By 10 a.m., Dan Beck has already begun walking his mail route, his feet beating out an inconstant but rapid rhythm against the pavement. Beck weaves his way down Ninth Street each week. He travels the grid of retail stores, restaurants and offices that constitute downtown Columbia.
He gradually alleviates the heft of his mailbag as he stops in at each store, quickly dropping off the envelopes and packages with a cursory wave to store owners.
But for Beck, the load lightens considerably during the summer, a telling index of the exodus that occurs every May. After the last minivan carries its freight of furniture, clothing and other necessities of college dorm life down the I-70 ramp, the city seems to breathe a sigh of relief and falls into its own summer tempo, savoring the fleeting gift of the extended days, a pleasure that soon fades into autumn.
More than a messenger
To most, Beck is merely a messenger, serving a minor yet integral role. His daily handing out of bills, letters and packages drives the steady, almost palpable pulsing of quotidian life in downtown Columbia. He steps in and out of the colorful storefronts that line the streets.
He passes delivery trucks stalled in the street, their blinking lights seeming to synchronize with the signals that alternately beckon and caution pedestrians.
Ninth Street presents a veritable obstacle course to Beck as he maneuvers past the casual loiterers who loosely congregate around coffee shops and ice cream parlors in mostly tacit commiseration. Some are high school kids, already settling into their routines of meandering and people-watching. Others are transients whose slackened paces fall behind the purposeful clips of business people.
The slam of skateboards in an alley punctuates the gentle whirring of bicycle wheels, accompanied by the furtive humming of conversation. Every now and again a loud laugh emanates from a storefront. Collectively these sounds score a surprisingly harmonious melody out of often disparate notes.
He begins to sweat early in his route, which he usually completes in about three hours, two if he’s fast. His pale blue uniform betrays him, revealing piebald patches of perspiration. He shifts the mailbag from shoulder to shoulder.
As Beck finishes his route and the pale blue sky wanes, Josh Windle arises to don his nightly camouflage.
Windle, aka Big Pants, with his large 6-foot-8-inch frame, suffers in the heat, too. Clad in black, his body dampens with sweat during his short drive to work. He lumbers into Eastside Tavern, where he wipes down tables and mops the floor, an effort often unnoticed by the patrons in the dimly lit bar.
In the evenings, the people disperse from the epicenter of downtown. The lull of early evening also bids farewell to many of the drifters, who have also returned to homes and apartments, perhaps only recessing until the nightly renaissance begins.
The congested traffic on Broadway trickles down, but the people and cars still move with purpose. At night, they rush to make that meeting with friends at the bar or a date. The sidewalks fill with bustling conversations as the charm of less-frequented eateries is discovered on their outdoor patios. Friends plant themselves outside what open stores remain, waiting for the last friend to join in the evening’s endeavors.
Big Pants sits perched at the door of Eastside. The regulars greet him with a hug or a handshake. Others enter more cautiously, intimidated by the giant. They’ll find an unwelcome familiarity with him by the end of the evening with the help of a few filled pints.
Through the window, he monitors the array of activity that passes by him. Groups of friends step lightly, enjoying the journey to their party destination. Couples hold hands walking with nowhere in mind. Friends pop in to say hello on their way elsewhere.
The bar fills up quickly when shows are scheduled. There’s no show here tonight, however; just a disk jockey , countering melody against the usual raucousness by the bar.
As the night ensues, Broadway becomes a silent witness to a dissolving social order as people migrate toward the few restaurants still open. Though their fashions divide them by class and by culture, their stomachs fail to follow such distinctions. It’s all about satisfying their alcohol-fueled hunger.
Downtown rests for a few hours as the night melts into day. Soon the sun will outshine the streetlights and the traffic lights will once again stand on guard. On the cusp of dawn, the city is quiet.