I was eating dinner with my family earlier tonight at one of those Pay-$9.00-and-gorge yourself types of restaurants (rhymes with “Pete Potatoes”). Sitting in the booth behind me was an old gentleman – probably 80 or so. He sat there alone, eating his dinner. On my trips to the salad bar, and the soup bar, and the drink refills, and taking my 3 year old to the rest room (so she could tell me that she didn’t have to go) – on my way back from those trips – I’d see him. He’d look up my way with a vacant look in his eyes, and I’d purse my lips into a respectful smile and pass by. He didn’t look happy, nor did he look sad. Just – vacant. Expressionless. He was just having dinner.
It was late afternoon, and the hot desert sun was creeping down the western sky outside. The sunlight was beaming through a window, moving down on his booth, and the last time I passed him, the bright sun was shining directly into the old timer’s face like a spotlight. He sat there unfazed, finishing his meal.
For some reason, the image of the sun on the old man’s face made an imprint in me. I felt compassion for him. Not knowing a thing about him, I thought of the worse case scenarios – that here was an old man in the twilight of his life, eating alone on a Sunday night. Maybe he’d recently lost his wife. Maybe he was a sad and lonely man. Maybe the only human interaction he has left in his daily life is a dinner at a local restaurant. Maybe it would make his day if a random stranger approached him and said “How ya doing?”
I immediately thought of the John Prine song, “Hello In There”, this verse in particular:
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello.”
All it takes is a hello. Taking a minute or two out of your life to look someone in the eye and let them know someone in this world cares.
So did I act on it? Of course not. We rarely do in this day and age, right? As we got up to leave, the old timer’s booth was empty, and an opportunity was lost. And I felt a tinge of shame. I still do tonight.
Maybe I read too much into it. Maybe he has a rich and fulfilling life. Or maybe he’d rather just be left alone. The frustrating thing for me is that I didn’t take the time to find out.
John Prine | Hello In There (mp3) – from John Prine