After a hard day’s work, with a stiff back and eyes that had receded deep into its sockets, I stepped out of my office, through those discreet black wrought iron doors and into the chilly chaotic San Franciscan evening. It was a typical summer evening. Cold winds blowing in from the choppy waters of the Bay. A blanket of fog descending over the tips of those semi-tall skyscrapers of the city. Cars and buses and trams and cycles and skateboards and scooters and people all milling about in some kind of an organized frenzy. Homeless people on the street asking for alms from the yuppie crowd that walks by without the slightest of concerns. Flocks of tourists dressed inappropriately for the vagaries of the San Franciscan weather, shivering in the never-ending line to get into the cable car at Powell Street. Hordes of giggling girls trying to make up their minds on which brand to splurge their money on. Creepy characters ambling in to Market Street from the Tenderloin, looking for someone to scare or sell drugs to or steal something from. It was a very typical day indeed.
Grimacing and hugging myself against that nasty wind, I began to walk swiftly towards the warm and unpleasant aromas of the BART station. I was about to cross the street when I heard a wizened and whispery voice call out to me — “Nam-ass-tey!” Instinctively, I spun around, pulled down the hood of my sweatshirt and perked my ears to locate the source of that voice. Namaste! I haven’t heard that word in ages, I thought.
“Nam-ass-tey young man!” the voice called out again in that typical midwestern accent that I have become much accustomed to. Standing in a corner, near that fancy liquor store on 3rd street, stood an old man in a crisp blue shirt and neatly pressed brown trousers that were pulled up to his protruding belly. He was slightly hunched and supported his aging body with a cheap wooden walking stick. He looked at me with kind and imploring eyes, desperately hoping that I would stop and hear what he had to say, unlike the hundreds of others who had passed by, oblivious to his calls of salutation.
Usually, I would walk away from a stranger calling out to me from a street corner for no obvious reason. But there was something about this old man that made me stop, turn around and walk towards him. Perhaps it was his countenance, perhaps he was dressed well enough to not be a bum looking to make a quick buck so that he could score a shot of whiskey, or take a puff of grass…or perhaps, it was just that…he spoke a word in Hindi.
“You know, I’ve been to India once. It’s a great country,” the old man remarked as I walked towards him. The wrinkles on his face shifted like ripples in a lost and forgotten sea as he brandished a pleasant, hearty smile.
“Indeed it is,” I said, in a careful and inquisitive voice.
What does this old man want? Did he just make a passing remark as he saw an Indian person walking by?
“Are you from Kerala, young man?” he asked as he shifted his walking stick from his right hand to the left.
“Not really, but close enough,” I replied, still fearful of opening my defenses to this rather strange old man.
“So, are you from Tamil Nadu. You speak Tamil?” he asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“Van-naak-um,” he said and smiled.
“Wow!” a smile broke out on my face.
Okay, he knows more about India than the average person on the road.
“You see, I’ve spent most of my younger days stationed at the Army base in Manilla. And there I met this very attractive young woman who spoke four different south indian languages — Tamil, Tey-loo-goo, Ka-na-da, and uh-what was the fourth one…the one they speak in Kerala, uh-uhm…Mal-ya..?”
“Malayalam.” I completed his sentence.
“Yes, yes. That’s the one. Yes, she was a pretty girl indeed,” he said and rolled his eyes to extract a memory shelved in a dark recess of his brain. I watched him closely, as he frowned, lost in concentration, in a vain attempt to relive a past that was more glorious than his present.
“We had decided to get married…” he said, lost in some kind of a trance.
“So, did you?” I asked, as tiny slivers of curiosity began to tingle my senses.
“I wish…ah…I wish,” the old man said in a resigned tone. His shoulders drooped and the wrinkles on his face sagged a little more.
“Oh…I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
My don’t-talk-to-strangers defenses were slowly being overpowered by my curious, reckless writer’s spirit.
“So..uh…what happened?” I asked gingerly, not to offend the old man’s feelings.
“Life in the army…it’s a different life…it’s an unpredictable life. Just when you think you have it all planned out, things change. Things change…” the old man reminisced.
“Hmm…I understand,” I replied trying to be sympathetic, although both of us knew pretty well that I didn’t understand a thing.
“So, where in India did you go to?” I asked, trying to change the uncomfortable subject.
“I went to Cochin…traveled a whole bunch around Kerala. It’s a beautiful place,” he said.
“Indeed. It’s called God’s own country for a reason,” I bragged, although I’ve never been to Kerala in my life. “So, are you from San Francisco?” I asked him.
“No no…my boy. I’m just here visiting….I’m from Kansas…a long way away from here,” he chuckled.
“I’ve been to Kansas once, and I actually studied in the mid-west…in Indiana,” I added, trying to further the conversation.
