Hell of a Town by Catherine Northington: The Man With The Hats

“I think the guy outside is a Giants fan,” I told my boyfriend over the phone late one August morning, peering out my window in Morningside Heights. I had yet to install curtains in my new apartment—or to move in any of my belongings, or to install WiFi—so those first few days consisted of a lot of people-watching.

The man outside was a people-watcher’s dream. Decked out in a straight-brimmed San Francisco Giants hat and crisp matching jersey, he had been idling on the sidewalk next to an array of merchandise, cawing good-natured greetings to friends, strangers, and neighbors from the early morning hours.

The Giants gear was a red herring. Next morning, he sported a similarly ostentatious get-up—this time with a New York Yankees theme. The morning I met him, it was the Chicago Cubs.

I had just returned from the Lincoln Center Bed Bath & Beyond. He watched smilingly as I stepped out of my cab, performing a delicate balancing act with a 24” x 36″ poster frame in one hand and a full-length mirror in the other.

“Why don’t you take that upstairs and I’ll keep an eye on this mirror out here?” he offered, summer sun glinting off his gold tooth.

I am not a trusting person. I hesitated, reasoning to myself that this man would have to pull off a miracle of space and time to get all of his wares AND my mirror into his GMC Yukon and hit the road by the time I came back downstairs. Figuring all this, I accepted.

“Thank you so much. Can I get your name?” I spouted nervously.

“It’s what friends do! I’m Ralph. And you?”

“Catherine.”

“Kit Kat!”

Without fail, Ralph arrives in his golden-beige truck around 7:30 a.m. on fair-weather days. From my street-facing bedroom window, I can watch him unfold his two tables and arrange the stock in a particular pattern.

Spangled flat-brim baseball caps reading “NEW YORK CITY,” “BRONX,” and “HARLEM” occupy the smaller card table to the left. On a longer table, Ralph carries a rotating selection of beanies, socks, underwear, and sunglasses, all sourced from who-the-hell-knows-where.

When he’s finished unloading the stock, he chooses the day’s music. These are CD mixes of his own making—varying from R&B to early hip-hop to jazz to Motown. He knows every word to every song; his singing volume varies according to mood, weather, and whim.

Some days I know Ralph is outside before I’ve even opened my eyes—the music curls up from his curb and seeps softly into my bedroom. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Otis Redding, Lionel Richie, James Brown. My room faces east, so I can throw open my curtains and feel the sun pour in with the sound.

I have social hangups. I struggle to put myself out there with the people I encounter on a daily basis—baristas, postal workers, waiters—and I envy people to whom such rapport comes easily. But Ralph is magnetic, a font of social inspiration. He makes our interactions as positive as possible—smile plastered on his face each day, calling out “Good morning, Kit Kat!” as I embark on my campus commute.

Ralph has a hearty dose of “real-ness,” which I believe to be one of the greatest human qualities (and one of the toughest to find among the more image-oriented Manhattanites). We don’t talk about much beyond the weather and music, but relish hearing his back-and-forth with other neighborhood fixtures. On Election Day 2016, he held court with a man in a crisp gray suit: “I ain’t voting because—ya see?—I can make a few bucks here on the street today, and I won’t see a Buffalo Nickel from either of ’em candidates.”

Ralph is a businessman through and through. I know this because one winter day he gave me his card. It reads:

RALPH GREEN

PRESIDENT, KYNGPYN ENTAPRYZ

The card also has his phone number, which he told me to call. I have not called. I’m not avoiding him—frankly, I don’t have that option. I can’t leave my apartment without a Ralph Chat.

Things were all well and good until he asked for my phone number in return. My face burnt like the sun. Is this normal? Is this a paternal kind of thing? I couldn’t give him a fake number—if he called and didn’t reach me, I’d have to own up to it the next time I saw him.

In a moment of pure panic, I heard my own disembodied voice dictating my phone number aloud: “4…8…4….” Soon after, the texts started rolling in:

Gm my dearest!  This 🌷is 4U! I hope that i will see you this day! ? B.Bless always!  AS 1 Ralph

Gm CATT, this rose 🌷is 4U! B.Bless always! AS 1.   Ralph. PS am always on stand by!! 4real.  Peace

Gm U have captured my !  Can’t wait to see your smile! A rose 🌷4U!! AS 1.  Ralph,  B. Bless always! !

The missives grew increasingly frequent and fervent: ideas for lunch dates, general flattery, sweet nothings. It’s hard to rebuff someone whose intentions feel so pure. Paralyzed with fear, I began planning my days around avoiding him. I left my apartment before daybreak and returned around dusk. If I saw his truck outside, I ducked into Freshy’s Deli or did several laps around neighboring blocks until he left.

Guilt gnawed at me. After several weeks of careful, cowardly sidestepping, I drafted a message to let him down as easily as possible:

Hmm well I am in a serious relationship with my boyfriend…I’m not comfortable putting that at risk! Maybe we should stick to our usual wonderful greetings outside!

Rejecting a man is like defusing a bomb. After sending that message into the ether, I feared Ralph would call me a bitch, or start being rude to me on the street. I just couldn’t take that blow—he was a beacon of hope for humankind in my life; I couldn’t stand the thought of it all shattering. About an hour later, my phone screen lit up with a reply:

Ok!

PS however there is someone on stand by lol 4sure. AS 1.    Ralph

I don’t know why I doubted him.

Ralph and I still talk some sunny days. I still catch a glare from his gold tooth when he throws his head back and laughs. He frets endlessly over whether I’ve got enough pairs of socks to keep me warm for the winter; he stuffs beanies into my hands, refusing payment.

But I do see him less these days. Maybe he’s diversifying his blocks, scoping out areas with more foot traffic like the savvy businessman he is. I’m moving away soon, and I don’t have the heart to tell him I’ll be gone. But I’ll still wear my beanies, and think of him every time.


Catherine Northington is a nonfiction writer from Philadelphia. She likes Forensic Files, bad sports teams, and Paul McCartney’s eyelashes.

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