Old men on benches

It was quite early – for me at least – as I headed down the street. The morning was full of calm and that same laziness seen in bumble bees at the end of really hot summer days. It was Saturday according to the calendar, but to be truthful, I am not sure that had any bearing on anything.

They were there all the same. Just like every other day, I suspected. Their wolly hats, heavy worn long coats, jeans and trod out sneakers like some kind of unwritten uniform codex. It always amazed me how when the rest of us were melting under the Sun, these guys still looked serene in their frozen stances.

There, on the benches… watching the world go by. Were it not for the half-full green bottle clenched in one hand and the empty ones tucked gently away under the seat then I could almost be envious of them. What better way to start the day than by sitting there in the sunshine by a semi-busy street, watching the town wake up and come alive.

But the truth is, though they do not seem unhappy their reality is much less flattering. When I worked nights I saw them… people like them… come creeping out of the wood work after dark, seeking my shop like savannah animals seek watering holes. I saw them wait until most of the “normal” people had gone so they wouldn't have to feel the stares… or worse the awkward attempts at ignoring them and walk right by. I saw how their hands trembled as they rumaged through pockets and tattered wallets to find a few coppers more. And sometimes when I looked out the window at the deserted parking lot I saw dark shadows bent over trash cans and ducking under bushes… and I knew it was the endless hunt for empty bottles and cans that could be collected and exchanged for the token recycling repayment of a few cents each…

A few times I slipped them hot coffee or pastry that would otherwise just have been thrown away to make room for the freshly baked stuff the regular clientel expected. And in return the men from the benches told me stories. One told me how he tinkered with inventions in His garage during the day and suffered from insomnia through the night… and how one day he would strike gold and patent something that would keep him for the rest of his life. Another told me how he would find work and earn enough money to go to the States to be with his daughter and grandchild. Yet another told me how he had immigrated here and worked all his life to send money to his family in Turkey, and how he hoped to be able to be with them again soon.

The stories – along with the hopes and dreams they built on – seemed unlimited. Never a sour word or a self-pitying recount. In my mind I quietly doubted any of these aspirations would ever come to be more than that, and sometimes I couldn't help but think that even these men thought the same. Yet if they did they never said so. They just chuckled and smiled, like they knew some kind of secret the rest of us have yet to figure out. And who knows… maybe they do. Certainly the talks they had amongst themselves seemed to offer solutions to all the problems of the world, and many a politician would do well to stop and listen *smiles softly*

They never stole or caused me any trouble while working. In fact, they'd hang around to make sure I was okay if something was brewing with druken party goers and guys trying to show off in front of their friends at my expense. In the months I worked the night shift less than a few hundred yards away they had 3 armed robberies (yielding nothing but petty cash and cigarettes) … I never saw any of that. The old men on the benches were there. And that was enough…

And in the Saturday morning light suddenly they were there again, sitting quietly on a bench at the periphery of my world. In a few hours they'd be gone… I never found out where to. Maybe home to their families. Maybe off to work. Maybe to the first pub they could find that opened up early. But wherever they go their quiet personal vigilance will continue when they convene on that bench the following morning… I do not doubt that.

Old men on benches

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