Alex, or Different is Good

Feb 13, 2017

Alex is heavy, in his mid-30s. He wears a bulky suit, and only part of his white button-down shirt is tucked into his pants. That part of the shirt is also partly tucked into his underwear. It's hard not to notice.

He’s sitting at a table in the Hungarian Pastry Shop. The lighting is dim. The small lamps affixed to the wall on one side of the tables spread warm areas of light unevenly across the large room. The room’s liveliness comes from voices greeting, laughing, discussing, confiding. Above the background voices the waitress sometimes shouts out a name, sometimes yours, as she brings a coffee and croissant to your table. There’s no music. The owners don’t need to do anything to make the environment upbeat because it is upbeat. And if on some morning, it’s quiet, that’s OK. The ebb and flow of moods in a person or a cafĂ© are nothing to worry about.

Alex is at a table near mine. He has chubby baby cheeks and big, fleshy lips. His chair is turned a bit toward the side, as he converses with someone at the table behind him. As he speaks, a drop of spittle on his lower lip moves with his mouth. 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 interesting to listen to him because he’s unusual and perceptive.

The Hungarian is just blocks from Columbia. The first time we met, Alex and I were seated at separate, adjoining outdoor tables. We'd seen each other a few times, but it was the first time we'd been seated next to each other. He asks me what I do. Actually Alex asks "So what's your story?" I tell him I’m going to be teaching psychology at Columbia, and I do research on learning and the brain. "So what do you know about antidepressant drugs?" he asks. I tell him what little I know about them, how they raise serotonin levels, and that nobody really understands why changes in serotonin raise one's mood. He tells me 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. He's incisive and his questions are personal, meaningful. The Hungarian was quickly becoming my refuge, my hideout from work at Columbia. I preferred sitting and talking with Alex than to most of my colleagues in the Psychology Department.