This afternoon I turned in my chair to face a co-worker, Michael, and was startled to find it wasn't Mike standing behind me at all, but a stranger, no more than a foot away, reading, over my shoulder, the "to do" list I was typing on my G3.
"What's up?" I asked.
"Not much." There was a pause. This was where the kid was supposed to tell me why he was in here. He didn't.
"Can I help you?" I added.
"Naw." His hand came out. "I'm 3PO."
First thought: like the robot? Is that the robot's name? No, no... C-3PO, it's C3PO. The hand was cold and sweaty, but the guy, maybe twenty-five, looked relaxed. Where I work, at a skateboarding company that is essentially run by skateboarders, a lot of people come in and out of the offices, but they are usually on at least a loose leash, accompanied by one of the twenty or so pro skaters who ride for us. I looked behind 3PO, around the office, and noticed no one. "What's going on?" I asked again, expecting some sort of clue.
"Nuthin." No clue. He sat himself down on my couch and began gazing around the room. I turned and started typing again, thinking Paulo or Richard two skaters known to bring in many, let's say, unique compatriots would wander in at any moment to pick up the stray. The guy fit right in; logo T-shirt, cargo shorts, skate shoes.
Minutes passed. I heard 3PO leafing through the latest skateboarding magazines. Okay, I thought, that's cool.
More minutes passed and it got real quiet. His reflection in my monitor sat motionless. Finally, I turned to face him. "You sure I can't help you?"
"Naw, man, I'm just hangin' out." His face pleasantly vacant. Grinning. Stoned?
"Are you with someone?"
"Naw. Just waiting."
"Do you mind waiting downstairs in the lobby?"
"Will that make you feel more comfortable?" he asked.
"All right, then." He grinned at me, clasped his hands Jesus-like, and walked out slowly.
My mind was dragged back off into work again and I forgot about 3PO. Then I heard a tinny tink, tink, tink sound just outside my office. Must be Tony, I thought. Or Rob.
"What the fuck is that sound?" Tony asked from next door. It wasn't Tony.
It continued. Finally, I got up and walked out into Tony and Rob's shared office. "What is that noise?" I asked them, and before they could answer, I looked over into Michael's cube and saw our man, 3PO, sitting on the floor, my bass case out before him, my bass in his hands, being slapped and thumped in a random manner. I walked right up to him, and as I entered the space I noticed Michael sitting in his office chair, staring directly into his Mac, wide-eyed.
"Hey, you can't do that in here," I told the kid, trying quickly to think of a reason. "We're...working. Give me that." I took the bass from him. I felt like a school teacher.
"Is this bothering you?" he asked.
"Yeah. This is a place of business." I know, I know, a skateboard company, a place of business? Still. "We're trying to work." I was, now, a prudish adult, a security guard, a cop. 3PO had forced me into a turnabout of roles and I didn't like the feeling I just know someone gave me that same line when I was a kid.
"No problem," he answered.
I asked who he was waiting for.
"I don't know."
"Do you know anyone here?"
He paused and smiled vacantly. "No." He looked around at the four of us now gathered. "I don't recognize anyone. Yet."
I told him he had to leave. "You can go wait in the lobby. Down the stairs, go left, then left again. They can help you."
He left silently. We all looked at each other, questioning.
"Thanks for doing that," said Mike, visibly nervous. "That dude was freaking me out. I thought he was with one of the guys so I didn't say anything to him. Thanks."
"I thought he was your friend, Mike," Rob said.
"That guy's a tripper." We laughed nervously. There was probably a time in each of our own lives when we were just steps from being a 3PO. Thus our hesitation to boot him. We related somehow. It made me think about the reasons "kids" gravitate to this totally unassuming cement building that sits in a mundane business park among fifty others just like it. Once, a few snuck into the warehouse, during business hours. They'd made a couple successful forays in to scavenge, before Ozzy, a tough, reformed gang-banger who worked back there, caught one. He grabbed the kid by the collar and dragged him while chasing the other one. After he had the both of them, he scared them into giving up their accomplice, the youngest. We found him cowering under our ramp, a half-pipe out back. The thirteen-year-old had a nice little pile of stolen decks with him. For punishment we made them work in the warehouse the rest of the afternoon.
That ramp is a magnet for skate grommets. Nothing keeps them out. They've jumped over, squeezed under and cut through our concertina-coated fence, risking grave injury just to sit on the large locked-up boat which their idols, the pros, skate during the day. When they get bored, they start digging through the dumpster for old skate shoes, wheels or cracked decks. Anything that isn't bolted down is potential loot a piece of a real skateboard company. Over the years we've lost several forgotten skateboards, a trampoline, some basketballs and, once, Megan's pet pig. All items left on the grounds vanish by morning.
3PO wasn't like the little thieves. He wasn't looking for souvenirs or autographs or a pig. What he wanted from us was intangible.
I went downstairs to use the copy machine. I looked down the hall to see 3PO's head bobbing just beyond Dorothy's desk. What the hell? I reached the front office just as Tony did. Dorothy had beeped him.
"You're still here?" Tony asked. "Who are you waiting for?"
"Nobody, man. I just want to talk."
"Is Rick here?"
Rick's the boss, the owner, a well-known pro skateboarder.
"No. He's out. Are you a friend of his?"
"Can I talk to him?"
"He's out." Tony was getting fired up. "Do you know Rick?"
"Man, there's no need to get argumentative. It's cool." By now a crowd of about eight or nine had gathered. "Can we go in your office and talk about this?"
It was clear he wasn't going to leave. He looked over at me. "You look like a guy that I can talk to." How?
At this point, Tony, Rob and Carlos from the warehouse escorted him outside. Peacefully. Pupils dilated. Shoelaces missing. He was freaking out folks. Davey told me he recognized him as a sponsored skater from a few years back. Dorothy said he'd told her his friend had dropped him here after stealing his clothes and board. Sam added that he thought this guy was the same one who had been leaving messages on his voicemail about "needing to be part of the family." I quickly figured he'd been in the building for at least an hour, floating from office to office like a half-filled helium balloon, propelled by some unseen emotion. Everyone thought he was with someone else.
Finally we had to close the door and lock it to keep him outside. 3PO retreated to an outside wall of the building and sat, knees up. He didn't look upset or scared. Just gone. The cops came. They talked to him. Same thing. Then, finally, he left, on foot, heading south.
He was somebody, looking for somebody. His intrusion created a basic uneasiness in us all; he could very easily, under slightly different circumstances, have been a peer, or even a friend.
Later, when I left for home, I half expected 3PO to be outside, waiting. He was nowhere to be seen. I was mad at myself for feeling a twinge of fear. Across the street the Torrance daily breeze had blown a batch of papers from a businessman's hands. They fluttered and flapped all over the parking lot, chased by the man and a number of his fellow employees. Like chickens, those people they all looked like chickens. I wondered where our 3PO might be right now. At a bus stop, gas station, or just walking not skateboarding, but fluttering like those papers. Only no one is chasing him.