March 11, 2004

Common Law:Tales from the Ithaca Commons

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Common law is founded on past precedent as well as rational thought; it emphasizes bonds of fraternity. This was Hobbes’ definition. However, Ithaca has always deviated from the norm, and this case is no exception. This inaugural edition of Common Law: Tales from the Mean Ithaca Streets focuses on an oft-forgotten segment of Americana. Much like Sasquatch, the Chupacabra, and Rosanne Barr’s career, this dying breed of unwashed professionals never gets the recognition it deserves.

It was a beautiful and clear night in Salt Lake City. A shame, then, that we were in Ithaca. My partner and I were traversing the Commons in search of 1963 rollerskates. We searched to no avail because none of the shops were open at 2:17 a.m. Dejected, we retreated to the office to drown our sorrows in cheap newsprint.

At the intersection of State and Albany, something seemed amiss. A new lamppost? A stray dog? A drunken hobo sprawled out in the street? A man edified by his fecal matter? No! Just the hobo.

So there we were, confronted on one side by an ethical obligation to assist our fellow man, and on the other by our own uproarious laughter. The man, whose knees appeared to be gyrating uncontrollably, had just collapsed in a pile of his own spittle. Like all concerned citizens, we proceeded to engage in a 20-minute philosophical debate that wandered through gay marriage, the NFL’s tuck rule, and back to our brother of the streets. We entered the office to obtain a popular consensus among the most erudite and socially conscious individuals in the office. Unfortunately, Mike, our janitor, was out for a smoke. We then approached the news desk. They told us the front page was reserved for stories about flash mobs and Cornell’s latest failed game show contestants. We asked if we could put the dead guy on page 7, but they said that was reserved for an anal sex column. Dejected again and still morally confused, we proceeded outside.

The drunk had now managed to flip himself over and button his pants up, yet could not walk. We stood on the corner, observing and asking whether we should help, or let him be runover by the glimmering white Escalade that had mysteriously appeared in front of him. Although he waved the driver on, insisting that he was not lying in front of his twenty-one inch rims, the Escalade refused to navigate around or over the hobo. Eventually realizing he could never win the class struggle between himself and the giant steel millionaire machine, The Ruffian got up, dusted off his urine-stained Dickies, and promptly fell over again. After two more attempts, he made it to the corner where he waved on the next six cars, all the while filling his downtime with air guitar renditions of ZZ Top.

In a few minutes, The Ruffian lost his interest in directing, and resigned his position to the four stop signs placed at every corner. Heading south on State, he stopped at every door frame, challenging its existences in a bizarre ritual of shrugging and flamboyant Clintonesque finger-wagging. As he renounced his eighth door in the name of Lucifer, a patrol car appeared to persecute our hero under the guise of “The Law.” This first officer trailed the transient until a second car arrived. In short order, two cars and a county sheriff pulled up to the party.

The lead officer, an man with a striking resemblance to Barney Fife, put his hand on his holster and began to interrogate the suspect. To the question, “Sir, where are you going?,” he offered a vague pointing before scratching his crotch twice and humming “Purple Haze.” Confused, the officers turned to discuss, completely ignoring the fact that the crafty hobo was escaping. A slow-speed chase ensued.

Twenty minutes and a block and a half later, it was clear that The Ruffian was winded as he had stopped to lean against the State Diner, cursing furiously at a middle-aged man who had just exited the premises. Desperately seeking someone else he could curse, he carried his feeble frame forward. We had only taken a few steps when something went amiss. Although he still hadn’t noticed the six police cars passing him every 30 seconds, he did notice us three blocks behind him. The Ruffian mustered all his vocal strength to pose to us one life-altering question:

“Who … do you … think … you are?”

Stunned, we had no reply ready. We thought of responding with whimsical fancies such as: “Your mom.” or “Not a drunk hobo like you,” but decided against it. Awed, we continued following our tragically happy friend. We knew not to be afraid. We could trust him … and also he had clearly forgotten that we were following him with notepads.

Our tale ends where all should: in front of a cooler of Colt 45s at Ithaca’s finest establishment, Mobil. The Ruffian had entered to purchase more alcohol. He insisted it was for “uh …. my other sick hobo friend …” This charade did not last as he also tried to take the role of his drunk friend, and then urinated in the doorway. The manager kicked him and us out, assuming we were together. Clearly, yet another example of the Common Law.

Then the Hobo vanished.

On our way back to the office, heads held low in sorrow, we walked in silence. At the intersection where our chance encounter began, we were seized by one last sound. Skeptics would claim it was a backfiring automobile. But we knew the truth: The Ruffian’s ghost had risen to utter one last rumble of the night: “Hurumpha (hack) (hack) (wheeze).” “Hurumph,” indeed, you last brave drunken hobo of Ithaca. The Commons’ Law can harm ye no longer.

Archived article by Matt Janiga