Alone

I know I promised something chronicling my latest journey to San Francisco.  I know I usually write stuff that could at least be considered mildly humorous.

I’m not going to do that tonight, though.

I’m going to talk about an old man alone.

I was on my way back to Indy, doing my best to kill a two-hour layover in Chicago O’Hare.  Only got to spend 20 minutes on the internet thanks to their ridiculous WiFi policy, so I eventually switched to reading a paperback.  It was about a half hour to boarding time, so I was sitting at the gate, invested in some George R.R. Martin, when I glanced an airport employee wheeling an elderly man to an area right in front of me.

The man had to be in his eighties, no younger.  I could tell that the employee was trying to explain to him that this was the gate where he would board his flight, that he would need to stay here until the plane arrived and the gate crew began boarding.  From what I gathered in his responses, he didn’t quite grasp the concept, and also had a noticeable knot in his voice, most likely a stroke victim.

At some point, he asked the woman helping him if she would stay with him until the plane arrived.  He seemed anxious, scared, unsure.  She politely decline, stating she needed to be somewhere else.  And then she left him.

I didn’t really think much of it at the time, honestly.  Went back to my book.  As boarding time neared, I was more concerned with the fact that the plane parked at the gate prior to the shuttle arriving from Indy hadn’t moved in an hour and appeared to be undergoing some sort of maintenance.  Eventually — and pretty much right at boarding time — they announced that the flight would now be boarding three gates down.  I quickly grabbed my backpack and hurried toward the gate, sure it would be boarding by the time I arrived.  It was not.

Maybe 10 minutes later, I see the old man again, being wheeled by some lady who clearly was not an airport employee.  Just a good samaritan.  Let me tell you…I can’t count many times where I have felt worse about myself as a human being than the moment where I saw her struggling to wheel both the man and his carry-on to the new gate.  Here I’d seen this old man previously parked and scared and confused, and I’d just rushed to the new gate in some modern day Pavlovian experiment, eager to board and get the hell home after about seven hours of travel.  No one was looking out for him, and it took the kindness of a complete stranger to usher him where he belonged.  I felt pretty terrible knowing that, that it should have been me, that he could have been left there, helpless, alone.

Eventually, this plane arrives and we start boarding.  The gate agents call for those in need of assistance to board first, and I glance at this man.  He’s invested in a book — didn’t catch which one — and clearly not aware of the situation at all.  Parked in a corner.  Not even really facing the gate.  Just buried in a book, oblivious to the boarding process.

Now, for some reason, our logical centers shut down when it comes to social niceties.  We don’t want to intrude whilst traveling, we just want to mind our own business, get where we need to go, etc.  Assume everyone can look out for themselves.  So standing in line and staring at this man, I battled with myself for a while as to what I should do.  Should I just assume a gate agent should notice him?  Should I offer to help him on the plane?  It’s amazing the lengths we will go to in order to avoid interaction with strangers, especially in transit.

But I knew I had to do something.  The guy wasn’t all there.  And he was moved, so I knew this had to be his flight.

I awkwardly approached him and politely asked if he was flying to Indianapolis.  He responded with a clouded yes, weathered hands shaking as he clutched tight to his book.  I told him I would make sure to let a gate agent know so they could get him boarded up and situated for the flight.  And I did just that.

I essentially arm-barred the rest of the passenger rush to allow for an employee to assist him and his carry-on down the ramp and into the plane, following the man down the ramp.  As he was being wheeled down backward, he was facing me the entire time.  And I couldn’t look in his face.  I just couldn’t.  Here was this old man, alone, half-aware at best, probably afraid.  Ancient, in my eyes.  There was no one there for him, and I suppose cheesy sentimentalists would say that a few good samaritans were, but that’s just trying to tie a ribbon over a hand grenade.  The reality is: this man was driftwood on the open sea.

I asked a flight attendant to make sure he was assisted in de-boarding and locating his luggage, and then struggled through a storm-shook shuttle flight and left him to their care in Indy.  I figured — hoped — someone had to be in Indy for him.  A daughter, a son, a caregiver.  Just someone.  Someone welcoming him home, someone chartering him to a retirement community.  Someone.

But down in baggage claim, I saw him again.  With another airport employee.  Alone.  No one had greeted him in the main concourse.  No one had come to help him grab his luggage.  His only company was an airline employee who would surely leave his side the moment he identified his bag.

