Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Answer to the Universe

I think his full name was John Lee, but we just called him Mad John. Not to his face though, only when we were talking about him, which was often because he was fun to talk about.

Mad John was an inventor. He didn't get paid for his work, but collected a monthly government check which allowed him to keep inventing things like magnet-water games and star pens.

One of the things I remember about Mad John was his apartment (he lived in Inverness, Scotland), specifically the cigarette butts along the top of the shower door in his bathroom. John smoked a lot, even in the shower.

I met John at the hostel where I worked in Inverness. He was an old friend of the owner and used to come around to hang out. Often, he'd just sit there and smoke without saying anything. And when you'd talk to him, he'd get nervous and smoke faster and smile and answer whatever questions you asked. He was extremely polite and very gentle.

Mad John taught me how to play chess, and even though he could have pummeled me in three moves, he always took it easy on me. He was a formidable partner to have in 500, a card game that all the Australians played at the hostel. When he was on my side, we'd always take the Aussies for run.

I would never have gotten to know Mad John if it weren't for two actualities: he hung around the hostel every day and I worked there every day. One of the great things about the service industry, especially when you throw travel into the mix, is that you get to know people (or, rather, you're forced to get to know people) that would otherwise never fit into the often pigeon-holed definitions we create to define the very specific type-of-person-we-can-imagine-being-friends-with. I got to know Mad John by accident.

Not long before I met him, John got busted out on the runway at the Inverness airport, carrying a bicycle wheel and claiming it was the answer to the universe. I don't think the rest of the bike had anything to do with the answer. It was all right there.


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