The question is can you still stay open to life’s moments? The more you do in the world, the more plans you have, the less you are free to feel, to respond, to be spontaneous. It is something that I struggle with all the time.’ God is in the details’, they say, but suppose you are too busy to notice the details?
As I walk down the rain-splashed street in Vancouver - away from the theater where people sit watching my film - I feel a sublime rush of liberation. My mind is buoyed in that wonderful empty space that comes so rarely: I have done my job, fulfilled all obligations; there is nothing more I can do in life for the next two or so hours.
I imagine the infinite future before me: I will saunter back to my hotel and answer emails, which will be relaxing. The only thing tempering the feeling of perfection is the weight on my body: one shoulder is loaded down with my camera bag, packed with the camera that shot the film, which I used in the Lecture I gave earlier that day. On the other shoulder is my large all-purpose pocketbook, stuffed with my new still camera, writing pad, and a bright yellow umbrella. My shoulders are hurting and begging me not to carry so much. I remind myself of my mission to show audiences how easy it is to “pass-the-camera” – and how with every step I am building biceps.
I walk by a music store and think of that CD that I want to buy by VIA CON DIOS, I look in the window and am about to enter the store, when I change my mind: Better to get some work done. Keep walking, I tell myself lightly almost as if I was teasing a child. It’s great you’re relaxed but don’t go too far, keep up the tension. Still I am thinking of their music as I continue sauntering down the grey street, how nice it would be to answer emails as I listen to their songs. Or perhaps I should go shopping? I am looking in windows, trying to remember if there is anything I need to buy – oh yes a sweater, red, like the one I saw that woman wearing with the nice zipper front…
“Kind of loaded down there, aren’t you?” A lilting male voice says behind me.
I don’t quite grab the words but more the teasing quality and turn around, trying to see where the voice is coming from. “What…?” I say smiling, because my happiness is not yet controllable.
“Got a lot of stuff…” It is an older gentleman with glasses and white hair, tall and sturdy. He has an accent that I hear immediately.
“Yes, I guess so….”
I think: I was walking slowly, not rushing like a normal person. That’s probably why he noticed me. I have been caught a little off guard; he came at me from behind. I have to assess what is going on quickly, to figure out why this man is talking to me. I am not afraid, but I am wary – antennas straight up; all senses open. I look around. He is alone. Doesn’t look like a street person. He is keeping pace with me. He’ll turn off soon, I am sure.
“I’m looking for the Starbucks…” I say — which is kind of true and not true, because I‘d been vaguely considering getting a Starbucks with the free $20 card I’d discovered in my festival goody bag that morning. I had purposely put the free card in my pocketbook with uncharacteristic planning. Except up until that moment, I hadn’t decided on a coffee right now.
“Kind of ugly day…” he says, “Been raining all week since I arrived… Saturday, Sunday and yes today – it’s Monday isn’t it…?”
“Yes…” I say uncertainly, trying to remember where I am and what day of the week it is. Traveling so much makes me dizzy, makes me lose track of all markers.
He is looking ahead – I suspect he is looking for the Starbucks for me. Now I will have to buy coffee, I think, and I am not sure I want to have coffee right now after all. Then suddenly it hits me – his accent — I know where he’s from:
“You’re Scottish?” I say
“Yes I am!”
I feel a thrill – like a basketball player, nailing a hoop. This is my specialty. “Here on holiday?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says and laughs. “Well sort of…”
I am curious what he means. Perhaps he came here as a boy? Perhaps he lives here? But I am still wary.
“I have been here a week…. Just went to the aquarium. The thing I liked most was the white whale…. now that was interesting.” He pulls out a leaflet from the aquarium. I am thinking: he really is a tourist.
“The beluga white whale,” he says and shows me the picture of the whale, below which he has neatly hand-printed the words — Beluga Whale.
Perhaps I should believe that he is a tourist, I think. But it is not often you see men traveling alone, especially older men. I figure there is a wife back in the hotel or a daughter or son living here and working during the day.
