I first read William H Whyte’s book City: Rediscovering The Center about ten years ago. It was republished apparently in May, but despite pre-ordering it in April, my copy from Amazon only just arrived. I’ll probably write something more detailed about the book at some stage, but I thought this passage was worth quoting in full. It’s from a chapter on street people and the unusual characters Whyte observed in New York. It’s such a perfect, complete account. There’s a whole story here. It’s beautiful.
He was a handsome man who walked with a curious up-and-down loping gait. He wore a trenchcoat, no matter what the weather, and on his back was a knapsack. Fastened to it was a photograph of him and a card with a hand-lettered statement. It read:
ONLY MY FAMILY HAS THE RIGHT TO ASSAULT ME. IF YOU ARE NOT A MEMBER OF MY FAMILY PLEASE DO NOT HIT ME.
Passersby were fascinated by the sign and would fall in behind him, peering intently at the sign. But the up-and-down movement made the reading of it difficult. Sometimes there would be several people trying to read it and they would jostle each other for position. At street corners he would stop and then stand immobile with hands folded as if in prayer. The people who had been following him could now read the sign and soon would disperse.
The last time I saw Knapsack Man he still wore a trenchcoat but there was no knapsack or picture and he walked with a normal gait.