Brian M. Palmer in Long Beach

Sick haircut, dude!

Some time ago, a heavily tanned, broad-shouldered, six-foot-tall baseball player from Texas, who used the word "dude" to refer to males and females alike, took up residence in the cubicle next to me. His name was Pat, and he was the son of one of the attorneys at work. Word around the coffee room was that all the ladies found him to be delicious eye candy. My initial impression was that he was a nice guy, if a bit dopey. Pat noticed my calculator watch during our first encounter and asked, "Do you balance your checkbook on that thing?" Before I could answer, he added, "Damn, dude, I haven't seen one of those since the '80s!" and started laughing. I was at a loss for words. "I got it at Kmart," was all I could think to say.

A few days later, I was absentmindedly studying the porcelain tile in front of my face in the bathroom when a booming voice, asking if I did anything fun that weekend, so startled me that I nearly lost control of my stream. I looked over to see Pat standing in front of the mirror, applying gel to his bangs and giving me a smile. I'm reticent to divulge personal info with people I don't know very well, particularly when I'm urinating, and said, "I got my hair cut, but that wasn't too fun." Pat replied, "Sweet, dude! Looks good!"

Later that week, I passed by Pat's cubicle and he asked, "Did you get a haircut, Brian?" I paused for a couple seconds, trying to figure out if this was a joke, but judging by the expectant look on his face and the lack of laughter, he was really asking. I told him that I had gotten my hair cut the weekend prior. He nodded his head thoughtfully, as if I had just said something wise, but didn't add anything more to the conversation. I took this momentary lapse as the opportunity it was and slowly inched away from his cubicle. When I was about 20 feet away, I heard his loud voice call out, "Sick haircut, dude!"

I didn't have any problems with Pat other than the fact that he made a lot of loud calls on his cell phone. The most memorable was a 25-minute chat with a friend of his from Texas named Lorenzo -- "Lorenzo, what's up, fool?" It seemed Lorenzo had suffered some sort of setback and needed consoling. In a hushed (for him) tone, Pat asked Lorenzo for his zip code so he could send him a postcard and asked if Lorenzo had received his text message. "If that doesn't cheer you up," Pat said of the text message, "I don't know what's wrong with you." And then, much to my entertainment and surprise, he upped the ante and said, "If that doesn't cheer you up, you should go out into the woods and shoot yourself."

As the weeks passed, my study of Pat became more nuanced. He became less and less of a source for entertainment and derision, and more, to my surprise, a source of inspiration.

I'm not sure if it was a result of hailing from the Lone Star State or being genetically blessed, but Pat was so direct and honest, so genuine and unselfconscious, that he put most people instantly at ease. He also possessed the kind of curiosity about his surroundings and other people that most adults had long since shed. Within five minutes of meeting Edgar, a guy I had worked with for years, Pat had him telling his life story, a harrowing tale of his exile from Cambodia and the eventual emigration of his family to the United States. Up to that point, I had always assumed Edgar was born in the U.S. and had never thought to ask where he was from. "Wow, that's amazing, dude!" Pat said to Edgar after listening intently to his story. "How do you say 'hello' in Cambodian?" Pat asked. Though it took him about a week to get the pronunciation down, he greeted Edgar every morning with, " Chum reap suor ."

One by one, Pat won over the rest of his coworkers. I never quite got used to conversing with him in the bathroom, and it took some training to shut out his deafening cell-phone conversations, but after awhile, I no longer thought of him as the goofy jock that I once did. Just when it seemed we were starting to become friends, the summer ended and it was time for Pat to return home to his cheerleader girlfriend, baseball team, and Lorenzo, who apparently did not commit suicide in a forest. I like to think that it was because of Pat's text message.

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