May is one of my favorite months. The New England winter thaw is complete, and spring is underway. Most importantly, May brings with it Free Comic Book Day, a religious holiday for acolytes of the four-color media. Since 2002, on the first Saturday in May, participating comic shops set out free comic books for anyone to take. For the past few years, I’ve made it a point to get up early to cue up in the line outside of Alternate Universe, my local comic shop, to take part in the celebration. Customers line up in front of the shop and wait for the sound of the door tumblers clicking to the unlocked position. This sound, a drop of blood in shark infested waters, starts our frenzy.
This year Free comic Book Day fell on a beautiful Ferris Bueller-like spring day of perfect blue skies. It’s significant that I noticed, since I’ve always been more of a Cameron Frye than a Ferris Bueller. Looking forward to some morning quiet time, I made my way into downtown New Haven, stopping first at the art supply store near my neighborhood comic shop to pick up a sketch pad that will likely go underused. As I exited the art supply store I noticed a man sitting on the stoop of an adjacent building that’s been vacant for decades. He was sitting cross-legged, arms out, with his palms up, and face to the sun. Noticing me notice him, he shouted in my direction through an impossibly large smile.
“Good morning! It’s a beautiful day!”
Downtown New Haven, like any other metropolis has a large indigent population. Peppered in among the Yalies, townies, and transplant business folk they round out the New Haven class spectrum. I inferred by his unkempt state that Mr. Sunshine was a member of the hard-luck population and unconsciously braced myself to be asked for spare change. Instead he repeated his observation through an unwavering smile.
“It’s a beautiful day!”
I responded in agreement that it was indeed a good morning and a beautiful day.
Feeling buoyed by my encounter with Mr. Sunshine, I stopped at the Dunkin Donuts next door to the comic shop. Inside, a woman was being served her order, while she barked at someone on her cell phone. She was small with sandy blonde hair and reminded me a bit of character actress Dale Dickey. Despite her Lilliputive stature, she had a big presence, filling the room with shouting that made it hard for me to hear the Dunkin Donuts employee take my order. Character actress Dale Dickey took her exit as I was being served my coffee. One of the employees noted how rude the encounter was. I quipped that she hardly needed a cell phone to convey her message to whomever was at the other end of the call. You know, on account of how loud she was. Hilarious.
Outside, I found a couple had taken their places by the door of the comic shop. I recognized one of them from last year’s Free Comic Book day, where he almost knocked me over in his rush to the comic racks. I’d nearly lambasted him for his boorishness, but quickly decided otherwise noting his mannerisms and hyper-focus as those of someone with a potential autism spectrum disorder. He had a Gavin from Kids in the Hall way about him.
As I took my place in line behind them, Gavin asked if I was an employee or customer. I answered that I was a customer. Then he turned his attention to character actress Dale Dickey, who was now standing outside Dunkin Donuts gathering her things, and asked her the same question.
“Are you an employee or customer?”
In the same tone that she’d been using on her call moments ago, she barked her response.
Clearly, Gavin thought she was here for free comics too. Everybody loves free comics. Oblivious of her defensiveness, he told her that he thought her dress was very pretty. And it was; , a cheery little sundress with a yellow flower print that reflected the day, yet contrasted her current disposition.
“Are you being sarcastic?”
She snapped, apparently more prepared for conflict than kindness.
“No, I like your dress.”
With a reluctant thank you, she went on her way down the block. Hopefully she’d run into Mr. Sunshine.
Just as she left we were joined in line by a customer that reminded me of Herc from The Wire. Herc was quickly drawn into a conversation with Gavin, which was mostly a one-side rapid-fire account of everything Gavin deemed worthy of appreciation. Admittedly, I was relieved, as I was enjoying being quiet and found the prospect of a conversation with Gavin a little daunting. Herc kept up though. He listened to Gavin rattle off his favorite comics and their infinite film and television permutations both live action or animated, occasionally offering his opinion of the topic. During a brief pause in the discussion, Herc turned to me pointing at a ring of head shop grade symbols tattooed around my ankle.
