Alex

Sep 4, 2013

Alex is heavy set. Really, Alex is more than heavy.  When I see him at the coffee shop in the Columbia University neighborhood he's always wearing a bulky suit with a white button-down shirt only partly tucked in.  Sometimes part of the shirt's tucked into his underwear. It's hard not to notice. When the weather's good, he's seated at one of the outdoor tables. At the top of the suit are chubby baby cheeks and big fleshy lips.  As he speaks, a drop of spittle on his lower lip moves with his mouth, precariously. His words are forceful and insistent. He's making a point about the idiocy of some group of people. Capitalists or suburban moms or Columbia students or conventional people in general. His observations are exaggerated, but it's always interesting to listen to him because he is perceptive and smart and of course unusual.

He used to be a paralegal, but now he's his own boss. He helps immigrants with their visa applications.   He meets these clients from Europe, Africa, South America, at the coffee shop. He enjoys it. He says he's a person who marches to the beat of his own drummer. I can identify with that.

One day he had returned from a trip to Germany. "German women love me," he said with with his fleshy cheeks raised in a toothy smile. "For them, I'm an exotic fruit."

In those days, my grandmother was still alive, and one time on the phone I told her about Alex. My description of him touched a chord in her, maybe a soft spot for the underdog. Whenever I called her after that, she would ask "How's old Alex?"

The coffee shop is just blocks from where I live.  Alex and I are seated at separate, adjoining outdoor tables. We've seen each other many times over the past year, but it is the first time we've been seated next to each other alone. Alex asks me what I do. Actually he says "So what's your story?" I tell him I teach psychology. "So what do you know about antidepressant drugs?" he asks.  I tell him what little I know about antidepressants, how they raise serotonin levels, and how nobody really understands why changes in serotonin lead to changes in mood.  He tells me stories about doctors who overprescribe them, and we talk about dealing with psychological issues using drugs versus therapy versus using one's own free will to right one's ship.  I enjoy talking to him more than to my colleagues. He's incisive and his questions are personal, which make them meaningful.  Usually I avoid talking neuroscience at the coffee shop because it's my time to escape from work. But it's interesting to talk with Alex.

One day, my friend Marty and I were sitting out at the Coffee Shop, and Alex was at the table next to ours. The big drop of spittle on his lips was close to falling, and Marty mentioned it to him. "Alex, I think you have a little spittle on your lip." Alex looked at him and said "So?" The unusual thing about Alex wasn't the spittle, it was the defiant "So?".

Alex is Jewish but can converse in Arabic with the Moroccan guys who are often at the coffee shop.  My friend Sayid tells me they get a special kick out of Alex's Arabic because it's in the old Koranic style. It's flowery, like "How art thou?" I can tell that they're always happy to see him, and they always give him a big hello.

Alex met his wife through Sayid. It was the closest thing to an arranged marriage that I'd heard of among people I knew. She was from Morocco, some years older than Alex. She needed to marry to get a green card. I don't know if Alex had ever been on a date with a woman. For half a year, I didn't see him at the coffee shop. When he showed up one day, everyone greeted him enthusiastically. When the commotion had settled down, and Alex was seated alone at his table, I asked him, "So, what's married life like?" He looked at me, surely thinking it was a trite question. "In some ways it's better than being single, in some ways it's worse." I was curious about his experience, and asked "In what ways is it better?" But he didn't bite. He made a gesture as if shooing away a fly.