“I’m just trying to make sure that I look back a little each day that’s all, son.” It took a while, but John was finally able to get that out of him. You see, John passed by the old man every day on his way to work, and sometimes on Saturdays, too. It was not that hard as the park bench was rooted firmly in the center of the public park, right along the curvature of the walkway into and out of the public space. If you were venturing up the slightly inclined walkway and looking ahead, it would be easy to spot the bench as it sat at the apex of the journey in order to overlook the rest of the park. All along the walkway there were maple and oak trees sprinkled about the manicured grass and occasional bushes of various types. Every attempt was made to create a peaceful park just outside the hustle and hurry of the downtown area. There was nothing interesting about this wooden bench, other than the painted brown metal arm rests slightly chipped from years and weather. The wood that made up the bench was clearly worn, small cracks marring the strips of the bench. The park maintenance crew slopped on waterproofing paint each year which gave it an old stained look. The bench was not used much anymore, except for an old man who sat there each day as John made his way to work, about 7:00 AM. The feeling John had was that the old bench belonged to the old man, and it was his alone.
On this bright, sunny morning dampened by a chill in the air, John decided that this was going to be the day that he talked to the old man rather than just pass him by. He came this way often enough so that when he was able to catch the old man’s eye, they nodded to each other. Over time, the nod became more pronounced, until finally, they were able to mutter to each other an almost half hearted “good morning”. John was sure the old man could hear him walking up the sidewalk as his brown Alfani Medallion toed shoes announced his every step, but he could not be sure as the old man never really acknowledged him with anything other than a glance or a shift of the eyes. The old man sat with a slight hunch over the bench with his Irish hat almost covering his eyes. He wore a somewhat tattered long coat with the collar up, and his old worn brogue wingtips gave the impression that he was short on money, but once was concerned with his appearance. The shoes always give away what a man is, or was. The other impression was that he was simply worn. A bit beaten by a hardscrabble life of work and disappointment. The one event that seemed to give him solace was sitting on that park bench, where the sounds of the world could just wash over him and he could finally think and contemplate what his life meant. But, these were only impressions, as one can never really know what resides in the consciousness of another person. Once, the old man glanced up and said “hello” in a dull, gravelly voice. There was never a question in John’s mind that the old man had seen a lot in his days. That was the vibe that John got every day he passed by and he was intrigued. How the old man got to that bench each day was a mystery to John, but the old man sat in the same spot on that park bench every day.
Today, in this particular moment, John did not care how the old man got there. He only knew that he had to talk to him and make a connection. John wondered to himself as he approached the bench if, quite possibly, the old man was ill mentally and for a brief moment was concerned that the old man would lash out once approached. That feeling was dispelled immediately though for he had passed this way enough to understand that what was a passing thought in his mind was simply a self defense mechanism to be summarily jettisoned today. He was determined on this particular morning to engage who truly seemed like an intriguing person. This was not an act of kindness, although the thought did cross his mind. It was more. He knew that the old man would be receptive to his visit, but could not pin down in his own mind how he was able to arrive at that conclusion. Time was running short for John was some fifty yards from his destination and he had to make the decision to either follow through with his idea or let it pass and go about his usual, or rather, unusual greeting with the old man.
John arrived at the park bench, and without saying a word, sat at the far end. Without realizing it, he chose to remain out of the old man’s space, but just close enough to be able to converse with him so as not to raise his voice. For what seemed like more than a few minutes, both men sat in silence, with little acknowledgment from the old man that anyone was sitting with him. It’s almost as if the old man was ignoring the world and most especially, that small part of the world that decided to park next to him that particular morning.
“Good morning”, John said. He tried to sound like he always did as he passed the old man. The old man smirked and turned his head just enough to look at John’s knees in order not to make direct contact with his eyes.
“Finally decided to take a seat, huh? I was wondering when you were going to try that.”
John was taken aback a bit by this comment He was not expecting the old man to expect him to sit down. John felt his throat tighten as he thought about his next comment.
“Well, I just thought it was time that I took a seat seeing as we say good morning every day. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Nah, I don’t care. Just thought it took you a little long to do it is all.”
John was a little perplexed as the old man still had his eyes focused on John’s knees, avoiding eye contact with him. He was not surprised that the old man’s voice sounded old, but did notice it’s strength. John got the impression that this old man was more than capable in many ways. He voice betrayed a strength his body language did not.