I pitied that old man. Standing in the middle of the road, trying to desperately talk to anyone and everyone passing by. Perhaps, he was one of those war veterans who was abandoned by his kids and lived off of government pension in a shabby retirement community in a less glamorous part of the city, with no one to talk to, with nothing else to do except to stare at the four walls of his room. Perhaps, all he wanted was someone to talk to.
“Indiana-er, eh? I’m guessing you like San Francisco more than those corn fields?” he chuckled again.
“Haha, that’s true,” I laughed with him.
The conversation was coming to an end. I could feel it. It was now time for me to leave and get back to the routine chores of my life. The old man probably saw it too.
“You might be wondering why I stopped you in the first place,” he began, shuffling his legs nervously on the sidewalk. “I’m really really ashamed of saying this…but I-I need a favor.”
“Uhh…sure,” I said, feeling completely unsure of what I was getting myself into.
“So…uh…I-came to the city, thinking that my clipper card was loaded. B-but, looks like I don’t have any money left on it. And…and I forgot to bring my cash. Oh this is so embarrassing…I’ve never done this before in my life…I need money to take the train back home,” he said as he gazed down at his feet.
Although I sort of saw it coming, I was taken aback by the suddenness of this request.
I realized all this talk about India, and his life at Philippines was just a conversation starter so that he could draw me in and put me in a spot which made it difficult for me to walk away from.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t ask you for money straight away. You would’ve certainly walked away…just like the hundreds of others…” he said, reading my mind. His eyes had become a little moist.
For a moment, I stood rooted at the spot, unable to think or react or move. And then I slowly asked him, “Where are you headed?”
“I need to go to Hayward. I need around 5 dollars for the BART ride.”
I breathed deeply, took out my wallet and saw that it was completely empty. “I-I’m sorry. I don’t have any cash,” I told him. And I did genuinely feel sorry for him. Because I knew very well that his chances of getting 5 dollars from random strangers walking by, was a very bleak prospect.
“Oh please. Please don’t leave me here. I-I have to get back home. There is an ATM right there…maybe you could get some cash from there. Please?” he pointed to the Chase Bank ATM across the street on Market.
I considered his request for a moment, and then with a sigh I said, “Yes, I can do that. I’ll be right back,” I said and turned to walk towards the ATM.
“Please, please wait,” the old man said and tugged at my hoodie. “I’ll walk with you to the ATM,” he said.
My heart skipped a beat. Why does he want to come to the ATM? Is all this an elaborate scheme to mug me? I thought. My don’t-talk-to-strangers defenses were building back up. Then another thought crossed my mind. Maybe, he doesn’t trust me. Maybe he figures that I would simply walk away leaving him alone to beg for his 5 dollars, as the temperature continues to dip.
Convincing myself of the latter thought, I slowly walked towards the ATM as the old man trudged behind me.
“I’ll wait outside here,” said the man, putting both his hands on the walking stick and panting heavily.
“Sure,” I said and walked inside the bank. I hunched over the ATM machine, punched in my PIN and pulled out some cash, all the while glancing at the panting old man from the corner of my eye. I went outside and handed him the 5 dollars.
“Thank you. Thank you so much. Shook-ree-ya,” he said, grabbing hold of Abe Lincoln with shivering hands.
“You take care and get home safe, alright.” I said to the old man.
“Yes, yes, I will. May the Lord bless you, young man,” he patted me on my shoulder and walked away. I stood there for a few seconds, watching him limp away with his walking stick clicking on the paved sidewalk and stooping to protect himself against the gusts of cold wind.
I sighed and stepped down the stairs to the BART station, lost in deep thought. I almost expected to see the old man standing on the other side of the platform to take the train towards Fremont. But he was nowhere to be seen…
A few days later, I was walking along the same road to take the BART back home, when I saw a familiar figure standing on the opposite side of the street. Dressed in a crisp blue shirt, neatly pressed brown trousers, and a cheap walking stick rested beneath his right hand, the same old man stood at the corner of Market and 3rd, scanning his eyes at the crowd walking past him. It was a pleasant surprise to see him. I galloped across the road, so that I could ask him if he reached home safe the other day. I was about to talk to him, when I saw him stop a random stranger and start talking to him. Curiosity drove me towards the old man and the stranger. I leaned against the wall of the AT&T store, pulled out my cell-phone to look busy and perked my ears to eavesdrop on the ongoing conversation.
“Oh really?” the stranger looked surprised.
“Yes-been there-I was stationed-Army private.” I heard the old man say.
“-part of Ra-sshia did you visit?” I heard the stranger ask.
“-been to Moscow a coupl’a times,” I heard the old man remark.
A few more inaudible words were exchanged.
And then I saw the stranger taking out his wallet and handing the old man a 5 dollar note. The old man accepted it with his trembling hands and trudged along with his walking stick clicking on the sidewalk.
I smiled, shook my head and walked away…
Originally published at chronicblabber.tumblr.com.