I have yet to learn his name, though I realize now that I simply
haven’t looked at him long enough to pay attention to his
engraved nametag. My first conversation with him took place
yesterday, but it isn’t really worth repeating here because I
ended up having very much the same conversation with him again
today, virtually verbatim in some places. The dim chill this
conversation left in me yesterday was replaced today by sheer
I take smoke breaks at work. I have to pass through a metal
detector before leaving the building for a smoke. Since I work a
noon-to-eight shift, my last smoke break takes place after the
busiest part of the guard’s day.
When I went to the guard’s station at the front door of the
building for my last smoke break, I noticed his eyes were
closed. He sat there in his chair, arms crossed, head moving
slightly in random directions as he drifted near the edge of
I emptied my pockets of keys, cigarettes, and loose
change. “Hello,” I said lowly, getting his attention. He opened
his eyes and looked at me, so I walked through the metal
detector, retrieved my things, and stepped out into the warm
summer Texas air for a cigarette.
I was striking my match when I heard the door open behind me. I
was hoping I’d have a cigarette alone, but here was this guard….
“I wasn’t asleep,” he said, lighting up a smoke of his own as he
kept the door propped open against his back. “I’m tired, but I
wasn’t sleeping.” He let out with a weak yawn, which triggered a
yawn of my own.
“I’ve been pretty sleepy myself,” I said, taking a drag.
“That sure is a big grasshopper there,” he said, gazing up at the
wall where a dozen or so grasshoppers were perched to avoid being
eaten by birds. One of the grasshoppers was indeed
bigger. “That’s a granddaddy.”
“Yeah,” I said. July and August had really brought out the
grasshoppers this summer.
“You know, you can eat ‘em,” he continued. “They’re completely
I turned to look at the guard, and he was staring right into my
eyes. The seriousness of his gaze was a little startling. It
was a little too scary. It seemed as though he saw me as a young
man who had probably led a sheltered life, as if his comments
were designed to lure me into exposing myself as a weak-minded
individual. Not the most friendly way to carry on a
conversation…. The way he would pause a little too long to
breathe in between sentences only served to lengthen my agony.
“I went on a survival trip many years ago,” he said. “A twenty
five-hundred-mile hike. They dropped us out of the plane with a
canteen of water. And one day’s rations.” As he was saying
this, I noticed that the guard’s gums had receded substantially,
and he had already lost his two front lower teeth. “One month of
hiking. But before I got on the plane, I went to a hardware
store. I bought a ball of twine. And a box of headless nails,”
he said, holing up a thumb and forefinger to show the length of
he nails, about five inches. I turned back to look at the
grasshoppers on the wall.
I didn’t feel like challenging this man on the concept of moving
nearly 100 miles a day on foot for a month while gathering
berries and hunting for food. His monotone delivery and lack of
smiles were making me want to say nothing at all. Regardless, I
felt certain I was about to hear a MacGyver-like explanation of
his survival techniques.
“The first thing I did when I landed was find a tree. I selected
a good branch. And I made myself a bow….”
The sound of flapping wings drew my attention away from the
grasshoppers on the wall: a bird was chasing a grasshopper it had
found in the grass next to the building, and it caught it in mid
air. The bird landed in the grass again where it shook the
grasshopper in its beak for a couple of seconds until a
noticeably large piece of insect dropped to the ground.
“…And I took a few of those nails. And found some straighter
sticks. And with the twine, I made some arrows….”
The bird was fumbling with picking at the grasshopper bits in the
grass, swallowing surprisingly large chunks whenever it could get
a piece to stay in its beak. Relative to its size, I’d liken
this activity to a human swallowing a McDonald’s cheeseburger
without chewing even once. The bird worked very quickly. It was
soon chasing down another nearby grasshopper in the grass.
“…I also made a spear. You know, those grackles are edible,
too.” Grackles? I turned and looked back at the guard, who had
been watching me watch the bird.
“Grackles? I’ve never heard that one before.”
“Yep. That’s a grackle. Smaller than a crow, with a longer
neck. It eats insects. That means it’s edible. You can
eat ‘em. Because insects are edible….”
“Hmmm,” I said, with a nod. I turned and looked back at the
bird, as well as a small flock of them picking at grasshoppers in
a nearby field. The grackle near us was already picking through
“…Problem with grackles is, it takes a few of ‘em to make a
meal.” He paused for a moment to take a couple of drags off his
cigarette. The grackle finished with its grasshopper and flew
off to join its flock in the field. Reluctantly, I turned back
to the guard. I still had a few drags left.
“With that spear, and the arrows, I got pretty good. I hardly
missed anything. Of course, my survival depended on it.” Now it
was the guard who diverted his gaze from me: he went back to
looking at the grasshoppers on the wall.
“Locusts are edible. They’ve got the same stuff in ‘em that
grasshoppers have.” The gap in the guard’s lower row of teeth
made me wonder if a grasshopper had ever spent its last moment
with its head stuck in there…. The greenish-yellow hue of his
teeth also made me wonder if the yellow blood of insects could
stain human enamel. “Grasshoppers can do real damage to crops.”
I took the last drag off my cigarette and put the butt in the
ashtray next to the door, and I readied my security badge for a
swipe before re-entering the building.
“You know, we’ve got it too easy today,” he said, partially
blocking my path to get back inside. “Take away our
electricity…. Our automobiles….”
“Our running water,” I added. He looked me in the eyes with the
slightest hint of a smile: it appeared that my comment made him
feel as though he had connected with me. I should have kept my
“Our computers,” he continued. “Take it all away, and we’re
lost.” I really wanted to get back to work now, at the very
least just to end this conversation. But I failed myself again.
“It all might happen on January first,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, nodding. He hadn’t noticed that I was done
smoking, and that I was holding my badge as though I needed to
get back in the building and back to work. He just stood there,
nodding and looking at me for several seconds.
“Well,” I said, “I need to get back.” I held up my badge to let
him know I intended to follow company procedure and swipe when I
entered, even though the door was already open. He stepped aside
and let me through as I swiped. “Take it easy.”
“Alright,” he said.
As I walked back to my cubicle, I was mildly cursing myself for
giving this man the idea that I believe Y2K might put us all back
to spear hunting and grasshopper eating. I will be paying for
this on future smoke breaks, I’m sure. Hopefully the security
company will find a reason to station him at another facility
before too long….
But I wonder…. The way he gazes at those grasshoppers on the
wall almost has a longing quality about it…. As though he is
missing the crunch and flavor of grasshoppers…. Could he be
waking up in the morning to venture into his back yard for a
breakfast feast? Is that look in his eyes when he gazes up at
the grasshoppers on the wall the look of hunger?