It’s a mystery, I guess, where he ended up.  Surely he couldn’t drive, but unless someone was picking him up immediately outside the airport (and it’s curious they would have neglected to park in the short-term garage and help him gather his items in baggage claim) there was no one to pick him up.  I have no idea where this man ended up, what his life is.  But I wonder.

Is that just what it’s like when you’re old?  Or if you outlive everyone you love?

All the stories I can tell about this trip, including the ones that end up with me waking up with a roiled stomach on the floor of a hotel room in an Oreo crumb-covered bath robe, and this is the only one I want to tell, for some reason.  It’s the only one I really care about, the only one that seems to have any significance.  And I’m still asking myself if this man had anyone in his life, anyone at all.  Just someone to hold his hand and help him, you know?  Guide him through a dark living room or something.  Was there anyone left for him?  Or was he just floating aimlessly while the masses passed idly by, only aware of his presence in a physical sense, just as an object in space, something occupying a fractional percentage of a room, something to navigate around, something to not look at, something tucked away in the corner to be dismissed as boarding passes are produced.

Ultimately, after all we’ve done, when we’ve reached our final chapters…in spite of all the literature before, all the tales we’ve written, all the things we’ve ever seen and known and done, is that how we end up?  Drifting?  Half-alive?  Forgotten?

Maybe a bit macabre or fatalist on my end, but questions I can’t help but ask after seeing that old man.  And while I guess I could imagine a happy ending or self-righteously pat myself on the back for my one good deed, I’m more apt to believe the employee pardoned himself like those before him and left the man sitting curbside, waiting on a car that would never come and yet oblivious to the fact there were any cars there at all.

And I fear, as much as we fight it, that’s how we all end up one day.  Alive, but only in theory.

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Free Carwash.

It's like the post title, only neoner.

I wrote something pretending to be profound here, but deleted it in favor of nonfiction since dismissed, as you may or may not continue on to read.  Sentiment is for another forum.  This one is for criticizing hipster monocultures of cultural regurgitation and making Majora’s Mask references.  I’ll save the sour musings for the My Little Pony diary.

Dear diary: cutting is the only thing that makes the pain go away...

Hipster admonishments aside — yes, Tyler the Creator and Tegan & Sara have a common enemy, tomorrow’s dollar-short blogger latching on to everyone else’s coronations when blogs like Mostly Junkfood are holding court on artists they’ll come to worship falsely some two years down the line (read: Goblin was a shitty album, shame on bloggers who blindly label it revolutionary) — I’ll take this one back to a transparent carwash on 116th Street where I was near certain my 16-year-old self was soon to be entombed.

There stands an outdoor carwash on 116th Street that appears to be some kind of transformed greenhouse.  It’s completely transparent, a glass shell, so apparently everyone can marvel at your ’03 Saturn L200 when it’s getting the latest line of road salt washed off.  I don’t quite understand the concept, but then I didn’t go to school to be a carwash architect.  Although I wish I had.  I would have designed one with a self-serve burrito station halfway through.

This year’s Architect of the Year Award goes to…Collin!  His burrito self-serve station has forever revolutionized the way cars are baptized.  Honorable mention goes to Salazar Slytherin, whose Chamber of Secrets will surely one day make for a lukewarm Chris Columbus film adaptation.

Doug daydream concluded, I was in the car with one of my best buds (honoring my policy of not using names so as to embarrass people, except Trevor, who sold me out to the Pacers, the bastard!) leaving school for that day.  Don’t think I was quite old enough to drive then, freshly 16, so I was sitting shotgun, getting a ride home.  Along the way, it was decided that we would take the car in for a car wash, because driver-friend had the free car wash code.  Which if you know anything about living in insignificant-land, is equal in value to either six Frullati punch cards or one alcoholic genie who doesn’t give you three wishes but instead gives you a free corndog every Tuesday before heading to his A.A. meeting and spending the duration convincing himself that the last handle of Bright Dark Eyes was the last handle of Bright Dark Eyes.  Stupid emo groups.

(Which isn’t to poke fun at alcoholism — a serious disease — but rather Robin Williams and Shaq.)

Right, so, carwash.

Free carwash code is entered.  Carwash bay door opens.  Open sesame, I say.  But not really.  Because nobody says that.  Ever.

