I’m watching the people, having my coffee and watching the people. It’s what you do. You sit, smoke your cigarette slowly letting most of it burn away between intermittent inhales and sip your coffee, also slowly, demonstrating to the world watching you, sit and sip, that you have time, time in the afternoon to do so. And you watch the people, the tall ones, the short ones, the fat and skinny, old and young, dressed to impress, or for work, or as if it was an afterthought altogether, you watch as they walk by. It’s what everyone does when it’s sunny, when it’s gray, day or night, everyday.
Among the overdressed, dressed to be seen, tall skinny, jeaned and heeled, booted and t-shirted, phone attached business cafe casual, walking or sitting; are the others in between who work more to be seen but are inevitably harder to see.
A very old man in a gray overcoat and hat made his rounds at the cafe with a small ceramic candy dish in his hand asking for money. Almost invisible, to almost everyone; except for the woman behind him waiting to pimp her baby to the same string of café coffee sipping customers. I saw her. She eyed him with the contempt of someone who feels encroached upon as if begging pity were territorial. She watched, then moved on knowing that she would do better to get ahead of the old guy at the next café since there’s only so much to expect from café customers, best to get there first.
I watched him. He wasn’t typical, dressed as best he could, hair neat, hat straight, jacket, overcoat, old, tired, walking slowly but standing straight, clear eyed. As he went from one table to the next looking at the customers I wondered what I would do when he got to me. Then he answered my question.
At the next table, a group of four business casual, late after lunch coffee, meeting-discussing-something-important forty-somethings gave him a bit of change, a small bit, maybe ten Lipa, nothing, from the change on their table. The old man looked in the ceramic candy dish at the coin and a look of dignity and contempt came over his face, a look that said ‘I am old and poor. My world was different than yours and these are my circumstances. Yes, I am asking you for money but this, this single coin is not worth the effort I’ll have to exert to carry it. From you it is an insult, to my age and to what I’ve seen that came before you.’ With a wave of his hand he added without saying a word, ‘For you I prefer to remain invisible.’ Slowly, arthritically , he removed the ten Lipa coin from his ceramic dish and placed it on the table with an exaggerated flourish, firmly deliberately, resulting in a nicely audible bronze against wood click, and dismissed them.
He didn’t come to my table after that. Instead he haltingly pushed forward to the next cafe, likely taking his place behind the baby pimping woman with the evil eyes. I finished my coffee and thought about the things I needed to buy at the market.
On my way home, dodging style conscious bag toting shoppers looking for the names they know on shop windows, and various young and old, smoking, walking, hurried and slow, I passed a woman sitting in front of a name-you-know lingerie shop with her left pant leg rolled up revealing a prosthesis, an outstretched hand and upward looking, searching eyes. I see her from time to time.
Beyond her and ahead of me, working towards the next café I see the old man again and I think about dignity and food, and what he’s seen that I can’t imagine, and walking around everyday missing someones and somethings, and asking for coins, and old, old eyes, old hands. I gave him a pocket full and some paper for my thoughts and ignorance.