December 16, 2017

Two old men — strangers brought together by fate one night. And what happened.

By John Guy LaPlante

Oxnard, California – I had a wonderful day, better than expected, in this fair-sized city on the Central Coast.  Well, till late evening, anyway.

All day, golden sunshine. Short sleeves and shorts in January! What a contrast to my cold and frosty Connecticut.

No wonder so many people have flocked here. including from Connecticut.

I started out by cruising along Oxnard’s beautiful harbor. It was framed by palm trees. Big white clouds made it more beautiful.

Then I explored the enormous flat countryside that surrounds this city on three sides. Amazing to see how vast bountiful vegetable acres spread on and on right to the horizon.  So huge!

Back downtown, I stumbled on the city’s small but fine Carnegie Art Museum—originally the Carnegie Public Library and that will mean a lot to you library lovers.

Anything notable going on in there, I wondered? Yes! An extraordinary exhibit, small but memorable. But so different. I went in and loved it. I’ll fill you in about it another time….please forgive me for teasing you this way.

Then, with my walking stick in hand—I’m using it more and more—I walked to the new and much bigger library just two blocks away. Well, you know how libraries draw me like a magnet. I just can’t resist.

It’s no longer called the Carnegie, unfortunately.

And there I had the good luck to come upon two great finds, the Christian Science Monitor Magazine and the National Catholic Reporter. Few libraries carry them, sad to say.

The Christian Science Monitor, as you may know, is a small, long-established, and very fine newspaper. global in its coverage and subscription list. With a small circulation, unfortunately.

Two years ago, it shut down its long-time presses and went digital—our first national newspaper to take that dramatic step.

But it launched a weekly magazine–a print magazine! To appease upset readers who love paper and ink, I’ll bet. It’s called CSM Magazine and it’s excellent.

The CSM has special meaning for me. Fifteen years ago or so, it bought an essay I had sent in on speculation.  About sea gulls, of all things. Strange but true.

The editor who bought that piece of mine was Owen Thomas. Now he’s the deputy editor of the new CSM Magazine. A very talented guy!

Now about that other publication, the National Catholic Register. Why do I enjoy it? Because it’s such a fine paper in a special way. A weekly. It provides impressively objective coverage of all things Roman Catholic, good and not so good. From the local parish level right up to the Vatican.

It is not published by the church, but laymen who are professional journalists. Which means that there is no bishop or cardinal to make sure it toes the line. Which I find so refreshing. I was raised Catholic and am now a wayward son but am still enormously interested.

Well, guess what? I finally walked out of the library  when it closed at 8! Night had fallen, of course.

But what happened after that is what made this day so memorable.

The streets were deserted now. Walking stick still in hand, I returned to my van two blocks away. The street had been so, so busy when I managed to find that rare parking spot.  But now the street was so still. All the shops were closed, their signs and lights off.

It was a wide street, with cars to be parked nose to the sidewalk. My van was the only vehicle on the whole block.

Forty feet away, I noticed a bench on the sidewalk. Like my van, it was perpendicular to the sidewalk. A man was sitting on it, a big man, his back to me, but for sure an old man. I could make that out. There was nobody else around. Not a soul.

I unlocked my big side door and rolled it open and as always it squealed. The man didn’t turn around to look.

Inside I got organized and then looked out at him again.

The high heat of noontime had passed and now it  was cool. And at 4 a.m. it would be cold—definitely cold. I knew that by now. Well, he was prepared.

He had a thick old-fashioned overcoat on and a big felt hat with the brim pulled down tight all around. A satchel stuffed absolutely full was by his side on the bench. .  His cane rested close to his right hand.

It seemed he was there on that bench for the night.

I made my supper. I enjoy my simple but complete meals. Both preparing and eating them. I make just about all my meals. I’m a total vegetarian now and by fixing my own I have a wider choice and I enjoy variety.

And frankly I no longer enjoy eating in a restaurant alone and getting a meal with everything pre-set—what’s on the plate, and how much of each thing, and being waited on.

I took another look out as I ate. I noticed him eating, too. I was sitting in my marvelous captain’s chair, enjoying my nice hot meal freshly cooked.  And I saw him grubbing into what seemed a paper bag. And eating whatever it was with his fingers. For sure it was not hot, and maybe not even fresh.

After finishing and cleaning up, I glanced out again. He had finished, too. Now his head was slumped against his chest. Sleeping, it seemed.

Not a soul had passed. We were all alone.

