Nelson John

15 August 2000
Auckland, New Zealand

I said goodbye to John a few hours ago at the bus station in downtown Auckland. John was one of the first Kiwis I came to know here in New Zealand. We met up in the TV room of the hostel where we were both staying at the time. We connected as a result of our mutual interest and humor found in professional wrestling.

In some ways I feel as though I’ve known John for years and in other ways, he still seems a stranger to me. Perhaps we never came to know each other’s peculiarities as good friends often do, however I think there was an understanding between us that such details weren’t that necessary. All we needed to know is that we both enjoyed professional wrestling and movies—good and bad ones alike.

As we were walking to the bus station this afternoon, I still felt a need to know more about John despite his knack of evading questions that revealed too much information about himself. So, I asked him to tell me about a favorite childhood memory. He spoke of a cousin that came to visit his family one summer when he was eleven. She was from Australia. He told me how he developed the biggest crush on her and acted like a typical goofy kid—trying to be interested in the things she was interested in just so she’d be impressed. He never saw her again although he still hears about her through his family. He recounted a Saturday afternoon when they attended the local movie house—“Jaws” was showing. He hid on the theater floor during several scenes because he was so squeamish despite her ability to watch the entire film without a blink. His voice was sincere and confident when he told me that there was no better place to grow up than Nelson—his hometown. We compared notes of our childhood and once again found we had other things in common as we recounted our earliest memories.

John kept odd hours at the Ponsonby Backpackers. Most of the time, he would stay up well past 3:00 a.m. and he didn’t think it unusual to stay up until dawn. I think he was disappointed that I could never make it too far past midnight before I felt the need to retire. As a result of his late-night TV vigils, John was never seen during the normal breakfast hour around the kitchen—not even during the later morning hours of the day. He usually appeared after 1:00 in the afternoon. I would often join him in the early evening hours for a walk to the market where he would often purchase a box of Choya tea and Watties Baked Beans for his evening tea. John told me that he probably drank up to 12 cups of tea per day—always with milk.

John’s knowledge about America was impressive. I don’t suppose it is that unusual for a Kiwi to be fairly informed about the United States due to its high profile in the world, but John seemed especially interested in America and my life as an American—as if he was comparing the things he learned from me and my life with what he knew (or thought he knew) about the States. A couple days ago, I was stunned when he made a reference to Montgomery, Alabama, as the capital of that state. Less than a year ago, I couldn’t have told anyone whether Christchurch was on the North or South Island of New Zealand.

I suppose John doesn’t have much money. Although he is staying in places that are associated with travellers, he only appears to be living day to day with little resources—doesn’t have the look or the talk of a true traveller. During my days spent with John, I only saw him in one other pair of pants, which was a ripped up pair of jeans—he would wear them when he was washing his regular pair. John always wore the same sweater too but he never appeared dirty as I’m sure he bathed and shaved almost everyday. Not long before he left, his sweater had ripped where the sleeve meets the chest-area of the pullover. He struck me as odd in his determination to have it repaired as opposed to purchasing a new one. I would later learn that such resolve in resourcefulness is a common and admirable trait in many New Zealanders.

John’s shoes were also very worn and when he had them on, they were seldom laced—or only half laced—as if he was never going anywhere too far. However, today when we left the hostel for the train station by foot, his shoes were as they always were—half laced—just as if he was going out the back door to have a cup of tea or going down to the market at the bottom of the hill.

Because I suspected he was on a tight budget, I bought a six pack of beer on occasion and shared it with him—opting for Mac’s Ale, one of the domestic beers that is brewed near his hometown of Nelson. He was always grateful anytime I “shouted” him a beer or some other treat like a Ponsonby pie or a Memphis Meltdown ice cream bar. Upon handing him one of these items he simply responded, “Cheers.” I’ve never known anyone to express their thanks so well and so simply as John. For this reason alone, I’m grateful to have known him.

John expressed having mixed feelings in leaving. I’m not sure why he had to leave or if he even had to leave at all. I didn’t press him for more information, I just accepted it from him. He caught one of the busses going north toward the Bay of Islands. He would go as far as Orewa for the $7 bus fee and then hitchhike farther north to Whangarei. From there and further north, he told me he would be looking for work at one of the many organic farms found throughout this country that hire general laborers for four hours per day and in return supply them with free room and board. I think John will do well since he is a man of simple means and requires little to keep himself going.

I don’t know when or if I’ll ever see John again. I’m hoping to catch up with him someday—maybe up on the North Shore before I make my way South; and if not there, perhaps down in Nelson when he returns home, whenever that is. More than anything, I hope John will have the opportunity to visit me in Wyoming. I think deep in his heart, he’d like to visit America and now that he has a friend there and in—of all places—Wyoming, I suspect it is even more desirable for him to travel there.