The Old Man on the train.
It was rainy and dreary here in New York City and it seems as if Spring will never arrive. Shades of it have poked through, but the cold lingers as we head into Memorial weekend and the kickoff of the summer Hampton’s beach scene of excess that grows with every year that passes. I look forward to it less and less.
As is my routine, I was on the subway. I was full of coffee and a sturdy breakfast, clean and shiny as a new penny. Setting off to win the day. Everything pressed, hair combed, suit and tie on, shirt starched and ready to attack. To ‘get after it’ in the Texas vernacular. All precision. Even down to knowing which train car to ride on for the best exit. I was headed to a 9 am meeting and was lined out in my own thoughts about how this was all going to go.
As I stepped onto the first car I sat down and gathered myself and my thoughts. It was a car full of the exact same people as me, except for the very slight, quiet, small, almost shrinking man, who looked to be about 80 years old. He was a glaring exception from among the young, polished, pin straight, phone engrossed, college educated, here I am now, entertain me, New Yorker, me included. He sat to my right, tucked perpendicular to me. Knees to my right thigh. He was holding a torn, old black and white photo. He was not dirty, nor clean, his trousers were two sizes to big. His worn out belt cinched tight and too long holding up his wrinkled, worn in kakis. Faded white shirt, long turned yellow from wear, swallowing him up. Messy, white hair. He was wet, not soaked, but damp from the light rain that had been falling all morning. He was scared. He was lost. He was lonely and desperate to reach out and tell his story. He was staring straight at me, waiting, hoping I would say something, anything to break the dam that was welling up in him. I said hello, good morning, gave him a smile. I wanted to reach out and put my hand on his shoulder. To give him my energy like Spock would on Star Trek. He handed me the photo and said it was him in World War II. I took the photo as the train plodded on north, announcer calling out the stops, doors opening and closing, bells pinging, people coming and going. In the photo he is staring straight at the camera, in his service dress uniform, hat slightly tilted, soft gaze, so young and ernest and long ago. I told him he was a handsome guy and asked when it was takin? He was in the 82nd Airborne. He told me he was running away. That surprised me. How does a 80 year old man, and why, run away. He said he climbed out the window from his elder house and had been on the run, from Jersey, since 4 am that morning. Had not eatin. Trying to find his daughter. Not sure where he was going, but they would not give him his money. It was his money and he could not understand why they wouldn’t give it to him. He was not crazy. It gave me hope that he still had fight in him to make his get away. I thought this could be any of us as we get older. I am old enough to if not see that mountain, at least see that range. The only thing he climbed out that widow with was that photo. An 80 year old man, who fought in WWII, climbed out a window, with his Army photo, and headed out into the night without a clue where he was going and I was sitting on a train with a load of smart folks who thought they knew exactly where they were going for the rest of their lives. So many levels of irony it was making my head spin. My train stop was coming and I knew it. Stops ticking off. He wanted to talk, just talk to someone, connect. My heart was sinking fast. I reached in my pocket and gave him a twenty. He looked at me confused, perplexed as to why I would hand him cash. Me, wanting to tamp down my fear, fear that one day that could be me, or someone I actually knew. Get back to my shiny, fragile world. Pay him off. He started crying and said he didn’t ask me for the money and kept saying it. I was trying like hell to hold back the waterworks. Everybody on the train was oblivious to our interaction. Some City. I told him I wanted him to have it, it would make me happy. My stop came. I had to get moving. I cannot seem to shake him now and I hope and pray he is safe and warm. Keep fighting Brother, keep fighting. I suspect he climbed out that window with only that photo, taken in a time where he was the shiny penny, to give him the strength and courage he had then. This weekend, while you are living the life you dreamed of, take a moment to look around and be like Spock from Star Trek.