“Are you here alone?” I ask. As usual, I am not shy.
He laughs – “No.”
I am trying to figure out this man. All the while I am thinking: should I invite him to have a coffee with me? I have this free card…it is nice to be able to be spontaneous…. But I am also thinking – you don’t know this man, maybe he is crazy; maybe you should go to do some work…. Then Starbucks appears:
“There it is…” he says
“Yes…” I say and decide to leap: “Do you want to have a coffee with me? I have a free card…”
“All right!” he says as natural as can be. “I got a free trip from the railroad too…”
I am not quite grabbing what he is saying now, but we are already crossing the street and entering the Starbucks on the corner. Inside, it is crowded.
“I’ll get us a seat!” He is already moving away from me.
“Ok,” I say, “how do you like your coffee?”
“Milky…” He calls out.
“Share something sweet?” I am imagining a muffin, because I know old people like sweets in the afternoon. My grandmother used to love having her coffee and Danish.
“No,” he shakes his head and makes a face, “But you get a bit for yourself.”
I leave him to get in line. There is something reassuring that he didn’t want a Danish. At least it is clear that he is not hungry and therefore homeless, I think to myself, still not sure I am doing the right thing.
I am wondering what ‘milky’ means in Scotland. Does he like it light? With half and half or milk? I want to go back and ask him, but I don’t want to lose my place in line. I am behind a Chinese Tourist who insists on buying a special Starbucks coffee cup that hasn’t got a price tag on it. The manager is called, the tourist holds firm; she wants the cup. All I want is two regular cups of coffee – Grande size – but I have to wait. I cannot see my new friend. He has disappeared in an area behind some shelves. I don’t know why, but I start to get nervous. Maybe he will leave before I return? Maybe he will think I have disappeared…?
Finally, I get my coffee – add milk to both of our cups and grab some sugars for my new friend, not knowing how he takes it. I make it around the shelves to find him sitting there. I feel a rush of relief. He has pulled out his train tickets on the tabletop and wants to show them to me. But first I ask him about sugars, did I get enough, and he pulls out a bunch of packets from his pockets:
“Always carry ‘em with me,” he smiles waving five sugar packets before me , “Never want to be caught without….I like it real sweet…”
There is something endearing about the thought of him taking sugars from all the restaurants he dined in. Something again that reminds me of my grandmother.
“See”, he says, changing the topic and pointing to one of the tickets he has laid out on the table, “I got a $50 rebate for that one from Toronto to Winnipeg – Train ran an hour late…”
There is handwriting on the ticket that says, $50. He pushes another ticket in front of me. “Now that one I got a $150 back, it was three hours late!” – he smiles pleased, then pushes yet another ticket before me, “And that one I got $350, back! It ran seven hours late into Vancouver! Ha!”
He slaps my hand, thrilled, and breaks out in a huge peal of laughter. I smile politely, still trying to understand what brought this man here alone? Why this huge cross-country trip at his age? I learn that he is retired from the railroad and when I ask how long, he bursts into a huge grin and lifts up his hands to make a guessing game of it. He shows me his five fingers two or three times. So I go for the higher number:
“No”, he says smiling. And does the finger thing again; this time it seems like two times five plus two fingers.
“Twelve?” I ask, skeptical of my ability to add.
“No!” he says and laughs, and starts again with the hands.
I am not getting it. “I give up” I say, disappointed.
“Ten years! Ten years ago I retired from working on the railroad!” He has enjoyed the game.
“Widowed?” I ask, returning to the nagging question in my mind.
“You never married?” It seems so incredible to me, to find a man like him from his world, at his age, not married. It is one thing for me not to marry.
“Never.” He says, smiling.
“Why not?” It doesn’t make sense.
“Ay”, he drawls with the Scottish poking through. “Some things never happen…Even when you want them to…”
I am trying to figure out how to ask more. Perhaps there was a woman he loved, who married his best friend? Perhaps she didn’t love him back? Perhaps he is gay in a world in which it is impossible…? There are many possibilities, but while I am considering a tactful way in – or at least tactful enough for me — he jumps in himself.
