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Eccentric in Fort Wayne
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
Back in 2004, when the state of Indiana felt compelled to relieve me of my driving privileges, I walked everywhere, and in doing so I discovered two things about the city that I never previously noticed.
First off, and most obviously, I found that walkers aren't really trusted in Fort Wayne — it may be a subtle thing, but I could almost feel the puzzled looks from passing motorists, like: What the hell? Walking? Fort Wayne has always had one of the highest car ownership per capita rates in the country, and if you choose to stroll some of the city's busiest thoroughfares on a continual basis, you better be prepared to be viewed as a freak by the driving proletariat. I had dozens people in cars yell at me as I walked by, and twice I got fast food drink cups tossed my way.
The other thing I noticed is something I'm sure is no secret to people who work at the library or Riegel's, but came as a total surprise to me: namely, that downtown Fort Wayne is a haven for eccentrics and bizarrely behaving people. I suspect every city has its share of these folks, but I was taken aback by the huge numbers of mentally ill and socially maladjusted people I saw every day walking the streets. I have no sociological insights as to why this is — indeed, my epiphany probably only shows how naive I can be. And I wish I could say that I'm one of the good people of the world, the kind that handles oddballs well and embraces the less fortunate, but I'm not. Crazy-acting people freak me out and I avoid them at all costs. I employ the time-honored methods used by streetwalking cowards everywhere — I never make eye contact, I cross the street before they approach me, I ignore them if they address me. Occasionally I feel pangs of guilt for this cold behavior but I rationalize it by calling it a survival tactic. Dealing with the mentally ill all the time is exhausting, I tell myself, and I'm no social worker. Who needs the headache?
So as someone who struggles to find empathy with the eccentric ones out there, it surprises me to find that I'm still bothered by the fact that the squirrel guy is gone. It's almost been a year now since he was killed, but damned if a week goes by when I don't think of him. Especially when I'm walking in West Central, which is where I used to see him most frequently. Why this is, this recurring grief for an absolute stranger, I cannot tell you; I've lost people close to me, yet I'm certain I don't think of them as often. Maybe there are just some people in some situations that get under your skin and there's nothing you can do about it.
I know he had a name, but I don't feel bad in not mentioning it — he was always the squirrel guy to me and to everyone I know that remembers him. He was one of Fort Wayne's true eccentrics, and he got his nickname from his daily practice of placing peanuts in front of trees for the squirrels to eat. In West Central, it was one of the sights you could count on every day — sunrise, mail arrives, squirrel guy. He was also a tremendous walker, and it wasn't surprising to see him downtown at noon and then find him three hours later nearing the Aboite Township.
He was a classic eccentric, and I should point out that there is a huge distinction between eccentrics and the mentally ill. Eccentrics are, in short, people who are unconcerned by society's disapproval of their habits or beliefs. They are generally benign people who often believe that they are contributing greatly to the world's happiness by their seemingly bizarre passions and activities. People tend to ascribe a "childlike innocence" to eccentrics, which most eccentrics would find insulting. Their view of the world as a benevolent place is a conviction that they earn each day with their actions. And they are, in general, happy people, perhaps another reason why eccentrics are suspicious to most normal folks out there.
Fort Wayne has a number of eccentrics walking the street every day, and many have become so recognizable that I bet I could just name their tics and downtown habituees would say, "Oh, I know that guy." (The man who constantly repeats a salutation with his first name, the arts patron/opening night guy with the wonky eye, the woman in the wedding dress.) The squirrel guy was probably the most famous in my neighborhood, and I'm sure most of my friends regarded him the same way that I did, which sometimes had an uneasy element: whether they intend to or not, eccentrics often make the normal people out there re-assess their "big picture" view of like. For me, the question went this way: Okay, the guy walks all day, he feeds squirrels, he's happy--so why do I feel compelled to argue that my busy, distracted, not-too-happy but Very Important life has more meaning? Of course I never found an appropriate answer to this question. And I wish I could say that I've changed my avoid-at-all-costs attitude toward the homeless, the unstable, the eccentric, but I haven't. All I know is, it's been a year since the squirrel guy died and I'm sorry.
Kicker to the story? I still walk around downtown Fort Wayne, usually smoking a cigar, often talking to myself. The other day I was thinking about this very topic while walking, and I found myself arguing with, well, myself. I looked up in time to see a well-dressed businessman, one of the good folks in Fort Wayne, cross the street before he approached me, desperate to avoid my glance.