“Do you sit here every day?” As soon as the words came out of his mouth, he wished he could take them back. It was that question that got the old man to turn a bit more, still hunched over, and glance up at John.
“Kinda a silly question, dontcha think? You see me here every day.”The slight chuckle in the old man’s voice reassured John that the old man understood he was just trying to make conversation.
“Yeah, kinda a stupid question. How long have you been coming here? I mean, you’ve been here as long as I’ve come this way, so…” The old man did not wait for the sentence to finish before he answered.
“Oh, about two years or so,” he rasped. “I’ve been living around here for about that long. I get up, get myself together and take a stroll to sit here among the sounds. I like to hear ‘em.”
For some reason, John clung to that last phrase. Was it an indication of something greater, or was it just talk? Sometimes people talk, putting words together that sound good in a string. John was not sure, but at this point he was unwilling to press. He was searching through the old man’s words, looking for an indication of who he was. He may have found it.
“So, you like listening to the birds?”
“Birds, wind blowing, leaves movin’ around in the trees.” It was then that he looked at John as if to deliver an important message. “Life, son…life.”
John was taken in by the old man. There seemed to be a ceiling that he had broken through, and while it did not take much effort, John felt he had gotten there.
“Do you still work? I work not far from here as a…” Again, before John could get the words out of his mouth, the old man chimed in.
“You work as a trader.”
“How did you know that?” John said.The old man straightened up and sat with his back against the backrest of the bench, turning his entire body toward John. He seemed surprised that John did not realize it himself.
“Plain as day. You walk this way each morning, carrying your case, wearing your tie, and almost never smiling. It’s like you’ve decided that you’re going to war each morning and there is no time to smile. Your walk betrays you, son. You’ve chosen a competitive life and wear it on your body. The only ones that walk and carry themselves as you do are traders or people in the money business. Plain as day, son. Besides, why do you think they built this park here?”
John found himself engaged in the conversation and asked, “I don’t know, why?” His curiosity was piqued at this point and he could not help himself but to continue to probe what this man had to say.
“Because, if you people don’t have a place to walk through or visit that looks like this, you’ll all go crazy. This place is supposed to be a place of calm in the storm. Problem is, most of you don’t take the time to notice it and take advantage of it. You’re so focused on making money or whatever your job is that you forget to breathe. This is a place to breathe a bit in the middle of the chaos.” The old man paused a bit, took a breath and looked around. Then, he met John’s gaze and exhaling said, “That’s why I come here…to breathe.”
John paused a minute, looked into the sky and squinted his eyes. It was as if he had just emerged from a dark basement, not having seen the sun, nor the outdoors in weeks. He then followed the old man’s example and…breathed.
“I guess I just never thought of it that way before.” He shuffled in his seat a bit. “For me, this park was just a nice way to get to work in the morning. I never thought of why it was here. It just…was.”
“It’s not your fault” the old man said. “Most people think the way you do.” Now, the old man sat up a bit, leaned against the backrest of the park bench and crossed his arms. “A means to an end for most people. When you get to be my age, you tend to look at life a bit differently. You just want to sit and notice, that’s all. Think.”
“Think about what particularly?”
For John, the encounter was becoming more than he bargained for, but he was becoming submerged in it. There was some wisdom that lived in the old man, a wisdom that John had to tap into; like nuggets of gold, or like finding an old watch in the dirt that had a message inscribed on it. The old man was aware of what was happening, and he relished the fact that someone was interested in what he had to say. It had been a long time since he felt relevant. He decided that he was going to take advantage of the situation.
“I’m just trying to make sure that I look back a little each day that’s all, son. I’ve lived a pretty long life to this point, seen a lot of things. There comes a point in life when it’s simply time to look back, so that’s what I try to do each day.”
John thought to himself how much this man looked weather beaten as he had approached the bench earlier in their encounter, so he pressed further. He wasn’t sure, but maybe the old man had been waiting the entire time to talk…to anyone…and John was the person that day.
“I don’t mean to pry, but part of the reason that I decided to sit here, finally, was that you looked a bit…down. I hope that’s not the case.”
The old man let out a small laugh and then revealed an even smaller smirk. He uncrossed his arms, folded his hands in his lap and said, “It’s not like I wallow in it all the time, but for some reason, on certain days, the disappointments get the best of me. Maybe today was one of those days.”