“Ay, I reckon it’s better to be married.” He says looking me straight in the eye.
Does he know that I am single? Does it show? I think to myself.
He continues. “You always have someone behind you, backing you. You don’t stand in the world alone. There’s someone there to discuss things with, to fight with, to run away from, go to the pub, have a pint with your mates and go back home and let her have her own way…” He laughs.
“You don’t always get what you want….” I say, “But sometimes you get what you need….
“Ay no,” he says shaking his head not getting my meaning, “Its not that that you always get what you need…”
There is a silence. It is too heavy to pursue this last thought of his. After a few moments of silence, I change tactics:
“Why this trip now?” I ask.
“Well, I’d moved back home ten years ago when I retired to take care of my mom. I lived with her till she died three months ago…
“Oh,” I say, thinking I now understand the reason for the big cross-country trip. “That’s sad….”
“No, not sad at all! She was 98….” He says. “It was a celebration… She nearly made it to a hundred!’ He is smiling, “My sister and I — we did everything for her till she died. I washed her, changed her, fed her…”
I am again remembering my grandmother, who died at ninety-nine and a half, and how my aunt and mother took care of her till the end. With this man, I imagine the whole scene in my mind: watching him carrying his mother from her bed to the bathroom and back again, day in and out. They are very close; he loved his mother more than anyone. I am moved but also relieved that the story is finally making sense. I have found my in and go for it:
“Oh that’s why you are traveling now…after her death you decided to get away…” I am feeling hopeful. If only I can find the key, then I can relax.
“Ay, no,” Shaking his head, unaware of my need to give order to his life. “I always took one big trip a year….”
“Oh…” I say disappointed that my construction has failed. I am beginning to worry about the clock, that I should be going soon.
“Yes, last year I went to South Africa…
“I’ve been there many times,” I offer, but he doesn’t seem to care.
“Yes I had friends living there in Bloemfontein, then I took the trip up the coast and then we stayed in a free cabin below Durban on the sea in Umtata…
“The year before I went to China and Mongolia. We toured all the way from Shanghai to Xian….
“Did you go in a train?” I ask. Maybe the key is trains.
“No we went by bus everywhere. Did you know that the name China came from the emperor Chi in the 17th Century…?
“No, I never knew that….” I say: How strange to learn this fact from an old Scottish man I just met in Vancouver. “Do you always travel alone?” I ask, still a bit worried.
“Yes,” He pauses and I can see in his eyes that he knows that I am thinking of loneliness. “…But you meet people… the trip to china had 10 people on it…old people like me.” He smiles. “Now I know most people would not want to spend time with old people – but it’s alright for me…” He laughs. “It was a tour…. I also did a trip around the world in 2000….”
“Wow!” I am impressed: “How long did that take?”
“Twenty-two days. First we started in Australia…. Did you know that in Melbourne they have really great Italian food – and cheap too? Then when we got to Sydney, I found the greatest Chinese restaurant – in fact a whole street of Chinese restaurants, just like there was a street in Melbourne that had Italian food. …. Then we flew to New Zealand.”
“I’ve been there too,” I interject, trying again to interest him in my life, but to no avail.
“Now in New Zealand,” he spreads his hands apart on the table and chops them down on the counter: “ I had lamb chops this big!” he laughs excitedly. “ Ay! Never seen anything like it. Now that was good!”
About now, I begin to fidget. Listening to his restaurant tour of the world is dampening my enthusiasm. I am not getting any closer to knowing the elderly Scottish man before me. I think of all the emails I should be answering back at the hotel and my mind divides: I make a list of work to be accomplished when I am sitting at my computer and simultaneously talk to old man in front of me. I ask about his family and learn that his father worked in the coalmines all his life. Now that is interesting. Of course I immediately think that he must have gotten black lung and died young. But my burst of excitement is cooled again when I find out that his father lived to the ripe old age of 86 despite having pneumoconiosis, a form of black lung.
