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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