Last night, on my way out the door to grab a late snack with my young friend Ben, I noticed that trash had accumulated in the kitchen.  Two full bags sat beside the garbage can, along with a couple of empty cardboard boxes.  Time for a dumpster run.  So, using every one of my fingers, I held and hung and balanced the trash along with my phone, keys and backpack, maneuvering sideways through doorways down the three flights of stairs and out to the lot.

It stunk outside.  It often does here.  Unfortunately, what they don’t tell you when you move in is that there is a sewage treatment plant just behind our community, which does night work.  On warm and humid summer nights, it can be powerful.  But I’ve learned to live with it.

The lot was very dark, especially in the far back corner of it, where the woods press in around the dumpster.  As I made the trek there to dispose of the trash, I noticed a character in the shadows.  He was not dumping anything.  He was just sitting there beside the wooden picket fence that surrounds the rubbish bin, elbows on knees, looking down.  He wore a hat, pulled low.  I couldn’t see his face as he looked down at what appeared to be some sort of large, shallow container.  It looked like something from a chemistry set.  I saw a small ember of light begin to glow in his hand.  Was he … doing crack?  Setting up a makeshift meth lab right here in my parking lot?  As I got closer, he cast a Godfather glance up at me without raising his head.

In yesterday’s post, entitled “what’s in a name,” I ended with this:

Using people’s names is just one more way to stay outward focused, instead of being all about me.  Whether it is your neighbors, co-workers, gas attendants or people on the train, each has a real life.  An important life.  Struggles. Goals.  Dreams.  Families.  At core, I believe we each want to connect.  To matter.

We each have a name.  Look for opportunities to really see people.  Interact.  Be vulnerable.  Be genuine.  Before long, what may have once seemed daunting will become a natural, full and enjoyable way of life.

And this really is a way of life for me.  That doesn’t mean that I stop and talk to every person along my path.  But, having just written yesterday’s blog post, the idea was fresh in my mind that even sketchy guys who sit out by dumpsters in the middle of the night doing God-knows-what … are real people.

I also encourage readers to be vulnerable and to take risks.  And while I’m comfortable with people from all walks of life, the unknown factors presented here made this about as big of a social risk as I might face.

So I did.

Be vulnerable and take risks.

As I began to hoist the trash in my hands, ready to toss it in through the sliding door of the dumpster, I smiled and used the sewage smell to my advantage.  “Hey, what’s up!  Did you come out to the dumpster to escape the smell of the rest of the place?”  I threw the garbage, which landed with clunks and rattles.

The stranger looked up at me, smiling.  “Ha-ha, yeah!  What is that smell anyway?”  He was a young guy.  I could see now that the glowing ember of light was coming from a standard cigarette.  He sat in a swivel chair, the kind someone might have in an office.  I still didn’t know what the plastic tubs at his feet were for.

“It’s the sewage treatment plant.  It’s right behind the woods there,” I pointed, “and they tend to do their dirty work at night.”

“OK.  I thought it was a sewage leak.  I didn’t know if I should call maintenance or the town,” he replied.

“Oh, so you must live here,” I said.  “I live in Building 8 over there.  My name’s Erik.”

He smiled even more broadly.  “Hey, I’m also Eric! I just moved into Building 1.”  He gestured to his right with the cigarette hand.

“Well, your name should be easy to remember then!” I said.  “Do you spell it with a ‘C’ or a ‘K’?”

“Just a ‘C’, nothing fancy” he said, almost apologetically.

“Mine’s with a ‘K’,” I replied, feeling guilty.

“Oh, man.  You’re lucky.  The Nordic version.  I always wished I’d gotten that one.”  This guy wasn’t stupid.

“So … I have to ask,” I half-laughed with a raised eyebrow.  “Why are you sitting in a swivel chair, smoking out by a dumpster in the middle of the night?”

“Sketchy, right?” He laughed.  “I came out here to empty the cat boxes” [mystery of the plastic containers solved!] “and saw this swivel chair that someone threw out.  I was testing it to see if it was broken, because I need a chair for my desk.  Seems to be in pretty good condition.  Not dirty.  I always loved spinning around in these when I was a kid.  So, I just decided to have a cigarette and spin around in it for a while.”  He laughed again sheepishly.  “I stopped when I saw you coming.”

OK, so he wasn’t sketchy.  He wasn’t the Godfather.  He wasn’t a druggie.  He was just a real guy like me.  A nice guy.

His cigarette was finished.  He plopped the cat boxes on top of the chair and began to drag it toward his building.  I walked with him a little ways.  “Well, I’m sure I’ll see you around then.  Nice to meet you, Eric.”  I extended my hand.

He shook it firmly.  “Nice to meet you, as well.”

