“Nothing is stranger or more ticklish than a relationship between two people who know each other only by sight, who meet and observe each other daily… and are nevertheless compelled to keep up the pose of an indifferent stranger, neither greeting nor addressing each other, whether out of etiquette or their own whim.”~Thomas Mann
Harry…93 yrs old, is a long time retired lawyer. He walks with the help of a walking stick (no wheelchair or other assistance) doesn’t wear glasses (he can see quite well, short distances) and is as chatty as ever. According to his wife, “He loves to talk!”
I’d seen him many times before, but I met #Harry because he chose to meet me. I’d seen him and his wife with their regular group of friends sitting at the same coffee shop that is my haunt. It’s been over two years since I’ve been going there and that long since I’ve shared public space with them in a very congenial environment.
We’d never even exchanged the general acknowledgment smile one gives a #familiar face at the cafe. This day was different. Harry walked in alone; I didn’t see his wife following him. Nor was there anyone from their group seated at their usual place. I went back to reading my Jack Reacher novel on Kindle.
Instead of turning towards their usual space, he walked straight where I was seated and took the empty seat on the couch at the four-seater table in front of mine. I sensed rather than saw him looking at me over the back of his couch. I looked up and met the #friendliest #smile that beamed through his crinkled eyes too. I was surprised. I smiled back, both pleased and puzzled.
It became obvious that he had wanted to meet me; that he had noticed me here as I had noticed their group and was interested to know more about this non-local woman who, unlike others, comes here and sits reading or then writing and if not these, then she’s playing #tabletop #games with her granddaughter/s! And unlike others of her kind and race, sits here for hours and hours even when she’s alone. My #curiosity was piqued too. I wanted to know a bit more about this group of men and women. But I didn’t start a conversation beyond returning a warm smile.
A minute or so later, I heard a chuckle and a voice saying, “I’ve been abandoned!”
I looked up to see that he had turned sideways to be more comfortable. He had stretched out one leg on the couch and the other hung down giving him a more comfortable position to turn his head, look at me, and talk.
“You mean your group has #abandoned you?” I asked.
“No, they’re not here yet. We’re early. My wife’s left me.” He said laughing. Then he saw my face and raised eyebrows and added quickly… “She’s out there,” he pointed to their car that was parked outside our window.
I looked out and saw her sitting in the car. Her head was bowed.
“No, no,” he answered and his body shook with #laughter as his head moved from side to side emphasizing that a fight could not be the reason for abandonment.
“It’s the phone! She’s #addicted to it like everybody. She’s chatting with someone! I don’t count as much as that!”
“Ah! No, you don’t,” and I laughed with him.
I went back to reading my book eager to know more about the situation Jack was in and what would happen next.
But Harry hadn’t come to sit within talking distance just like that. He had an agenda. He was curious and wanted to know who I was. So the conversation began with him telling me all about himself without me asking him anything. I guessed he thought that a woman who was apparently non-western would be reluctant to start divulging personal information to a total stranger. He wasn’t wrong in his surmise, generally speaking.
The account of his life, the stories of his youth; the shenanigans he and his friend, who was his partner in crime, had had were very amusing and interesting. I asked questions and got to know more about his family. Why he never left this city where he has lived since he was a boy. How others, even his best friend, moved out to bigger places or a different country.
Seeing my interest, he felt he could ask me something about myself. After a brief lull in our conversation, he turned back to me and said, “What about you? Where are you from?”
“Where do you think I’m from?”
“China,” came his quick reply.
“I’d say Shanghai. Am I right?”
“Um, no. Try again,” I coaxed.
“Oh, yes, I got it. Hong Kong!” He was as pleased as punch because he thought he was right this time.
I burst his balloon.
“Then, where are you from?”
“Well, you’ve got the continent right, just the wrong country. I’m from India.”
He looked surprised, “I should have guessed, but you are quite different from the Indians I’ve seen.”
“You haven’t seen all the Indians from every region. You’ll be surprised,” I said gently. “We come in all skin colors and tones, different color of eyes, hair, features, ” I added, “so you couldn’t have known.” He nodded his sage head.
“Do you know Bhopal?”
“Sorry, I didn’t get that.”
“Bhopal,” he repeated. I still couldn’t get the name. So I asked him what he was asking about… a person or place?
“It’s a place in India.”
“Oh, you mean Bhopal,” I said enunciating the word slowly and with the right phonetic sounds. “Yes, I do know of it though I’ve never been there. How do you know Bhopal?”
He answered with another question.
“Is the name Warren Anderson familiar?”
“No. Can’t recollect any name like that. Why? What’s it got to do with Bhopal?”
“He was the Head of Union Carbide.”
