The Man in the Hat
January 23, 2014
A new man recently arrived at The Place and has taken a fancy to Alice. She’s not sure how she feels about him.
At first she liked his greetings. He waved to her from his table every day when she came down the runway on her way to the dining room. That was acceptable, but then he started waving at her again when he walked by her table on his way back to his apartment.
Last week she said, “All right, now today that man waved at me when he walked into the mail room to pick up his mail, and then he waved at me again when he came back out about a minute later. Is that necessary?”
The phrase, Is that necessary, when spoken by an elder Midwesterner, really means I certainly don’t need that! Their parents and grandparents, the pioneers, did not trifle with the unnecessary. But if you grew up with these people, it wasn’t hard to figure out this statement no longer meant what it must originally have meant. Your parents, for example, might have a giant plastic spoon and fork hanging on the wall of their dining area, objects for which there is no ostensible use. You could spot these things in almost every house from the Dakotas to Ohio during the 1970s and 1980s.
If she were to see these items hanging in a kitchen, a Norwegian pioneer, one who lived in a sod house, might assume that there must be an actual giant in the neighborhood who occasionally showed up for supper.
But the old phrase, with its underlying comment on how you should try to get by on the barest of essentials, now carries another meaning. Now it applies only to dress and behavior.
A young woman wearing a short skirt or a low-cut blouse will call forth a muttering of the words “Is that necessary?” from almost every senior woman in the vicinity.
It also applies to being much too nice, much too sarcastic, much too fussy about the food one eats – anything done in extremes so that the impulse is to turn away.
When I heard Alice ask Is that necessary?, I knew she was beginning to be put off by all the superfluous waving. She was also confused about the etiquette of it all. Must she wave back each and every time, or would her wave at the first sighting suffice? Couldn’t she just nod her head after the second or third wave? Or should she wave upon arriving in the dining room, wave again upon leaving, but smile in acknowledgment of all waves that came her way in between coming and going?
Alice doesn’t mind looking friendly, but she doesn’t like to take the chance that she might look too friendly or, worse, eager.
She took to calling this new person not The Waver, as I expected, but The Man in the Hat, which gave him, in my mind, a kind of 1940s aura, despite his excessive desire to notice and be noticed. The name made me think of this fellow.
So I began to visualize this once-upon-a-time-an-Iowan-like-Alice-herself, only with more clothes on.
But his cap wasn’t like John Wayne’s either. When I finally got a chance to see The Man in the Hat, it turned out that he wears the standard baseball cap, ubiquitous among men at The Place. His cap is black and logo free.
Most often he dresses in a white shirt, beige jacket (zippered), and black pants, an outfit I suspect is probably similar to what he wore in high school. There’s something lean and hungry and almost boyish about him, even though a thick bank of snowy hair covers the area between the back of the cap all the way to his shoulders. No sign of hair appears in the front, signifying baldness in that area, I think.
I told Alice that The Man in the Hat was wearing a cap and not a hat, but this changed nothing. She continued to call him The Man in the Hat most of the time, throwing in The Man in the Cap occasionally, just to make sure that she knew that I knew that she knew the difference.
One day he stopped by her table to ask how she was doing.
“Oh, I’m fine,” she said.
The next day he stopped again, and the day after, and the next day, and the next.
Now a brief stop is his habit. He always says a few words, but Alice hasn’t been able to hear what they are with the exception of one phrase, which was the only thing he said to her yesterday. It happened at lunch.
I arrived for a visit at one o’clock and she was back in her apartment, excited to tell me. “Okay,” I said, “out with it. What did he say?”
She clasped her hands together and rocked back and forth in her La-Z-Boy a few times, extra fast, and grinned. “He said ‘You are a beautiful girl!’”
“Well! And how did you feel about that?”
“It was nice,” she said. “It was fine.” She stopped rocking and leaned forward, suddenly serious. “But I hope he didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Like what?” I asked. “Like marriage?”
“Oh!” she said. “You!” Now she was the one waving, and with both hands, as if to push me to the far side of the room and out the door.
Meanwhile, the only man in the hat who still matters: