cool, lets in the air and sometimes people stop to ask me about it.”
He shot me a conspiratorial wink.
We smiled and wished each other a good day. I rode around the corner, where I promptly hopped off my bike and grabbed my notebook to write down everything he said before I forgot.
In a bit, I peeked around the corner to squeeze more scene-setting, show-don’t-tell details from the beach. He was gone, so I walked toward a mid-sized boulder placed among the shrubs that held the metal plate with the name of the beach and a relief of its namer.
The relief was very obviously one of those Falstaffian Medieval monks known for witticisms and beer-brewing. The fat, happy friar was even shown with a halo around his ruddy, bloated head.
My sincerest apologies to the family of Chicago philanthropist Kathy Osterman.
What I had taken to be a ruddy monk was a smiling middle-aged lady. What I had taken to be a halo turned out to be the outline of a big, round hat.
Written Labor Day, 2009