Sometimes, when I get discouraged by the trash that re-appears each week on roadsides, I think of the collector of cigarettes on the corner of Wende Dr. and Derry Rd. While I waited for the traffic to clear, I would watch him behind the windshield of my car. Trying to be discrete, I would peak at his bent form, his eyes focused on the task at hand, as he plucked cigarettes out of the sand and bagged them like precious peaches fresh from the farm.
He must have been in his mid-to-late eighties during the six years I lived in southern NH. His advanced age was obvious, the stoop of her shoulders, one could see, was not limited, but perhaps, accentuated by, the hours he spent each week searching through the sand. He looked, in fact, as though he were part of the landscape, weathered by time. Tan work-boots caked in dust adorned his shuffling feet, above which more dust colored his faded trousers and plaid shirt. The man I called the “Cigarette Collector,” wore an untrimmed beard that covered lips I imagined mumbled sounds coherent only to his mind. While I watched, he greeted no one, but the earth below his feet.
As I waited for my turn to exit my neighborhood, I would imagine the life of this mysterious man. When I was a child, growing up in a small town in central NH, there was once an old man, we’ll call him Mr. Witherspoon, who used to live in a tiny run-down house painted red beside a creek. Mr. Witherspoon, as far as I knew, kept to himself and lived alone. This only added to his intrigue.
It wasn’t often that my path would cross by his house, but when it did I would stare at the trophies that lined his lightless windows and try to imagine him as a young man. It was easier to picture him as an eccentric recluse, shuttered against time. The tiny stream beside his house, I became convinced, was where he bathed, even in the snows of winter.
I never got to know Mr. Witherspoon, just as I never got to know the collector of cigarettes who spent hours each week clearing a small space of earth of discarded debris. As far as I knew, the mysterious old man that captivated my adult imagination, collected only cigarettes, for his plastic bread-bag held only their candy-corn colors.
I found the cigarette collector’s regular presence both sad and comforting. To me, he looked lonely and withdrawn, but perhaps I was merely projecting my own emotions onto him. Yet, he gave me hope. The old man was a symbol of timeless grace and compassion. His feet moved in a slow dance across the sand that was captivating and beautiful. His heart, I knew, was beating the sacred rhythm of the Earth he cared enough about to keep clean.