He always sits alone. He is impossibly old. Occasionally, from nowhere, a bark of laughter will erupt and startle everyone in the bar. No one knows what he finds funny. Though he walks with incredibly small steps, though it takes him forever to get from his table to the sidewalk and back, he manages to smoke a couple every hour or so. On his way back to his table, where he, in opposition to his slow walk, limberly climbs up on the stool, he always stops and talks to me.
His words tumble together, and though his eyes tell me that he knows what he's saying, I can't understand much at all. Maybe a word or two will slip well formed through the masses of sound, but that's it for me. Unlike most in the bar, I listen to him, and when he stops I nod. He pats me on the shoulder and continues on to his table.
I've seen him attempt to enter into other conversations, most people try to brush him off before he's finished. While no one is ever cruel in what they say to him, impatience and bother is heard in their voices. You'd think those in their 60's would take a little more time with those, really, only ten or so years older. I can see that he knows he's not understood. Even with me, I know he knows I don't understand. I am relieved that I am not tricking him. I think he pats me on the shoulder just because I let him finish. I think just that moment of contact matters. I know what it is to be dismissed. I don't like it. I don't do it.
Then a couple of days ago, when we stopped by for a beer and a tea, we saw something remarkable. A fellow was sitting at the table with him. I know this man was 20 years younger because, in the course of their conversation, it was mentioned. I overheard because we were sitting at the only vacant table in the place, right next to the old man and his younger friend. Their conversation was a bit louder than others in the bar, apparently, even with prominent hearing aides, the old fellow doesn't hear very well at all.
They chatted about old days, when they were 'boys' in Toronto. They mentioned old friends and old bars. They talked first of those who'd passed away, then of those still living. They talked about ailments along with comparing an inventory of aches and pains. Old people stuff.
But here's the thing.
I had no trouble understanding what the old fellow said. In context of the conversation, as the younger man's words swirled around him, sounds suddenly had meaning attached to them. The old fella was interesting and funny and, occasionally wise.
Certainly not me.
I had made a mistake, thinking I gifted him with time and with listening. I realized that I always waited for him to stop to speak. Always waited for him to initiate. Always sat, kind of tense, hoping that he'd just go along to his seat. While I gave him time, I gave him nothing else.
Next time I am going to start the conversation, I'm going to create context, create the means for sound to become words.
He had reached out to me. Always kindly.
I just had never reached back.
No wonder there's never been connection.