I am wondering at my need for a good story. I am wondering if I am some sort of pariah – a real life story junkie. And just as I am thinking this, my Scottish friend tells me:
“Ay,” he says, “my father never wanted me to work in the mines like him.”
I perk up: “Why?” I ask.
“Well, you know…” He says looking me hard in the eye because everyone knows why a parent wouldn’t want a son in the mines. “I remember we used to learn our lessons on a chalk board. It was because of the war you see. But I never went to high school, just junior high. I graduated in 51’ — no 52’. Then my dad sent me to the next town to work on the railroad.”
“Did you work on the train?”
“No, not at first. I was only 15 years old so I was too young! They wouldn’t let me on the trains. I started out working in the supply shop. Then when I turned 16, they let me stoke the coal engine.” He sees the surprise in my eyes and laughs: “Oh yes, the trains were coal back then.”
“Did you ever drive a train?”
“Ay, no, it took me till I was 29 years to work me way up the ladder and drive the train. That was grand! After that, I considered going into management, but I didn’t want to sit inside all day, so I stayed driving my train route till the end, till I retired… First the trains were diesel, then electric…” He smiles: “You know the electric train works like the human body. In the body the brain sends signals to your hands to move… to pick up that camera for example…”
I have taken out my camera to take a photo of him. “May I?” I ask. He is a bit surprised, and then begins to pose.
“…. Or to take this picture…” he says smiling. Your brain has told your hand to take this picture through a series of electrical impulses….”
I am intrigued by this new thought about how my hands work. A thrill runs through me and I put down my camera and take out my notebook to write down what he has just said. Lately I have been thinking how interesting it is that our bodies work at all. I am thinking, maybe I should I invite him to my film for the evening show – but immediately worry that he will find a film about women boring….
“Like the whale,” He continues, “they have electrons sending pulses through their body…”
I have never heard this either…
Then he point to me: “Is it easier to remember things when you write them down?”
I stop for a moment to consider. It is the first question he has asked me since I met him on the street. Yes — I think, remembering how much I like taking notes. But what I say covers up my real thought: “You have a very good memory….”
“No” he says, “When I retired I took French lessons….”
“Wow,” I say and think, French lessons! This Scottish man! How amazing!
“I couldn’t never learn to speak but I could read and write.”
“But you have an incredible memory!” I say – thinking of how he rattled off all the names of the places he visited.
“No,” he says. ” For French, I had to write the words down… You see I was too old to remember a new language. If I had been younger I could have picked it up, but it was too late…” And then he says in French: “Je ne sais pas pourquoi je ne puex pas recorder rien…”
Now I get it. Finally I feel him. I have been reached.
All the while I was sitting there trying to put him in a box, to find an angle and make a neat story, when there is none. All my effort was frustrated by what I was missing: not the poor elderly man I wanted to construct, but the real person sitting in front of me — this incredibly curious mind. A man who travels every year around the world out of a desire to know; who learns French just because; who speaks to a stranger on the street in Vancouver and goes to have a coffee with her…
Alone or not alone, what does it matter? Here is a man, trying to learn and to grow, trying to understand the world for its own sake; for the sake of being alive.
And I think: This is the way I want to be: Now and till I am 70 and beyond. This is my role model.
I decide to invite him to see my film, knowing that he will say yes, knowing that he will come and even find it interesting because he is so interested in the world.
I have to hurry back to the hotel before the screening. We make arrangements to meet outside the theater 15 minutes before the show so I can walk him in for free.
And just before leaving we introduce ourselves: His name is Tom. Mine is Jennifer. As we are walking out of the Starbucks, I find a magazine catalogue from the festival stacked by the door and show him the photo and write up of my film with my name on it.
“So your famous?!” He says and laughs, shaking his head at the wonder of life. I laugh too, and we part, knowing that I will see him that night. And I do….
And as I walk away from him, I think: God is in the details’, but suppose you are too busy to notice the details – won’t you miss out on what is important in life?