(“Open sesame,” said Kazaam to the vodka handle.”)

It’s likely also worth noting that it’s early March, and it’s Indiana, so it’s cold.  Like freezing cold.  Like frozen water is ice cold.  Like carwash is full of water that will freeze and create ice cold.

The carwash starts fairly normally.  I’d give it a six out of 10.  Theatrics are there at the onset, a symphony of scrubbers and twirling thingamabobs, but the big spinning thing (technically called the “large rotating item”) was a disappointment.  Just didn’t have any oomph to it.  Like a Subway sandwich artist who just lazily scatters banana peppers on your sub because six hours into her shift and having survived Saturday soccer outings, she’s clearly past the point of caring, and very well may quit on the next squirt of mayonnaise.

So the C+/B- carwash show ends, and the car pulls up to trip the dryer.

Except it doesn’t.

To recap: Harry Potter and Deathly Carwash Part 1 = water + scrubber doo-dads + 45 minutes of aimless teenage angst in the woods:

The world's first cheese-powered carwash.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Carwash Part 2 = the blow-dryer, the heavy action, the big blast to send the saga off safely, a subtle shot of Emma Watson’s cleavage:

Engorgio!

Except the dryer mechanism never tripped, and the dryer never activated.  So we just sat there, waiting with no idea of what to do next.  I’d imagine this is what it’s like getting tricked by a leprechaun.  Free carwash, he says, but nothing about cardry.  It’s like when your neighbor invites you over for free beer and buffalo chicken dip on gameday, but fails to mention the demon in the cellar with a severe case of the soul-munchies when he asks you to grab some cold ones from downstairs.

(Of course, if it’s IU gameday, having a demon gorge on your soul is probably preferably to watching the game anyway.)

So we’re stuck in subzero temperatures in a soaking wet car, trying to figure out how to get the dryer to work.  My friend eases the car into reverse and tries to trip the sensor again, figuring he’s probably missed it.

And then the car-crypt closes shut.

So now, not only will the dryer not work, but we’re locked in the carwash.  The exit door has closed.  And the scrubbers are warming up again.  We appear to be destined to loop endlessly in carwash purgatory.  Like some time travel conundrum.  Only not that at all, and in a transparent carwash where our plight is public spectacle.

We try honking to get the attention of someone nearby, namely the police car parked directly outside, but it’s no use.  Everyone would prefer gawk.  Why?  Because studies show that people suck.  Hardcore.

At some point, it’s apparent that someone will have to get out of the car and attempt to manually…I don’t know, do something.  At all points, as the mist begins to build from the infant wash cycle, it’s apparent that that person is not me.  Because I am a total, unabashed coward.

What can I say?  My favorite hobbies include reading, writing, playing soccer, playing Risk and not drowning in a sea of (free!) subzero carwash foam.  I’m not extraordinarily adventurous.  I don’t take a lot of risks.  I don’t even take a lot of risks in the game of Risk.  I usually just squat on South America or Australia, build my armies forever and don’t attack anyone.  Yeah, I’m the reason you’re falling asleep over the board at 2:00 a.m.

Thankfully, though, my friend is not paralyzed by inaction.  Like the hybridized offspring of a kraken and a mermaid, he braves the battering rains of The Works Plus to seek out an emergency release lever for the exit door and, shrugging, engages it.  Trust me, it would have made an awesome Marines commercial.

The door opens.  Glorious sun, the soothing rays of victory come pouring in.  Wait, no.  I got that description wrong.  Indiana winter comes pouring in.  The exterior of the car seems to start taking notice as we drive away.

So by the time we reach my house, naturally, all of the undried doors — which are, coincidentally, all of the doors — are frozen shut.  Great.  Substituting on icy, windowed tomb for another.  At least my grave has a nice music library, I figure.  But after enough work and a few inexplicable nosebleeds, we’re able to force the doors open.

The next night, Tony Todd shows up at soccer practice, which I think is odd because usually he only shows up at my gymnastics lessons.  Not that I ever took gymnastics, I mean.  At age 10.  At Danna Mannix.  With trainer John Green.  He goes on to explain how I’ve cheated death, and it will come to reclaim me.

A long succession of improbable events and unfortunate accidents ensue.  In 3D.

The end.