“Are you a pagan?”
With a chuckle I told him that I wasn’t, and that the tattoo was just a series of symbols I thought were cool as a teenager. I was sure to bend the word “cool” sarcastically to stress how ridiculous my former self was. Herc seemed disappointed.
“Oh, cuz I recognize some of them as pagan.”
Something in his tone struck me as dejected, as though he thought he’d found a kindred spirit only to have hopes dashed. Herc directed his attention elsewhere, and I wondered if he’d meant pagan, or P.A.G.A.N. (People against Goodness and Normalcy) from the 1987 film Dragnet. Could it be that I’d just narrowly avoided an invitation to don a pair of goat leggings to the sacrifice ritual of The Virgin Connie Swail?
As more people started to gather, Gavin engaged anyone who’d come in eye contact with him. His nonstop stream of conversation, and the excited volume at which he spoke began to irritate me. I fiddled with my phone to avoid eye contact.
Gavin began his verbal treatise on the film adaptation of The Crow, when I briefly lifted my head up from my phone. In that moment, he slid into my field of vision from the periphery like stage scenery on wheels. Without a pause, his assessments on the irony of the untimely deaths of both Brandon and Bruce Lee had transferred from a fellow line attendee onto me.
Before I could finish agreeing that the Lee deaths were indeed strange and unfortunate, he’d moved onto other notable superhero movies of the 1990s, like The Shadow and The Phantom. Trying my best to keep up, I reminded him of the similarly toned period superhero film, The Rocketeer. Still looking into my eyes, Gavin changed the topic to the Hellboy movies, which segued into the films of Guillermo del Toro, which led to a brief stop at the movie Pacific Rim which led to his opinion on Kaiju.
The comic shop door clicked open, but Gavin blocked the way, still rapt by his Kaiju reverie. His partner, to whom he referred as “his girl”, nudged him to move along into the store. Still locked into his mostly one-sided conversation with me, he backed into the store allowing us all entry. I quickly ducked around him grabbing my preferred free comics from the racks, then attempted to wriggle free of the conversation heading down a narrow aisle. Gavin followed while pondering the outcome of battle between King Kong and Godzilla. I made my way to the back of the shop when Gavin ended his chase midway down the aisle. Still, he shouted his closing statements to me.
“King Kong would probably win because he has hands, but Godzilla has breath!”
I agreed. Godzilla does have breath.
Later I sat in my car with my comics on my lap. I paused before turning the key in the ignition, and thought about the encounters that had transpired in the last half hour. From Mr. Sunshine in his buddha-like state of transcendent bliss to Gavin pursuing me around the comic book store, it all had a surreal dreamlike quality to it. I’d looked forward to spending some quiet time alone on this Saturday morning but the universe saw fit to set us all on intersecting paths. I started to feel bad for my attempt to avoid Gavin. I often complain that I feel isolated or alien, and here I’d missed an opportunity to connect with someone from my tribe.
Similarly, I foiled Herc’s attempt at starting a conversation. Perhaps I’d missed an opportunity for an enriching philosophical discussion about religious belief systems, or at the very least our feelings about the 1987 movie, Dragnet. Slave to my own anxieties, I was the one missing the social cues. I’d spent the morning on guard making assumptions about people and their states of being. I was tightly wound and making judgements about class and mental states, while those around me were simply being. I wasn’t that much different from character actress Dale Dickey, primed more for conflict than kindness. I should strive to be more like Mr. Sunshine, Herc, and Gavin; receptive and willing to make a connection, if only briefly. Too often I forget to stop and be in the moment, no matter what it brings. Sometimes it’s sunshine and sometimes it’s a conversation about the combat strengths and weaknesses of giant apes and lizards.
I started the car and made my way home feeling that the free comic books weren’t the only gifts I’d received that day.