As well!

My eyes got a bit wider in surprise.  Hands still locked, I replied, “We seem to have a lot in common, Eric!  You say ‘as well’!  It’s not often that I find someone else who prefers ‘as well’ over the more common ‘too’!”

He replied modestly, “I read a lot.”

“I do, as well!” I returned.  We both laughed.

“Then we have a lot in common, indeed,” he replied.

‘Indeed’?  You say ‘indeed,’ as well?”  I was almost giddy.  “OK, OK.  We need to stop now or we’ll be standing here all night…”

We laughed one more time, said our goodbyes, and headed for our separate destinations.

Now, you may be thinking, “Well, you didn’t know how it would turn out.  He could have been a drug addict!”  That’s true.  He could have.  That’s why it’s called a “risk.”  I suppose it’s possible that he could have leaped up erratically and assaulted me with his red hot crack spoon.  It’s unlikely, but possible.  But what I know to be true is that he would still have been a valuable person, with a name and a story.  I was willing to take a chance on that basis.

As I walked toward my car, hearing the scrape of the swivel chair wheels on the sidewalk behind me, I smiled at the cool interaction I’d had with Eric: former crack addict turned erudite, cat-loving, swivel chair spinner.

Another risk well taken.

I’m curious to know: Would YOU have stopped to talk to this “sketchy guy”?  Drop your thoughts in the Comments section below!

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About Erik

I'm an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, listener, noticer and lover of life. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

12 responses to “sketchy

  • likable | The Best Advice So Far

    […] how I met Eric by the dumpster after midnight. And impossibly inked-up Nathaniel at the gym. And Stephan on vacation in Florida. […]


  • strings attached « The Best Advice So Far

    […] introduced my new friend Eric in my previous post entitled “sketchy.”  And I remembered our parting words about our shared love of reading.  I turned the car […]


  • Justin

    I understand what you mean. Fortunately, I’ve never had to do any shanking in my given situations either, but I couldn’t help imagining you poking into thin air though =) I really liked the post. It gave me a reassuring feeling of comfort to look at someone’s big picture. Will I see you at 13 Agawam today?!


  • Justin

    He practices what he preaches! Haha, no no. NOT a surprise =) I have some stories too: hitchhikers, car-troubled strangers, what have you. I often get an earful about what could’ve happened and worst case scenarios after describing why I was late, or just describing a conversation I had. Is it wrong to trust all strangers until given a reason not to?


    • Erik

      I think you have to use real wisdom and be cautious to a point, but without living in fear. I’ve picked up many hitchhikers, but I also don’t pick up people with long jackets or duffel bags, as a rule. In addition, I keep a screwdriver under the driver’s seat. If I pick someone up, I tuck the screwdriver, point out, under my right leg before I pull over. I have practiced often quickly grabbing the handle and making a sideways stabbing arc into the passenger seat, at chest level. No, I’m not kidding. That said, I’ve never had to use this technique, or even thought I might. But I’m prepared in the unlikely event that I need to be.


  • Miss Holly

    Great story……such a lesson!


  • John Cobbett-Walden

    First, you are one hell of a story teller.

    Second, I love the message of this story.

    I often pick up hitchhikers, but my wife hates that I do it. It’s not that she thinks they don’t deserve a ride, but she’s worried something will happen. I can’t blame her, and I certainly don’t judge people who don’t pick up hitch hikers.

    A few years ago, on what was likely the coldest and windiest day of the year, we decided to go to Supreme coffee in Brockton after we left church. It was out of the way, but we had recently acquired a taste for their almond joey iced coffee. On the way, we passed a woman with her gloveless thumb outstretched. A few seconds later, Cathy said, “we should give her a ride. it’s really cold out today”. I replied, ” I don’t know, she kind of looked like a whore”. Cathy said, “so?” and we turned around at the next street.

    Turns out she was a whore. A very strange, very cold whore who needed a ride to Pembroke after a long, cold night of turning tricks in Brockton. The first thing she says after getting in the car is that she has been “in and out of framingham state for hitchhiking, can you believe that the cops keep arresting me for hitchhiking?” She asked us for a cigarette but insisted we keep the windows up b/c she couldn’t feel her hands. She asked us why we didn’t have kids. At one point I’m pretty sure she thought we were going to abduct her. I don’t recall her name now, but I don’t regret picking her up. I learned that people are people are people and there is no two ways about it.

    Thanks for letting me share this story on your blog!


    • Erik

      No, thank you, John. Really. This is what I always envisioned for this blog site: people being inspired, then telling — and making — their own stories to tell. The book will be collective wisdom, and that means it comes from many more sources than just me. Thanks for being one of them.


  • Kristin Brænne

    Stay excellent!


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