We never learned how Mr. Gerber maintained himself. He helped out here at the building certainly, he kept an eye on things, but that hardly could have been enough to live upon.
Certainly Mr. Gerber was peculiar. I do not doubt that he was somewhat mad. He may have been a pervert. A skim milk-looking middle-aged man, thinning hair, the kind of man you can hardly tell if he is 38 or 61. The sun seems to never shine directly on such a person.
In a crowd of people Mr. Gerber was useful as an end table. You gave him your drink to hold when you went to the toilet. Fifteen minutes later he hadn't moved. The ice hadn’t melted. I suppose you could have thrown your coat over him.
Mr. Gerber was part of the complex. He lived in a corner basement apartment. A made-over utility closet, I suspect, though of course I never saw it. In this building we're all good friends -- it's required. When we had parties we invited everyone. Inviting everyone meant inviting Mr. Gerber, too.
If you forced him to speak, Mr. Gerber would straighten up, tuck his chin down toward his chest, and say that he was grateful, grateful to be at a party like this, among people such as these. Mr. Gerber was so strenuously grateful one wondered if he was grateful at all.
I should clarify some things about myself. I am a person who tells the truth. Thus many people do not like me very much. I am not a sentimentalist. I am not a sympathetic sort of person. I am a pragmatist. I am an M T V person. Do you know what that means? That means: My Time is Valuable. All right then, let's continue.
Mr. Gerber was extremely unobtrusive, but he was always around. If you came home early feeling under the weather, there was Mr. Gerber. Or late on Sunday afternoon when distractions were running out. At 3am when you couldn't sleep, there was Mr. Gerber, clearing away the junk mail, sweeping out the entryway.
If you caught him alone Mr. Gerber was chatty, in a style both humdrum and bizarre. He'd chat about the light that was out, about trash collection, about the weather -- and then he'd sigh and say, "For so long I dreamed of this and now I'm living it!" And an enormous smile would sweep over his face.
I am not impressed by poetic-type people. If you take a moment to investigate their self-conscious behavior, you will nearly always find an attempt to camouflage failure. Like women who gain lots of weight and become spiritual.
For all his false modesty, Mr. Gerber was extremely grandiose. His life appeared to be 10% of one's own life, which frankly was shoddy in some departments, and yet he talked like he was rags to riches, like his whole wish list had been delivered.
He was delusional obviously. Probably he was actually severely depressed. I'd seen a case or two of this before.
I suppose he was giving me some clue the afternoon we discussed Christmas shopping, while leaning up against the mailboxes. He said he was pleased to be finished with his shopping. (I have no idea who he could have been shopping for. I myself never received anything from him.)
Mr. Gerber said, "I like things -- but most of all I like the space around things."
Well. It sounds a bit spiritual written down, doesn't it? Trust me, it wasn't spiritual at the time. He had one hand in a crinkly bag of BBQ ripple chips, He had little orange specks around his lips.
Conspiratorially he leaned near me, breathing on me with his barbecue chip breath. "Have you ever been in the train station at rush hour, shoving and elbowing along with everyone else, when, without warning, a gap appears? You've got 144,000 people in front of you. 144,000 in back. But nobody is quite exactly where you are. You're in a little gap. I love that."
I bet, if we looked into it, that we'd find out that Mr. Gerber really was a pervert. Perverts resemble skim milk and are always careful to be the nobody next door.
As for myself, I don't shirk responsibility. I believe in doing things. I celebrate achievement. That is why I live on the top floor, whereas Mr. Gerber lived in the basement. Both of us, it's true, live alone. But a top floor penthouse is obviously very different from a corner in the basement!
All religions of the world agree on one point: every little thing you do matters. All of us are born with a 'to do' list. We must work, procreate, ornament, etc. Like it or not this is the situation. When we die we go to Heaven, to the auditors, and all our exotic destinations, university publications, and redheads are tallied.
You can pretend otherwise but that just means you are afraid of life. At very least you must avoid blowing your nose on cloth napkins and eating potato chips on the train.
