The Wandering Whistler in White
Springfield’s abundance of eccentricity
February 18, 1977
These days people tend to regard the cranks and loonies they encounter on the streets with annoyance or unease, if not disgust, but in the 1970s they were as often cherished for livening up urban life. I offered anecdotes about my several encounters as evidence that Springfield really was an interesting place. I doubt most readers were convinced. Looking back, I’m not sure I was.
My friend and I were sitting in Cardo's a week ago, busily reducing a jumbo hot dog to a fond memory, when we heard — or thought we heard — a bird singing. This is unusual, even in a downtown Looking around, my deli at the noon hour. companion spotted a solitary diner seated at a table behind us. He was something of a strange bird himself, decked out as he was in a white suit, shirt and shoes with a bright red necktie and matching red socks. He was whistling bird songs, and very nicely, too. He looked harmless enough, so we went back to our hot dogs. "Nothing to worry about," I explained to my companion. "Forty years ago they would have run him for mayor."
The bird-man and I were destined to meet again, however. Less than an hour later I was standing in the check-out line at Osco's, daydreaming, as I often do, about the day when some civic-minded soul with a hacksaw fells those god-awful light poles on the mall, when I realized someone was speaking to me. It was the wandering whistler in white. He was holding up three picture postcards of Lincoln's Tomb and he jabbed at them with his finger as he talked. "You know who's buried there?" he asked. I thought to myself, "General Grant?" but I figured he was serious, so out loud I just said, "No, who?" "The history records say he was a great man, he free the slaves, the Great Emancipator. That's what the history records say." (He talked with an accent that sounded Italian.) "But the Big Boss upstairs" (here he poked at the air above his head) "he told me that he mess up and not treat some of his boys right so he didn't get into his seventh heaven."
I nodded solemnly. I thought to myself, "Does Richard Blake know about this?" I was beginning to hope that the line would speed up so I could get out of there. I didn't want this guy to mistake politeness for interest. I'd once missed two buses and a dental appointment trying to shake a Moonie I'd foolishly engaged in a sidewalk debate about whether God is South Korean, and I wasn't about to make the same mistake twice; Mrs. Krohe, as the saying goes, didn't raise no fool. He mumbled something about the gospel according to John, paid for his postcards, walked toward the door, (forgetting his postcards), came back, picked up his cards with a spritely "Thank you Jesus," and left. His exit line, if I remember it right, was "And now to a post office!"
The clerk, a kind faced, grandmotherly woman, shook her head and said, to no one in particular, "I get 'em all."
This encounter, I am pleased to report, was I hope, my last with neither my first nor, Springfield's resident eccentrics. Any long-time resident of the capital can assemble a sizable roster of favorite fruitcakes. Mine includes such local notables as Dirty Harry, the filthiest man in hobodom, a specimen one out-of-towner said "beats anything I ever saw in New York"; the late Susan Lawrence Dana Joergen-Dahl Gehrmann, builder of the Bannerstone House at 4th and Lawrence, who filled safety deposit boxes in Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, Leadville, Colorado, and Grant's Pass, Oregon, with jars of feathers from her pet parrot; the late Courthouse Betty, who dressed in choir-robes and tennis shoes and who attended more trials than John Dean; the flamboyant millionaire business- man whose death was announced in the Chicago Daily News by the colorful (if somewhat misleading) headline, "Millionaire Yippie Dies in Springfield;” the unnamed goof who sometimes makes the rounds downtown carrying a bulb horn concealed under his coat which he honks at startled passersby.
This is no recent phenomenon. Elise Morrow reported in the Saturday Evening Post in 1947 that there is at least one resident of Springfield who walks the streets on foggy nights in a shawl and stovepipe hat, convinced he is Lincoln." Morrow noted that "an abundance of eccentricity on every level has made the town almost as impervious to foible as Greenwich Village." Well, that may be stretching it, but not by much. After all, we not only tolerate eccentrics, we occasionally elect them to public office.
Morrow didn't try to guess why it is that loonies grow in Springfield like moss on a bucket. Maybe it's because of our close association with the state legislature, an experience guaranteed to foster a forgiving view of human nature. It may also be that the thousand conformities that shape life here breed their own antidote in the form of antic public behavior. Or it may be, as has been so often charged, that people have to be a little bit crazy to live here in the first place. □