The Quiet Man

“At lunch or break, Andrew would hurry across the lunchroom and find a seat; then he’d sit there quietly, too shy even to look at other people.”

As Andrew moved through the building, he wanted to be inconspicuous, or better yet, invisible. He walked from one place to another as quickly as he could while avoiding all unnecessary motion, anything that might catch someone’s eye. Barely bending his knees, he walked without any bounce, as though he were carrying a vase on his head. The only part of him that seemed to move was his scurrying feet. His arms remained stiff, tethered to his sides, while his feet and face strained to arrive. I hope I can get there, they said, before somebody speaks to me.

A person who did speak with him had to be very close and have their ear cocked just right, because Andrew’s speech was clear but quiet—louder than a breath but lower than a whisper. The other clients respected this: when a teacher came to his name during morning roll call, the meeting room would become hushed as everyone tried to catch the hint of sound that he emitted.

One afternoon the clients were leaving the steelwooling area when Andrew appeared beside me, and suddenly I sensed that low tones were fluttering by, being devoured by the air almost before I could verify them. It took me a moment to reconstruct what I’d just heard: “I did twelve glasses today, Glenn.” I congratulated Andrew on his work, but was more surprised by this, the only spontaneous remark he ever made to me.

His manner was marked by politeness and reserve. Any time I asked him how he was doing, he’d say, “Fine, Glenn.” If I handed him a glass to work on, he’d say, “Thank you, Glenn.” At lunch or break, Andrew would hurry across the lunchroom and find a seat; then he’d sit there quietly, too shy even to look at other people. Frequently he brought a sketchbook from home and drew pictures of buses, vans, old pickup trucks, and vintage cars. One day when I was watching him draw, he had me spell Chrysler for him so he could label his sketch; he had already written the model and the year. His drawings were accurate, and the lines, in pencil, were precise.

Andrew was a slight man, about 5’6″, with short black hair and glasses. He wore work shirts or sport shirts, including one with three antique cars stitched on it. He always buttoned the top button of his shirt, giving him an air of formality and restraint. He lived with two other men, one of them a client, and once mentioned at a Client Progress Meeting that he enjoyed going to church alone.

On the workfloor, Andrew had a hard time learning new tasks, and he would struggle in silence rather than ask for help. He was like a timid student, praying that the teacher wouldn’t call on him. If a supervisor sat down to work with him, Andrew would tense up, his body seeming to contract. His chin would inch toward his chest—as it did whenever he spoke or was spoken to—and his elbows seemed cemented to his sides, even when he reached for something.

Once he acquired a skill, however, Andrew was a dependable producer. In the steelwooling area, he’d usually finish six to eight glasses a day, all gems. While many clients had wandering eyes—eyes that roamed the workfloor in search of conversation, distractions, or trouble—Andrew had homebound eyes, eyes that never strayed, never intruded. He kept his attention on his work, and when complimented, would allow himself a small, private smile.

A few times in the Glass Department I happened to glance over and see Andrew transformed with rage: with his teeth clenched and his face contorted, he’d be shaking his fists furiously. Whatever its source, his fury would vanish the moment I looked at him: he didn’t want his frustrations to go public. Like the elusive sound waves of his voice, his rage could disappear in an instant, as though it had never been.

In the same way did Andrew himself tend to disappear. A supervisor’s time was generally consumed by clients who were faster-working or more demanding or more unruly, so Andrew often became the forgotten man on a work crew, as invisible as a camouflaged animal. He was a quiet, reliable worker who gradually faded from your consciousness. He was a pebble, swallowed by a lake, leaving hardly a ripple.

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