One night -- I was having some troubles, I admit. I don't have nearly as many troubles as most people, but I do still have some. For some reason I was walking around in my t-shirt. And underpants.
This is not as inappropriate, as abandoned, as it may seem. I am fastidious about underwear, about its cleanliness. And all my underwear is very modest, more modest than what many people wear on the outside.
Anyway, it was the middle of the night. In one of my hands could be found a fifth of whiskey. I turned the corner and saw that there was someone there. I started to apologize -- but there was no need. It was only Mr. Gerber.
Mr. Gerber looked at the bottle. "It isn't really space," he announced. "Actually it obliterates space. But it feels like space." I thought this meant I could continue enjoying my liquor privately, but he took the bottle from me, and had a good strong slug of it.
I remember he didn't shiver and his eyes didn't widen any. So maybe that was Mr. Gerber's story.
"Isn't this the very best time of night?" said Mr. Gerber. "I adore it. I like stumbling on these odd times when one can really live."
Well, this was nonsense, and certainly I would have said so, had I not been overwhelmingly intoxicated. And so I said, "Gosh, Mr. Gerber. You really like some unusual things."
"I like all the things that are likable. And also those things that cannot help but be loved. Dust, for instance." Now he started counting things off on his thick stubby fingers. "I like train stations when the train is gone. I like gardens in winter. Nothing charms like the absence of charm! I like cafeterias. I am addicted to laundromats. I dislike traveling, but I enjoy being in transit. There's no place a man can really live, don't you agree, besides in a city, in a basement apartment, in a building where no one really likes anyone!"
Obviously this was not Mr. Gerber's first whiskey of the evening. Some people actually enjoy being eccentric and contrary. And they expect other people to find it just as delightful.
Personally, I dislike monologists. Don't you, too, dislike monologists? It's the back and forth of dialogue that enriches one, connects one to the species, even has health benefits. Mr. Gerber did not agree with us. He did not seek the back and forth, the to and fro. No, Mr. Gerber had his speech prepared. No doubt he was actually a deeply lonely man, and monologues, as everyone knows, are a hazard of that species.
"One of the joys of modern life," said Mr. Gerber, "Is the perfectly anonymous coffee shop -- not the most popular chain, but its cheaper, though I grant still over-priced, imitators. Each shop is just like another and even the street corners on which they appear are so similar, so dull and gray, that you could never agree to meet anyone there, because you could never think of anything that might distinguish it from any other shop, its street from any other street, its city from any other city, until finally you cannot even distinguish yourself from anyone else: in such a place you can actually really just live!"
My diction doubtless makes Mr. Gerber's gobbledygook more distinguished than it really was. I firmly decided to confront him about his evasions, to remind him that work and restraint are necessary, that the age of consent is 18. Unfortunately that drunken evening was the last I saw of him. For shortly after this discussion, Mr. Gerber disappeared.
I don't mean that there was anything untoward about it. I don't think he ran out on the rent. He just isn't with us anymore.
The odd thing is, now that Mr. Gerber is gone, he has become a very common topic of conversation among residents here in the building. They want to know where he went. They want to understand him. This is a sentimental and foolish interest which Mr. Gerber does not in any way merit.
It disturbs me to discover that I, too, am unable to stop thinking about Mr. Gerber. Mr. Gerber is absolutely stuck in my mind. He appears to have become part of the structure, like train stations and street corners. Like dust.
I very much want to see Mr. Gerber again. Even though I am a pragmatist, even though my time is extremely valuable, I promise that I would greet him courteously. I'd listen to whatever nonsense he wished to share. And I would be sure to tell him, "Mr. Gerber, we simply cannot forget you. You are always on our minds. No one we have ever met in all our lives was ever as unique and special as you, my dear Mr. Gerber."
That is what I would like to say to him. I am certain the look of disappointment on his dull skim milk face would be most satisfactory.
(second revised version, Siem Reap, 2014)