Petersen’s Cafe 2: Herman High Remembered

Herman High is a bum.  A bum isn’t a bad person—just somebody with no place to live and no food to eat, somebody who wears the same clothes over and over and wanders around begging. Herman High doesn’t beg, though. He doesn’t talk at all. He’s “dumb,” like “deaf and dumb,” but not deaf. He turns his head if you sneak up behind him and make noise. I don’t do that.

Herman High is kind of scary, but he won’t hurt us. He’s very tall, and he looks like Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. He has black hair and black clothes and a gloomy look on his face, but no beard and no stovepipe hat. Still, I think of Abe Lincoln whenever I see him coming.

He walks up and down the street in Alden and sometimes turns into the restaurant. He doesn’t say anything, naturally, and he doesn’t really look at other people, even if they say, “Hi, Herman,” which makes us kids laugh. It’s his name backwards. One day I decided to try some lemon beer, which is really just pop. I sat at the bar to drink it, but about halfway through, I had to go to the bathroom, so I left it on the bar. When I came back the bottle was empty. Pete and Gar said Herman High had come in and finished it, just like he does with bottles and glasses of beer left standing. Even if it’s only dregs, he picks it up and drains it. I didn’t mind so much that he drank my lemon beer, because it was too prickly on my throat, anyway. I will be more careful with my orange pop and my cream soda.

Sometimes after Herman High drains the stale beer, he walks back to the lunch counter. If Grandma sees him coming and is fast enough, she might dish him up some food or hand him a sandwich. (She calls it a “sanvits.”) He doesn’t like to sit down long, so soon he walks back out, his eyes staring straight ahead. Grandma twitches her head and shoulders a little and mutters “Oh hadda”* or “Goopevas.”** She doesn’t mind so much that he doesn’t pay, because she feels sorry for people who have it hard. It’s the smell he leaves behind, like a musty old coat, that bothers her.

Pete and Gar say that Herman High sleeps in an old run-down car behind the Hazle Hotel. It’s full of boxes, and Pete and Gar have seen him rummaging around in there. Maybe he keeps his stuff in those boxes, but probably not soap or a toothbrush. He must have a razor, but he doesn’t use it very well. His face is sometimes stubbly, but not like it’s on purpose. Maybe he has treasures in those boxes that we can’t even imagine. It’s probably just junk, though. We never see him with anything. He wanders around empty-handed, his arms down stiff at his sides. Herman High is a Mystery Man.

*O Herre (Oh Lord)   **Gud bevare os (God preserve us)

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