The Answer Man

He calls himself Dimotis Eubouleus, but his few friends just call him Dan. No one seems to remember when he first came here.

This day is very like thousands before. He rose before dawn and sat at his computer for a while. His daily personal grooming took only a few minutes. He always wore slacks, a sport shirt with a necktie, and plain black leather shoes with black socks. He put on his hat and walked downtown.

The coffee shop where retired and soon-to-be retired farmers gathered every morning had a table near the back door that he seemed to have claimed as his own. Folks greeted him as they came in, and he nearly always returned a quiet greeting of some sort. He drank coffee and read through the morning newspaper. Occasionally, someone sat with him briefly to discuss the events of the day. He had become a fixture there.

The postal clerks have all the mail in the boxes by 8:30. All his life, in each of the various places he had lived, he had always rented a post office box. When he was young he imagined that it made him seem more important or more business-like. Later, he claimed that it gave him more control: he never had to wonder whether someone else had taken mail from his mailbox. But in recent years it seemed such a nuisance to have to go downtown to fetch his mail, when the Post Office would be just as happy to deliver it right to his house. Yet it had become a part of him — this post-office-box thing — it was a part of who he was. He paid for his meal and walked over to the post office.

This town has two or three benches along either side of the street on each block downtown. He sat on the bench nearest the post office and read his mail. Since he discarded the advertising circulars before leaving the post office this might have taken only a few minutes. He watched the folks come and go. Busy people scurried into the post office and back out again in a flash, others wandered in and out slowly. Nearly always they were carrying something different when they came out than when they went in. Sometimes folks stopped at the theater to look at the posters on their way to or from the hardware store. The beauty parlor sometimes made early appointments but most of their traffic was later in the day. The grocery store down in the next block was not busy yet either. Still, with all the people-watching, it took a good little while to read the mail.

Someone wanted to know what was the ZIP code for Modesto, he asked them which part of town and then gave them the number. When does the gift shop on the corner open? They used to have a sign there in the window, but they open at 10:00, he told them. "The flowers in the planters are almost gone." He answered that the city had reduced the staff of the Public Works department but had just signed an agreement with the local Garden Club to care for the downtown landscaping. He took the mail home.

He liked to have lunch at the cafeteria over at the university. The food was affordable and not elaborate. Larger and much busier than the morning coffee shop, this too was a good place to watch people. He favored a table in a corner, from which he could see all the dining room and monitor the traffic on the Quad between the library, the classrooms and dorms, and the administration building. Though he had become something of a fixture here as well, the population here was much more transient, fickle, and self-absorbed; he often switched to an alternate table because the one he preferred was already occupied.

Still, folks sought him out. First it was a few computer people — not from the Computer Science department, but from the Computer Information Systems department over in the School of Business — a few faculty members and a few more students (though usually not at the same time). Then it was the Philosophy majors; and some History majors. Their discussions were lively, often passionate, but rarely heated. They loved to hear his stories, which always (eventually) had a connection to the topic at hand, and nearly always provided some alternate viewpoint or new insight which they hadn't yet considered.

This day, he had brought his small guitar with him. He spent the rest of the afternoon at the park. He watched the mothers with their pre-schoolers at the playground; the school-children pass by on their way home from school and then return a few minutes later to play while it is still daylight; and the university students walk through the park in one-hour pulses on their way to and from class.

He sat and listened to the radio (which is always tuned to National Public Radio) part of the time. For a while he played the guitar, sometimes singing, sometimes not; mostly church music and popular songs from his youth. A few people stopped to listen, some even sang along. But they were not an audience, and he was not an entertainer. He played and sang because he enjoyed it. And he enjoyed the people and their music. And he especially enjoyed answering their questions.

This day's work was mostly done. He returned home to have dinner and spend the evening with his family. Why did they know so little about his work? And why did those folks know so little about his family life? He always answered their questions, they liked to listen to his stories, they often sought his counsel about matters great and small. Was it because no one cared about him? When they asked personal questions were they only being polite? When he answered was he deliberately vague or evasive? He was a very private person. He imagined himself a dignified gentleman.

Before bed he sat at his computer again. Reading, researching, learning. "Be always curious" he often counseled others because he was himself. And the e-mail: dozens and dozens of messages each day, nearly all of them from the various mailing lists he had joined. He liked to answer their questions when he could, but mostly he just liked the discussions and the things he learned from them. Eventually he went to bed.

When he awoke he realized that he had been dreaming. He looked at his e-mail. "Why do these people send me these personal messages with their heart-wrenching tales of woe? Do they think I am the Answer Man?" He got dressed, filled his mug with coffee, got into his little car, and joined the commute to his job in the city.

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