Only a few blocks from my destination, I notice an old man hobbling along the footpath. His slow speed and awkwardness creates an obstacle for the handful of people who are out today, and they all detour around him so as to continue on their way. As I approached him, he looked up at me and asked if I had any money to give him so he could buy a pizza for lunch. This was not your normal person begging on the streets. Here was an old man, leaning on a cane and dressed in an old suit from yesteryear…
A warm Sunday afternoon, I wandered along the footpath of what is normally a very busy road, enjoying the quietness that Sundays always bring to this overcrowded city. Every Sunday it is as though the entire city remains in bed. Streets are empty, footpaths vacant, and very few shops are open. It is a wonderful time to go for a stroll. Today my stroll took me to lunch, and I was now on my way back at a very relaxed pace.
Only a few blocks from my destination, I notice an old man hobbling along the footpath. His slow speed and awkwardness creates an obstacle for the handful of people who are out today, and they all detour around him so as to continue on their way. As I approached him, he looked up at me and asked if I had any money to give him so he could buy a pizza for lunch. This was not your normal person begging on the streets. Here was an old man, leaning on a cane and dressed in an old suit from yesteryear. He did not stop, but merely suggested the possibility.
Just at that moment I received a phone call. While I took it, the old man continued his slow, awkward gait in the direction he had been going. By the time I had finished with the phone call, he was only a couple of metres from me, such was his slow speed of progress.
I called to him, but he did not respond, so I placed a hand on his shoulder to let him know I was still here. His reaction caught me off guard. The old man looked scared, taken back. He did not look very comfortable at all. To let him know that all was well, and I was only responding to his plea, I reached in and pulled out my wallet. Fumbling through the notes, I wondered how much would be enough for him, finally settling on $10 pesos.
He received it with gratitude, shaking my hand and declaring that it was a lot for what he needed. I looked down at the note that was now nestled in the palm of his hand and reflected on my lunch from which I was now returning. There was no comparison. It was obvious that there was a discrepancy here in how much I was willing to spend on myself compared to how much I was willing to give to others. I gave to him out of what was left over, not according to his needs. Perhaps this was enough for his needs.
There are many arguments against giving, some of them almost convincing. But in the end it comes down to the heart and conscience; not the amounts we give. I know that I short-changed that man, not because I had a lot of money but because of the attitude of my heart when I gave to him. It is shameful to have to admit, but if I am honest then I know that as I searched for how much to give to him, it was not based on how much he needed, but rather how little I could give and yet still cover his need. My act of generosity, although good on the outside, was a very different story on the inside.
After receiving the money, the old man started to talk with me. At first I tried to answer and share in the conversation, but it quickly became clear that he was mostly deaf and even with a hearing aid I needed to yell to make myself heard. So I simply listened to his stories.
“Rios is my name,” he told me, “I am 90 years old.”
Old Mr. Rios went on to tell me that he had never expected to reach the age of 90 years and was surprised that he had made it this far. He was very much in his right mind as he talked with me and shared different stories about his past and present. One of the things that really surprised me was his ability to remember names of people and places from both many years back and from more recent events.
Around his shoulder hung a soft briefcase filled with papers, and as he continued to tell his stories, he reached down into that bag and fumbled for ages through the different papers. Finally he found what he was looking for, and pulled out a number of laminated photos displaying his age from when he was a young boy to his days as a university professor.
It turns out that Mr. Rios was a very studied man, having worked in the fields of: teaching, natural sciences, sociology, studies in human personality, audio-linguistics, archeology, and as a reporter and writer, amongst others of which I have no idea how to translate into English.
He stared at those photos and remarked, “It is amazing how much we change over the years. They are all me, but all very different.” I could not help but agree as I looked from photo to photo and then to him. Satisfied that he had now shown me this treasure of his, he continued to tell his stories as he worked clumsily with old hands to put them back into his bag.
As told by Mr. Rios:
“I live in the nunnery now. There is a place where we can live and they give us coffee in the morning and some croissants but it is not enough.” That was why he was out now, to get something more to eat.
“There is a lady there that is 128 years old. She doesn’t say anything, just stares straight ahead. It is as though she does not even live any more, but there she is. They have to do everything for her, bathe her, clothe her, even put a tube down her throat so she can eat. It is sad really. I don’t think I will get to that age, I hope not anyway.”
“It is better in the hospital now. Before this I used to live on the street, near a hotel down that way,” indicating with his finger, “and one day I was there and this man came up to me, an American guy that spoke to me in English. I didn’t know anything that he was saying but he handed me a note in American dollars. It was a $500 USD bill. I had no idea what it was or how much it was, but when I went to the cashier to change it he told me that it was far too much for him to change. That’s when I realised how much it was worth. A $500 USD bill. He just handed it to me. I didn’t understand anything he had said to me as he was speaking to me in English. I will always remember that moment.”
“When I retired I had a great pension and things were going very well for me. But that was the days of Menem.” (NOTE: Menem was one of the presidents of Argentina whose handling of different situations was considered less than ethical.) “I had stood against him as the leader of a group who wanted to see change. He did not like that, so one day he changed everything and took my pension away. Completely. That was it. I went from a good pension to nothing. Now, here with the nuns, we receive $500 pesos per month. It is not very much, but they give us some food and clothes, so it helps.”
The stories rolled on and on, but eventually it was time to say good bye to my new friend. I shook his hand and thanked him for the stories and for sharing with me. He understood. Time moves on. It was time for him to go and get some lunch now. Before he left though, he explained to me that every day at around about 9am he would get a coffee from one of the local shops… explaining to me exactly which one it was. He had desired that I would be able to meet him there one morning, his eyes shining with hope. I took the time to explain that I was only passing through and would not likely be here anymore, as I was leaving today.
His face saddened, but there was nothing I could do. One man in a city of millions. Lonely. As he left I watched him go, his slow and awkward gait taking him ever so slowly toward his destination. Old people are hardly loved in this world of increasing obsession for youth and youthful appearances. Like old Mr. Rios said to me, “I hardly look like a 50 year old any more.” His age, his awkwardness, his deafness; all contribute to his isolation.
What has gone wrong in our world that we do not have five short minutes to share with somebody we meet in the street? Sure there are things to be done, but will those five minutes really make that much difference? I ask myself that question all the time – especially when I have just walked past somebody that was asking for help.
The next time I will remember old Mr. Rios. He too was young once.