“I get that. I know that when I miss the mark, it really plays on my mind. Gotta hit that number…ya know?”
John was trying to find some common ground, but was struggling as he did not know what to say. It all sounded like small talk, which it was, but it was small talk taking on a life of its own, with its own direction. It was this realization that ensured John was determined to get to know this man, this day. The old man looked puzzled, the stubbly corner of his mouth pulled over to one side.
“The number,” he asked. “What’s the number?”
“Yeah,” John said, “the number. Each of us has to make a certain amount each day in order to keep the firm afloat. We just call it The Number. I guess you can say it’s just a numbers game, kinda like life, right?” John laughed a little and thought that he had finally created some common ground with the old man, and felt pretty good that he had reached that point. There was a certain parcel of satisfaction in that. The old man bristled just a bit at that notion.
“So, you’ve reduced life to just a number, have ya.” The old man said.
“Well, in the end, between car payments, house payments, insurance, and all of the other stuff, seems to me that’s what it all comes down to.” It was this suggestion that the old man grabbed on to.
“There’s nothing more that that for you?” The old man seemed almost amused. “Not such a good thing to have all of those numbers to be worried about.”
At this suggestion, John found himself on the defensive. The old man continued.
“Are you doing what you really want to do, or are you simply doing what you’re doing to win at the numbers game?”
“Um…I don’t know what you mean.”
The old man shuffled in his seat and turned so that he could look John square in the eye, placing his hand on John’s knee. This created a disarming feeling in John and he felt that he had hit a tripwire.
“Well,” the old man said, “it’s a simple idea. Do you love what you do? Is it a means to an end…numbers…or do you really enjoy what you do and numbers are the result? That last part makes all the difference.”
It was this last suggestion that John thought about. In his head, all he saw was his house, his pool in the backyard, his possessions, his family and their lifestyle. He didn’t grasp the gravity of the question asked of him because all he saw was what he owned.
“Well, I like what those numbers provide for me, but the stress gets to me sometimes, if that’s what you’re asking.”
The old man looked at John, but this time, there was something different in his gaze. He seemed to sharpen his eyes as if he was trying to force an idea into John’s head simply by staring at him. This made John just a bit uneasy, but also made him feel like the kid in the classroom that does not have the answer to the question.
“No, you don’t understand. What you’re doing is a means to an end, son. My question is simply this…are the numbers you’re chasing your passion? Do you love what you do, or are you marking time, fulfilling your responsibilities, paying your bills?”
John thought for a moment and said, “It does pay the bills, but I don’t know if I really love it anymore.” John paused at that last statement, not believing the words slipping from his mouth. He looked down at the ground, elbows on his knees, his body shifting on the bench, leaning forward, his voice softening. “I used to. I used to enjoy the grind, the competition, the drive to find that next great thing so that my customers would profit and think that I was some sort of genius or something.” John looked away from the old man and into the sky, taking in a deep breath and letting it out again. “I used to love that part of it. Now, I think I’ve gotten over that and simply see my job as a means to an end.” John laughed nervously and then added as he looked at the old man, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I have a job, but it certainly isn’t what it used to be for me.”
Both men were now hunched over on the park bench, with John assuming the exact position that he found the old man in. They both sat in silence for a minute, staring at the ground. John broke the silence by asking the old man a pointed question. He felt that he had bared his soul just enough that he could ask the old man anything he wanted. So, he did. While hunched over, he turned his head toward the old man and asked in a matter of fact tone.
“What about you? Did you chase your passion?” The old man turned his head left, just enough to see John out of the corner of his eye.
“Funny, I never really knew what it was to have a passion. That was decided for me a long time ago when I was just out of high school. I was drafted right away and went to Korea.” The old man looked at John and said, “ I guess you could say that my passion was surviving the Korean War.” The old man’s demeanor took a downward turn and he muttered, “After that, things just…changed.”
It was the way that the old man said the word changed that made John uncomfortable as he looked over at the old man. His expression had shifted, and the muscles in his shoulders had lost their zeal to remain taut. As a result, his shoulders shrunk and in his hunched over position, seemed closer to the ground than ever before. John didn’t say much, and his sandy brown hair hung over one of his eyes. He was thinking that he was unsure if the old man should see the look on his face. That look was somewhere between astonishment and surprise. This man, he thought, is a veteran, but not an ordinary one, a veteran of a war whose involvement has almost been forgotten by the very nation that he served.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“Ahh” the old man said, “It’s ok. Just the musings of an old man on a park bench, that’s all.”
