Recently, my friend, the artist John H. Seabury, was talking on his Facebook page about this guy he’s seen for years at Peet’s, a guy he’s dubbed The Sad Man. Orders his coffee and then goes off by himself, always keeps his head down, never talks to anyone. After he finishes his coffee he orders his refill to-go, which he takes home with him. Over the years John couldn’t help wondering about the guy, what kind of person he was, what kind of life he leads.That’s life in the city, I guess. Surrounded by familiar strangers…I’m a walker myself, walk for miles just about every day across the sidewalks of Berkeley. And there are people—familiar strangers—that I’ve passed regularly on the streets of Berkeley for years, and even for decades. Don’t know anything about them or their lives. But I’ll wonder sometimes, out of curiosity I guess. 

A sketch of a man in a big coat with his eyes closed and one hand in his pocket, holding a cup of coffee.
“The Sad Man” of Peet’s Coffee—one of Berkeley’s many familiar strangers. (John H. Seabury)

There was one guy I passed for years on University Avenue. Normal, straight-looking white guy, fairly tall, kind of reminded me of John Cleese of Monty Python. But the one striking thing about him was, he ALWAYS had this sour expression on his face. This perpetual sneer. This look like somebody had just farted in his face or something. Like he was just permanently displeased with life. Always wondered about him.

Then there was this woman I passed for 20 years around Shattuck Avenue. I saw her for so long I actually watched her transform from relatively young to relatively old over the years. Fairly skinny and somewhat attractive, except she always had this look of anxiety on her face. This severe expression like she was constantly distraught about something. And she was always walking by herself, and she always walked very fast. . . Then one day I noticed I no longer saw her anymore. And that was that.

And I’m sure my mug is a “familiar stranger” to some other people, too. They see me go bounding by them for the thousandth time, and a little voice in the back of their head thinks: “What is up with THAT dude?? That peculiar looking guy with the baseball hat and the backpack?? I wonder what the hell his trip is??”

If only they knew. Ha ha.

Ace Backwords is a homeless writer and artist who lives in Berkeley, California. You can find more writing on his blogs.