I asked myself , Why am I so interested? The answer was simple. He was so old. So alone. Those worn clothes. That beat-up satchel. I speculated he was sitting there in that dropping temperature because he had no better place to go to. He seemed so pathetic. I felt bad for him.

I returned to my easy chair, leaned back, closed my eyes and mused. Yes, it had been a fine day for me, and I was tired, but nicely tired.  Bu again I glanced out.

Now he was slumped over to the left. His head was nearly on his shoulder. His hat was squished and off center. He was very still.  In a very deep sleep, it seemed.

I hoped he was enjoying a very nice dream—the reality of this night out in the open was grim. Yes, better a nice long happy dream.

But how could he be comfortable in such an awkward position? All through the night?

By now I had decided I would spend the night in my  van right here. As you know, I’ve modified it as a little camper for myself—my little heaven on the road. Very comfy.

Staying here would save me from looking for a Walmart or such. This was a nice quiet street. Shouldn’t be any problem.

I brushed my teeth. Got ready to change into my pajamas. Looked out again. He hadn’t moved. For sure he’d need a chiropractor in the morning to fix his neck. The poor fellow.

Now and then I looked out the window at him. We were both old. Both totally alone here. Both on the way to somewhere else. Well, I was. Not sure about him.

I watched him dig into his paper bag and find something to push into his mouth. I finished my own supper, right out of its still hot pan.

Now he had finished eating. Now he was bent over far to the left, his head hanging heavily over his beefy shoulder. Looked so uncomfortable.

Not once had I seen him turn toward me. Maybe he was deaf.

I felt I should go over and say hello. One old man to another old man. Opened the door. It squealed again, of course.  I should really oil it. He didn’t move. I walked to him.  Now I really saw him.  The street light helped.

Yes,  a very old man. Old like me. Big, thick beard, growing every which way. A lot of white in it. Battered hat. Heavy old jacket, collar pulled up high all around.

Had a shawl over his knees and legs. No, it was a big towel, but that would help keep him warm. Heavy shoes, scuffed with age.

Surprising how cold it was now.  I rubbed my hands together. Didn’t want to linger here long.

His hands were bare. I was surprised he didn’t have them in his pockets, or under the towel.  He was motionless. I hoped he was deep in some very nice dream. At home somewhere, nice and warm, with a loving family, maybe a nice dog, too.

His hands had done hard work. I could tell. They were side by side, just an inch apart. His thumbs touched his index fingers, forming a tight loop.

I opened my wallet. Hard to see. Finally found the dollar bill I was looking for.  Curled it up and placed it in that loop between his thumb and index finger of his left hand. He didn’t notice.

The bill was safe there—if somebody didn’t come along and grab it.

I returned to my van, closed the door. Another squeal. He still didn’t stir.  Amazing.

I washed my teeth, changed into my pajamas, pulled my ski cap down over my ears…this was my nightly ritual . Nice warm days, cool night…that’s winter here!

Snuggled deep into my wonderful sleeping bag, How I hate stepping out of it in the cold of early morning!

I thought about him, of course. And myself, too. We were both way up there in years. He had his cane. I my walking stick—I felt my stick made me look less old than a cane.

Both of us were here in this spot on our way somewhere else. But he not vey far probably. Maybe he’d be right back on this bench tomorrow night.

Yet we were so different. In so many ways. I in my comfy bunk in my little camper. He out there on the cold, wide-open street. I could lock my doors!

Didn’t he worry about what a bad person could do to him out there? Or a police officer rousing him with his stick?. Suppose it rained? How about the morning dew? What if he had to use a toilet?

Well, that could happen to me, too, but I had a neat solution . (I’ll write about that for you some day.)

Why was he forced to spend the night this way? Why?

I had one more thought, Tomorrow I’ve got to hop up early and drive off before the street starts humming!

 

Well, I got up at dawn. Immediately I thought,  What will he think when he finds that money in his hand? \

I pushed the curtain aside and looked out.

The bench was empty.

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Comments

  1. Nicely written, John! All the best.

  2. Nancy Simonds says:

    John,

    Beautifully written but heart-wrenching. To think there are millions out there who live under similar circumstances is so sad. That includes homeless veterans, too. They go to war to help keep us safe and come home with disparities to NOTHING. Unconscionable.

    Anxious to hear about your “solution” !!!

    Take good care of yourself and keep on forging ahead.
    ~ Nancy

  3. Lucie Fradet says:

    You are a good mystery writer, too! What’s next? Take care, Polar bear hugs and eskimo kisses, Lucie

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