“Yeah, but I’m sure after the war you came home and got a job, right?” John’s voice was a bit more emphatic when he said, “I mean, you weren’t homeless or anything, were you?” John knew that sounded naive, but felt like he had no choice but to ask the question. It was his way of trying to remain sensitive yet find out more about the old man.
“No, not homeless. After being in the mountains of Korea for a year, you start to wonder where home is, exactly. I think war does that to a man. But, that was a long time ago, and I’ve made peace with it. Part of the reason I sit here is for the peace…and to see the pretty girls.”
The old man and John shared a laugh. It was a one of acceptance and of agreement. The kind of laugh that one does with a friend. John knew they weren’t friends yet, but there was a strand developing between them, and John liked that. It made a heavy moment just a bit lighter. The old man coughed a bit, than a bit harder. His shoulders arched forward with the last one. He coughed a smaller cough and then spit…phlegm with a little blood.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Sometimes it’s worse than others, this one wasn’t so bad.” John looked at the old man. Both were now sitting on the bench upright, with John craning his neck and turned toward the old man.
“You should get to see a doc, you know, just in case.” The old man looked over at John.
“Just in case of what? I’m going to die, that’s for certain, so no doctors for me. Besides, I don’t trust ‘em. Saw enough drugs in my life, don’t need more.”
“I understand, but don’t you want to get it taken care of?” It was at this point that John’s foray into sitting with the old man took a different turn than what he was expecting. He had a feeling that this new direction was going to be more complicated than he wanted, and he wasn’t sure that he was ready for it. The old man looked over at John, with a rather stern look in his eyes. John noticed that he was now focusing on the old man’s eyes. In his mind he finally understood the statement that the eyes are the windows to the soul. He knew that what the old man was about to say to him was not only serious, but what he meant was going to be final. The old man turned toward John now, eyes fixated on his, almost as if he was going to penetrate any defenses that John may have in order to get the message through. This unnerved John, just a little, but he knew he had to hear the response.
“For what?” the old man said. “I’m simply playing a different numbers game than you, but I suppose that you’ll be part of that game too. I’ve lived a long life, I know that the end is coming, and I’m fine with it.” His voice trailed off a bit and then in a softer tone he said, “There comes a time when you just get tired, and I’m tired. I just want to sit here, think, be, and enjoy what I have left, that’s all. My question to you is if you’re doing the same right now? Are you enjoying what you have? Your life? See, son, the fact that is lost on most people your age is that life flits by without even a glance. They go from point to point in their life without much thought. They live one second to the next, never stopping to allow the recorder that is their mind to take in what is around them. They move, they exist, they do, but they don’t live.” John was now transfixed, listening to every word. The old man’s voice turned from a softer tone to one in which was was instructing.
“You have to understand that in the grand scheme of this life, this timeline we share, we are granted a small measure of it for ourselves, and that measure is little more than a snap of the fingers. The fingers that make up my snap are almost through. Yours? I don’t know, because none of us know when our time is up. What I do know is that when there is a window for me to soak in life, I take it now. Don’t let the lessons of age be lost on the young. Take time, son.”
The old man stretched his arms along the backrest of the park bench, sat back, looked outward and away from John and said, “Sit on a park bench now and again. Listen. See. Record in your mind’s eye for playback later. Drop the artificial and embrace the moment for yourself. Live this life, ‘cause you only get one.”
He coughed again, and this time it was more pronounced, with a rough edge to it. The old man’s arms came off the bench and his elbows came into his body as he coughed. It hurt, that much was plain enough. Both men sat in what seemed to be a long silence before John finally mustered up enough courage to speak.
“I didn’t think I’d get anything to think about today”, John said in a thoughtful tone, “but I did. I thank you for that.”
“As long as you do.” the old man said.
“As long as I do what?” asked John.
John looked at his watch. He looked at it not because he was looking for an “out”, but rather because of the numbers game. He knew he had to get to work, and John was nothing if not punctual.
“I gotta get going, can’t be late.”
“Gotta make that number. huh?” the old man said, chuckling as he said it.
“Well.” John said, “maybe the number isn’t the goal anymore. Maybe it’s just a means to an end”
“What end?” the old man said.
John smiled, looked the old man right in the eye and said, “The one that allows me time to think.”
The old man smiled.