Letter to a Stranger
To The Richmond Man With Schizophrenia
by Shayna Shattelroe
Richmond, Virginia was full of many strangers. The flamboyant, elderly Uber driver who took his job seriously with pockets lining every inch of his car for any personal or medical issue that could possibly arise on the journey. The soft-spoken grandmother working Uber as a side job who had to pick up four metal fans from the Gwar festival stained head-to-toe in red, pink, blue, green after attending her 5-year-old granddaughter’s birthday party earlier that day. The middle aged man belching old punk songs at the top of their voice in between concert sets.
My partner, Dave, our two close friends, Pete and Heather, and myself had driven down to attend a 3-day festival. I was a fresh-faced mother who hesitantly left her almost 1 year old with his grandma, aunt, uncle, and two cousins for the first time to find balance between being a stay-at-home mom and a then 22 year old. After arriving and checking in, we got comfortable in our hotel room. Too excited to unpack, we explored the hotel and eventually drifted off to sleep to prepare for the long days ahead.
The next day, it was the afternoon of the Summer Slaughter Tour at The National. Metal-heads bustled through the city in seas of black band t-shirts. After our Uber ride into the city with the flamboyant and overly-prepared elderly man, we nestled into the neighboring restaurant of the concert venue, the Vagabond, for a bite to eat. I noticed you when I peeked over my shoulder to look out the vast, open window to the Richmond streets. Bald, alone, mid-30s, and slightly bug-eyed with a plain black t-shirt. The four of us were sitting there with our drinks discussing what the next two days would look like when, out of no where, you started talking to us.
“Look, I made up my mind to talk to you.”
Slightly puzzled, we turned to you. Sitting there with your body pointed to us, hands open, and head slightly tilted down, I could tell this wasn’t something you do often.
“I have uh.. bad social anxiety. I don’t really have friends but I made the decision to talk to you.”
The four of us exchanged curious glances for the briefest moment until Pete broke the awkward silence and exclaimed, “come on over!” with a hand gesture waving you forth to our table.
Building Volkswagen bugs was your hobby and I think you could have talked about it for days. Your eyes lit up with each word you spoke about it. They didn’t dim when you said you lived with your parents. But I noticed them flicker when you mentioned you had no friends. They lit up again when you said how glad you were for starting the conversation with us. You talked about your hands a lot, as if they were the only thing you could control. Your words rambled on quickly, sputtering out with a descriptive nonsensical vividness most people lack. After a fairly lengthy and bizarre conversation, our food was coming so we said maybe we would see you at the concert later.
We had no expectations of seeing you again. The day was dwindling down, the sun beating on us. Concert after concert, it was close to the end. Sweaty bodies on top of sweaty bodies. Dirt kicked up, dusting the black band shirts tan from the movement of the mosh pits. Lamb of God had gathered one of the largest crowds yet. Bodies were like waves against the loud blare of the music. None of us were huge fans so we stayed in the pool on the side lines, washing off the sweat, dirt, and mesh of colors from Gwar’s set. Out of nowhere, you showed up behind us. With a mischievous grin and shifty eyes, you twiddled your fingers together saying “bug stuff.” Words that made no sense to me, but seemed to mean something important to you. The four of us chatted. Pete and Dave encouraged you to jump in the pool and you did. After that, you seemed to depart quickly, getting lost in the forest of people.
Later that night, three concert-goers we had never seen before joined the four of us on the patio, criticizing the bands from the day. Then you showed up. Dave saw you at the door and motioned you to come over. You acted dramatically bashful like a shy child being offered a lollipop, putting your head down and turning to the door as if you were going back inside. With a booming “just kidding, guys”, you sat down. Instantly, I could feel the change in the air. You must have felt it, too. Their judging eyes and the way their demeanor transformed made you uncomfortable. It happened so fast I think you and I were the only ones who noticed. So you matched fire with fire and made them uncomfortable instead. You started talking about the blowjob you got in front of your girlfriend’s brother with unusual details that would have given a heart-attack to any commonplace person. Your words slurred but you were the only one who wasn’t drinking.
It wasn’t long before they shuffled away whispering the words “crazy” and “disgusting” into their beers. Moments before, they were comfortable and confident discussing offensive bands with out-of-this-world ideas and yet in the face of unusual behavior in real life, they quivered. I preferred the company of your strange, eccentric self to wannabe elitist, ersatz music critics with their stuffed up noses who preferred to judge than to understand. These three metal-heads, considered out of the norm, had trouble handling the shocking behaviors of your reality.
That was our last night at the hotel and the last time I saw you. I like to think you’re out there somewhere building Volkswagens and telling your wild stories to people who care to hear you as you. I still think of the way you felt that shift. The way I saw that shift. The way you sporadically wove in and out of our lives in those three days just as capricious as your personality.