You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, I told you about an encounter I had with a man sitting on a bench. He asked me for two dollars. I didn’t have any cash so we just talked pleasantly for several minutes before I had to move on. Later, when I went to select an image to accompany my article, I chose a painting entitled “Man on a Bench” by Horace Pippin, an African-American artist whose body of work was greatly influenced by the issues of slavery and segregation. Easy enough, but when I did a little additional research on Mr. Pippin, I found this image—a self portrait currently on display at the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia—among other examples of his work. That was when things got a little weird because this was undoubtedly the man I met on the bench. The only problem was that Horace Pippin died in 1946.
So now I find myself in the middle of a ghost story which is uncharted territory for me. I think I can believe in ghosts—restless souls still among us long after their mortal coil is gone—but I’m uncertain about the messages they bear. My encounter with this gentleman didn’t feel like a haunting and his presence was certainly corporal; I know because I patted his very solid shoulder. Moreover, he wasn’t cold as some people have described when they have encounter an apparition. I don’t even know what message Mr. Pippin had for me, other than to make me contemplate the existence of spirits, benign or otherwise. It’s a mystery.
Or maybe I can believe in something like a wrinkle in time when some oddity in the time-space continuum imposes a surprise sequence of events that falls outside our ordered understanding of reality. In his Theory of Relativity, Einstein proposed that matter can “bend” the fabric of space and time, making a shadow universe physically possible. I’ll be the first to admit that this falls way beyond my ken, but if time wrinkles are good enough for Professor Einstein, they’re good enough for me.
There is, of course, a third possibility. The man I met was not Mr. Pippin or his shade; he was just one of the legion of panhandlers who inhabit any big city and he happened to bear a passing resemblance to Mr. Pippin’s self-portrait. He needed two dollars to buy something unsavory, although I’m not sure much that is savory or unsavory can be purchased for two dollars these days. I assert that option here because it’s a plausible explanation for what occurred but I don’t really subscribe to that theory. It just didn’t feel like a shakedown. Plus, this was no mere “passing resemblance;” this was Horace Pippin’s self-portrait animated.
Anyway, since my initial meeting with Mr. Pippin (or perhaps his doppelgänger), I’ve returned several times to the site of that encounter hoping to reinitiate contact. So far, no luck. But I realize that since that day, I’ve been continually walking around with a third eye open on the off chance that Mr. Pippin is walking around looking for me because I failed to get his message the first time around. Do you think I’m crazy? I don’t, but then again, I’m biased. I assume sanity to be my starting point, but beyond that, all bets are off.
So let’s just imagine for a moment that I did encounter Horace Pippin (or his shade) on that bench two weeks ago and that there is some lesson still to be learned from the encounter. Maybe it has something to do with inflation. During the Great Depression, a displaced soul might have asked to borrow a dime, but today that dime certainly wouldn’t buy a cup of coffee. (Can a ghost even drink coffee?) Or was our conversation a manifestation of the possibility of connecting with someone from another time or world? That thought appeals to me; I would love to meet my seven-times-great grandfather who emigrated from Scotland back in the 18th Century, or, for that matter, any of my ancestors who could shed light on people and events that made me who I am today. I realize that sounds a bit egocentric, but whose shadow would you choose to encounter on a bench someday?
Think about it. Meanwhile, I’ll keep returning to the spot of my encounter with Horace Pippin. You just never know.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com