It all came back. “You’re referring to the Gas tragedy in Bhopal!”
“Yes,” he replied.
“He was the friend I was talking about. We’ve been friends for years…close friends. He was a Canadian before he moved to the States. He died five years back.” (this conversation took place in November 2019)
I didn’t know how to respond. The shocking news of the gas leak, the deaths, and the effects of that gas leak came to mind. It had caused children to be born with deformities and other abnormalities; it all came back. I kept quiet. He was quiet too.
I turned to my kindle and tried to catch up with the action, but my mind wasn’t in it any longer.
He broke the silence.
“It was a terrible #tragedy.”
“It’s cold comfort, but I’d like you to know, he was burdened with the grief of this tragedy. He was genuinely grieved. He never forgot and it was a #heavy #burden on his heart.”
“Do you think he was at fault?” I asked.
“I can’t say. The Plant was being operated by the people there. He wasn’t directly responsible for any error in the functioning. He wasn’t at the plant nor supervising it. Those who were there are responsible. But he did take the responsibility to heart because he was the head of the company.”
“He was wanted in India,” I said.
“I know. Do you hold him responsible for the tragedy?”
“Not directly. No. It’s not like he was negligent or irresponsible in operating the plant. But as the head of the company, he should be concerned about what happened.”
“Trust me he was,” said Harry. “He was always carrying that burden with him. He suffered a great feeling of loss and helplessness. You know what he would say? He’d say that he’d have to struggle with this always. And he did go to Bhopal because he felt responsible.”
“I guess, it would be a very big burden to carry. A big punishment in its own way…” I was moved. To hear about something like this from a friend had a different impact than what one reads in the news. “I can’t see why they wanted to arrest him? You know they wanted to arrest him?” I continued. “There are planes that go down due to malfunctioning, there are cars that burst into flames while one is driving… People die. It’s very sad…tragic. But the car company Head or the designers of these machines can’t be hauled into prison. He could be penalized in some way but not incarcerated unless he was directly responsible. He’s not responsible directly”
“That’s what we told him but it wouldn’t help,” he said.
“It’s a tragedy on both sides. Someone was responsible, directly, for some negligence that occurred… I forget what it was now. There was a sabotage theory going around too. Whatever it was, it was the fault of those who were right there, directly in charge of the operations. It’s a heart-rending accident.”
I didn’t want to discuss this any further.
I thought it was time to change the subject. It was getting heavy. So I veered it away to him. I asked him questions about how he managed to keep himself going even at the age of 93.
He beamed and gave all the credit to his wife who was a nurse. Her expert care and company! His group had long since come and settled in. They had even gestured to him to come over but he had refused. Said he liked it where he was.
I was eager to get back to my book. So I thought I should give a hint. Just as I was going to tell him it was nice talking to him, he turned and looked at me.
I zipped my lip and waited for him to speak.
“You know I’m glad I’ve lived so long, thanks to my wife, but it’s very sad for me sometimes.”
“I’ve outlived everyone. My friends and many family members younger than I. It’s not really nice when I see them go.”
He looked crestfallen and the glint in his eye had faded a bit, and his smile was sad on his lips. I waited a while and let him have a quiet moment.
Then I said, “Your wife and your friend have been signaling you to join them. I think you should. It’s been very nice talking to you but I don’t want to steal all your attention and time. Save some for them too.”
He gave a broad grin and said, “Yes, I think I better. I love to talk and can go on and on!”
With that, he moved to where his group was and I went back to Jack Reacher, a little wiser, and with a bit more knowledge. And I stress the “bit” part because only when I got home, I realized I hadn’t asked his name nor he mine. But, since then, when his wife sees me she waves a ‘Hi’. Harry does so only when he’s close enough to see me clearly 🙂
Later, much later, a month or more, my granddaughter who had heard me relating this meeting to my son, overheard his friends call him, “Harry.” Excitedly, she informed me that the “93-year-old” stranger’s name is Harry!
He’s now on my list of Tim Hortons’ friends. These are my ‘stranger’ friends. We smile at each other and maybe exchange a word or two about the weather or a titbit about their health or any such everyday occurrences. I don’t sit with them, we don’t go out together, nor do we know where the other lives. We don’t even know each other’s names. And, in a rare instance, if I get a name, it promptly goes out of my mind leaving just the face behind. So it’s their faces I remember more than their names.
“I am a free soul, singing my heart out by myself no matter where I go and I call strangers my friends because I learn things and find ways to fit them into my own world. I hear what people say, rearrange it, take away and tear apart until it finds value in my reality and there I make it work. I find spaces in between the cracks and cuts where it feels empty, and there I make it work.”~ Charlotte Eriksson