Hello In There

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


  • Puri

    I feel as if I had written your story. Obviously I haven’t lived that situation, but I have experienced the same sensation more than once:
    There is something inside me that tells me I should approach that person and at least be kind to him/her, and let a door open because maybe that person is in the need of something that I can very easily provide (maybe just a smile, a kind look, the disposition to listen…)…
    … and at the same time something that prevents me from doing it. In different ocassions the “excuses” have been different: shame (“what will he think of me”, “maybe he doesn’t want me to disturb him”), haste (“I have lots of ‘urgent’ things to do”), fear (“I don’t know him from anything, maybe I get into trouble”)… or even simply the incapacity to find a proper way to approach an unknown person and be natural.
    Whatever it is each time what paralyzes me, the result is the same: I feel really bad, I feel egoist I would say: a lot of silly excuses have more weight than being helpful to a person. And what is worse, the society we live in pushes us to continue behaving that way, to be individualist.
    Although my message may sound dark, my conclusion is not, because there is a big hope: every one of us, one by one (and that includes me) has the possibility of changing that, each one at his own opportunities. Because once I have “caught” myself once behaving against what I feel inside, it’s easier to realize I’m about to trip again on the same stone BEFORE I do it… And after many times of realizing of what’s going to happen and feeling unable to change it, I hope there will be a time that I find the strenght to be human and do what I feel I have to do. And after many times of finding that strenght, maybe that becomes my new habit.

  • Pete

    Puri – thanks for the great comment. Thinking about it more, I think also that sometime we tend to not want to “get involved”, you know? We want to stick within our own comfort zone, our own issues and problems.

    I’m trying to change my behavior too. In this day and age, it seems people show so little respect and civility toward each other. The least I can do is to try and combat that.

  • Markadelphia

    My last assignment for my Developmental Psych class was to touch an old person on the arm and ask, “How are you?” I do this all the time.

    Very moving story, Pete. One of the many reasons why I consider you and your brother to be close friends is that deep compassion that each of you have for your fellow man. You see the world from the same perspective that I do-a human one-and strive to be more reflective and sincere.

    Keep moving towards that goal of integrity. Sometimes these emotions set off by a combination of certain ingredients (the old man, the sun, the setting) can be so powerful that real change is created. Sounds to me like it did.

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