A Steve Hardy Original
“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”
― Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know
Everyday, or almost everyday, I’ll go out for a quarantine walk or two. One at noon, one at dusk. I’ve forgotten how scorching it can get in Pasadena, but the screaming sun and subtle, occasional breezes remind me of last summer: the most coming-of-age-defined era in my life thus far. It was flushed with the discovery of Jacob Collier, my love for the surprisingly time-efficient city bus system, and rekindling connections with old friends.
At three o’clock, I’d walk from my babysitting job to the quaint ice creamery fifteen minutes (by foot) away to greet Ice Cream Boy, my then-proclaimed one-sided lover, with overly-batted eyelashes and hair-twirls, like any other fool “in love.” He gave me free scoops whenever I wanted them. At the time, I told myself that maybe these free scoops were because he thought I was pretty (rightfully so), but in reality, it was because he pitied me for not getting a job there, as demanded by Karen, the manager.
I’d prance out of the shop and make myself as comfy as I could on a rock that sat in the shaded bed of green across the street, inhale the Thai tea scoop, and cooly sway over to the cafe where my favorite role model resided from the hours of four in the afternoon till, well, whenever closing was. He painted and painted, and then would hand his abstract watercolored masterpieces to the nearest stranger beating away at their laptop keyboards. Bean Town was his studio.
“Would you like to be the (something)-hundredth recipient of a Steve Hardy classic?” he’d pitch, in a phony, plastic-pink-flamingo-advertisement-type voice from the 1950s. Except his pitch was far from phony. Steve was an open book. He’d invite himself to sit down with any and every stranger, ask them what trials and tribulations they were facing, and give his best advice. If anyone has ever worn their hearts on their sleeve, it was him.
Stunned, ultra-focused customers would peel out their earbuds, side-eyeing Steve and the targeted interviewee. Steve always wore a ragged T-shirt and worn pair of jeans. Stains and tears were sprinkled all over his wardrobe, suggesting he was a practical consumer. I always assumed he was the type to buy things that would last him, and use them until they could serve him no longer.
He had salt-and-pepper hair that spiked up where his face met his hairline. I think his eyes were a greyish blue, ones that were always glassy because of his old age. He was never hesitant to maintain eye contact with whoever he spoke to, as if he wanted to reassure that his attention was on them, and nothing else. Most times, it worked. People would open up to him, sharing their slam poetry, their mundane job responsibilities working in finance, and why they were afraid of loss.
I met Steve in May, while I was with my age-old friend Elisa. We were sipping our mediocre iced-coffees and wrapping up our high school coursework for good when he came on over, reciting his scripted pitch that I would grow all too familiar with. Except, because there were two of us, and just one painting, Elisa and I sat there in silence until I broke it.
“I’ll take it!” Sorry, Elisa.
From that point on, I’d return to Bean Town. Sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. Steve said that I must have been very popular, because I always brought someone new in. Little did he know, I just found inspiration and comfort knowing this was a safe haven of sorts. A safe haven where reality bent over backwards because of Steve. Everyone and anyone would talk with one another because he’d prompt an introduction for them. I kept bringing in new friends and old ones, telling them about the local treasure that is Steve Hardy. “He has all the stories in the world to tell, and convinces you that you do as well,” I’d tell them.
Whenever I was alone, applying for college or pasting a mini-collage together, Steve would mosey on over to my table and ask me how I’ve been, even though we likely last saw each other the day before. He knew I was going to study journalism at college in the fall, and so he’d gossip about each and every article he had read in the New Yorker, as if I could do a better job with no experience than the well-trained correspondents the publication had onboarded. He repeatedly listed off books about young adulthood I should read, and convinced me I could take on the world with words of my own.
“You’ll land yourself a Pulitzer Prize someday, you know? Or perhaps a Grammy if you get over yourself and go for it with your music!” he’d preach to me, as if he were reading off a commencement speech verbatim.
I sighed, and shook my head no. “You’re a real kook, sometimes, Steve,” I said, laughing. He was usually pretty spot on about things, but certainly not that assumption, I thought to myself.
“Nonsense! I know I’m right about this one!” he punched my shoulder and turned away to compliment the person sitting next to me on the graphic design project they had laid out.
After a season jam-packed with all my friends becoming Steve Hardy masterpiece-holders one by one, and realizing the value in the place they hold in the world, I saw the massive impact he had on the lives of so many. Steve had a way of reassuring people they were on the right track for the right reasons-- that they were capable of so much more than they knew. He was the reason so many customers returned to the spot. He was the reason we all knew one another, and would ask how the kids were doing, or if the presentation went well. He even convinced me Ice Cream Boy just might like me back. Of course, he and Ice Cream Boy were also good friends. A match made in heaven, he teased.
During one of my last visits, I sat cross-legged in the most desired corner of the shop, where sun peaked in, and where the benches connected, so you could sit as closely as you wanted with someone you loved and watch coffee-addicts come and go together. From here, you could see the shelves haphazardly filled with what was left of Scrabble, Chess, and Apples to Apples. You could see which baked goods were left, and find that it was clear the volcano brownie always hit it out of the park with the kids from the Christian elementary school up the street. But most importantly, you could watch Steve painting away, obnoxiously greeting the regulars and sipping his unsweetened iced tea.
When he saw that I was packing my computer and agenda for the day, he rushed to sit at my table.
“You’re headed off to Boston soon, aren’t you?” he asked, refusing to look me in the eye. He was holding something he hid beneath the table.
“Yes sir! Next week!” I exclaimed. It felt hard to breathe.
He was slouching more than usual. He usually sat and stood tall, confidently. It put me off.
“I wanted you to have this. They inspired me, and I thought of you. I think you’ll find them to be very helpful,” he said. He slid an envelope across the table. On it’s plain side, “For Faith’s Greatest Insight, Inspiration, Joy and Success // The Great Woman Journalist Factor” was written in pen in a slanted fashion. There was also a little sketch of a stick figure of a girl raising her arms, grinning, as if she was rooting me on. “They’re New Yorker articles I’ve ripped out of last month’s issue.”
My eyes welled, and I hugged him. I thanked him for all his kind affirmations and encouragement. I said I’d read them once I got home, and that I’d let him know what I thought of them once I came back to visit for Thanksgiving. He was off the grid as far as I knew, and all that could be found of him on the internet were articles entitled things like, “Artist likes coffee house buzz.” Other than that, he has an outdated portfolio, not updated since 2015. Perhaps he really leaned in on the whole sharing-art-with-strangers-in-person thing.
He wished me luck, and told me I was going to be just fine in the other Bean Town across the country. That I’d find another crazy old man who made art and would inspire me to make art, too. I said I’d bring my Stever Hardy original with me to school. Apparently there are hundreds hanging in dorm rooms across the country.
Today, I’ve dedicated my time to writing about local artists like Steve, who do so much to uplift those around them with the art they make. Unfortunately, given the circumstances, I’ve been unable to reach out to Steve for a formal interview, but I hope this narrative inspires just as well.
Among a sea of regulars, I decided to sit back and watch Steve recite his script to a new customer from across the cafe one last time, peering behind my laptop screen. My heart grinned, as always, whenever the Chosen One would nervously laugh in response. They were in for a treat. And it wasn’t Bean Town’s volcano brownie.