Friday, August 9, 2013

Every Town Has A Wolf Man!

Years ago, almost in another life it seems, I lived and worked in the small town of Los Banos, Ca.  Named by the famed missionary Fr. Junipero Serra, an 18th Century  Franciscan Friar who founded some 21 missions in the late 1700’s, because of several watering holes he visited in his travels….calling the area “The Baths” or Los Banos.  In the late 1980’s, when I lived there, I became familiar with a man who was in fact even more well known by just about every single person who lived in the small farming community. 

We all just referred to him as “The Wolf Man.” He was a huge man, well over six feet tall, approaching seven.  He appeared to be between 50 and 70 yrs of age with the weathered and hard features of a lifelong mariner, more likely caused by the combination of poverty and homelessness.   His hair was long,  black and gray, unkempt, with a long beard that split halfway down his chest, the tips disappearing under either armpit as he pedaled into the wind.  His bicycle was painted black, was enormous and looked as though it was made of cast iron with oily, dirty rags tied all over it.  It could well have been a ghost pirate ship, a “Black Pearl” in a sea of Schwinns and Huffy Magnums.  His handlebars, borrowed from another bike, were the “ape hanger” kind that landed his giant hands above his shoulders, lending more height to an already imposing figure.   I'm sorry to say that I cannot recall or even find his actual name, which is sad on many levels.  The Wolf Man spent his days riding up and down the main drag of town, Highway 152.  He had no apparent destination, and rode with an uneven tempo, wobbling and correcting, always on the verge, it seemed, of pedaling too slowly as though he might fall at any moment….but never did.

I worked as a writer for the local weekly paper, and had wanted to do a story on him, but had been instructed not to by the editor, who explained that whatever dignity the Wolf Man may have had left, was probably better left to him.  In my youth, I thought the decision foolish, but have of course, come to recognize and respect the wisdom in it.  I had done some preliminary research into his life and found the theories as to his plight and condition were as many and varied as the folks who offered them.  

Some thought him the son of wealthy parents, who unable to cope with his mental illness, provided him with enough funds to live as he chose.  Another proposed idea was that he had been spurned by true love and, unable to cope, searched the streets night and day for his lost love.  There were less kind notions as well, from suggestions that he was a criminal or a deviant to who knows what else…everyone was an expert on the Wolf Man of Los Banos.  My favorite though, and by far the most commonly held “belief” was that the Wolf Man was actually a werewolf.  Cursed by Junipera Serra himself, the Wolf Man was cursed to wonder the streets of Los Banos since ages past, feasting at night on cattle, sheep or wayward children… some punishment for an unimaginable crime.  At night, often, you could hear coyotes howling.  It was not uncommon to hear a parent tell their child to “watch out…or the Wolf Man will get you!”  In the market parking lot, or anywhere the Wolf Man rode by, parents would grab their children and pull them close.  One might well have thought it still the 1700’s, instead, it was a reaction of fear fueled by ignorance, religious superstition and silliness.

I tried to talk to him once.  My friend warned me not too, but I chose not to listen.  In the parking lot of a Perkos Diner I decided I would try to offer him a meal.  My careful suggestion was rebuked with a profanity laced tirade that ended with me ducking plastic grocery bags filled with aluminum cans collected during the day by the Wolf Man (although no one knew what he did with them as he was never ever seen turning them in for the recycling value) as he hurled them in my direction.  He was furious with me, and cried out loud as he chased down and collected his own recyclable missiles.  We sought asylum inside Perkos, finding safety and refuge in our own astonishment and a cup of coffee.

I don’t know whatever became of the Wolf Man of Los Banos, but it seems to me that almost every town has one.  Nowdays, in my local community it does not take long to spot a Wolf Man or two.  In every city and town, in short order, you can find that person who through whatever misfortune of illness or circumstance, chemical or financial imbalance has become disconnected with reality and instead “survives” between the cracks of social welfare and charity.  Their uniqueness of character though, either survives or is rewritten to suit the unjustified mechanisms that keep us just out of their reach, and them out of ours.

Every town has a Wolf Man, just as every family has a “black sheep.”  Maybe it’s the black sheep that become the wolf men and women, already somewhat used to being sidestepped and set apart. 

It is sad, and from a humanitarian standpoint, it’s expensive.  The cost to us all is a loss of a singular kind of genius, of special conscience that only the afflicted seem to have.  How they see their world, and themselves, is something worth knowing and understanding.

Every town has a Wolf Man.  As cyclists we have an opportunity to view our local streets and inhabitants as they roll past us on either side.  We don’t have to make contact, often it’s not even wise, but they are a part and parcel in the current of the never ending river in which we swim.  I think about the Wolf Man every time I see one of his counterparts as I travel though Anytown, USA.  I’ve even been through Los Banos on occasion and have kept a watchful eye, but I have not seen him since long ago.  I’d like to know what become of the giant bearded figure and his ominous, tank like bicycle…..but I'm afraid I might not like the answer.