By BEN ECHEVERRIA
He came through the front door of the Episcopal Women’s Thrift Store weaving from side to side. His physical condition was immediately suspect and, soon, so was his mental condition. He appeared to be in his mid-forties and at first impression, was high on drugs or alcohol, or both. He was dressed in a torn shirt that exposed a small, pot belly and seriously sunburned arms and torso. His face, nose and ears were so badly sunburned they had long-ago begun to peel, leaving the pure white epidermis for an even worse, future burn.
His eyes were the best evidence that his brain was damaged. They were red and bloodshot, and the pupils were so dilated they had become part of the eyeball, edge to edge. His speech was almost non-coherent. He seemed to understand when spoken to but he could not respond well to questions.
His bare feet were stuffed into a pair of black combat boots minus the laces. He had apparently been in jail or a mental hospital where shoe laces are taken from inmates or patients to prevent them from being used for a hanging.
His jeans hung down below his buttocks, exposing a weathered backside. Tattoos on his arms started at his deltoids and moved along the outside of his arms to his wrists. One tattoo had a military flavor hinting that he may be a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome in addition to severe weather exposure and substance abuse.
From the front of the store, he moved all the way to the rear more quickly than one might expect, given his condition. In the back of the store he found a pair of white, cross-fit shoes and asked how much they were. After checking with the staff in charge, I advised him the shoes were on sale at three dollars. Clutched in his right hand was a small wad of bills. He checked it, after being advised of the shoe price.
I asked him how much he had to spend and he replied,
“Eight dollars–can’t spend all of it.”
I said, “I understand”.
I began to help him look for a clean T-shirt or athletic shirt with sleeves, to cover his arms and chest. He finally chose a white athletic shirt made of heavy fabric.
Without notice, he ripped off the torn remnants of the shirt he had on and pulled the new athletic shirt over his head, down over his arms and around his body. The elderly-shopper ladies nearby were trying not to look at him, but most couldn’t help sneaking peeks as he disrobed and dressed before them.
Next, he found a pair of short-white sox and a pair of blue-patterned boxer undershorts. I held my breath hoping that he would not disrobe from the waist down to put on the boxers …fortunately, he didn’t.
I tried to persuade him to buy a hat with a wide brim to protect his face from further sun damage. He was reluctant to spend any money on a hat, even after I explained why I thought he needed one. As his damaged brain worked to process my suggestion, he began to put on hats, and as quickly as he would get one on his head, he would jerk it off and try on another one.
I found a green hat with a soft, wide brim. It looked like something an Aussie might wear in the Outback, but, it had little colored strings dangling from eyelets around the edge of the brim, which didn’t seem to please him. Nevertheless, he tried it on and I told him I thought this was the hat he needed. He seemed to agree but said he couldn’t pay for it.
I went to the lady in charge of the store and asked if we could give the green, Aussie-hat to this man since it was priced at four dollars and he was about out of money for clothing. After I advised her that the man was going to pay for his shirt, sox, shoes, and undershorts, she agreed he could have the hat free of charge.
Since he had exhausted his funds for clothing, I guided him to the checkout counter where we began to ring up his purchases. I explained to the cashier that we were going to give him the hat for free. He turned the hat inside out exposing a white crown, tucked the brim inside the band, and put the now brimless hat on top of his head. He looked like a baker about to put bread in the oven with the top of his head covered by a baker’s cap. This maneuver was a signal of more bizarre things to come.
As the cashier and I were discussing the free hat, the man took off his combat boots and put on the new sox and shoes, balancing on one foot and then the other, supported by his free hand on the checkout counter.
Suddenly I thought to myself, I hope he doesn’t drop his pants and put on the undershorts right here at the counter, so I suggested that he might want to go to the dressing room and finish putting on his new clothing. He started in the direction of the dressing rooms but about half way there, changed his mind and returned to the checkout counter and finished paying for his items.
By this time, the ladies in charge of the store had come from the back and were huddling together discussing whether or not to call the police and have our customer taken into custody. I interceded in their discussion buying time for the poor fellow to make his way out the front door.
Once he was outside, he paused, partially blocking the entrance. I told those in charge that this man was our customer, he had paid for everything he was obligated to pay for, he was not combative and gave no indication of being hostile or intimidating to anyone inside or outside the store, and that he had not committed any crime for which the police should be called.
As I was pleading the case for him, he took off the hat I had convinced him to buy, and put the blue undershorts on his head. He moved away from the store entrance and as he proceeded down the sidewalk to the south, he began to dance.
With the blue undershorts on his head, our customer began to do a jig, much like a drunken Irishman on St Patrick’s Day.
I thought good thoughts for him. I hoped that he was just celebrating his new wardrobe and again free in the outside world, as he looked for a secluded place where he could take off his jeans and put on his new, blue boxers?
As he stumbled out of sight, I said a silent prayer that God would keep him safe, wipe away his addictions, cleans him of his troubled mind, and make him a whole man, once again.
by Ben Echeverria
There are many who say that getting old is just a mind-set and you’re really not “old” unless you believe you’re old. The commonly used phrase is, “You’re only as old as you think you are.”
Well, I’m here to tell those folks that they’re wrong, and in some cases ‘dead wrong’. But, before I launch into my dialogue on old age, let me set the stage for a proper discussion of the subject.
Ground rules, of course, are important to control any discussion on which there are opposite sides of the stated question. Here are some ground rules for our discussion:
- First: We must establish standing to enter into this dialogue, ergo, if you are not age seventy or more, you lack standing, i.e. can’t participate.
- Second: We must define our terms, i.e. old, aged, feeling your age, ageing, growing old, only as old as you feel, ancient, fifty is the new forty and sixty is the new fifty, and seventy is—you guessed it, the new sixty, and finally ‘just stop.
- Third: Realize that the biggest enemy of those engaging in this dialogue, are the older. It’s like we are in high school again, and each old-guy or old-gal wants to pretend that they are older than the age stated on their birth certificate or driver’s license. Yes, in many cases these personal identity documents have been falsified to reflect an older age rather than a younger one, which ‘worked’ when we were only fifteen or sixteen and wanted to pass as eighteen or twenty-one. But now that we are seventy or older, it won’t work any longer…sorry.
So, let’s begin.
First: This writer is soon to be seventy-nine so the first ground rule is met.
Second: A short definition[i] for each of the terms in the second rule is in order:
- OLD:” dating from the remote past.”
- AGED: “grown old.”
- FEELING YOUR AGE: ”this depends on the individual; everyone feels differently about their age and their aging.”
- AGING: “the present participle of age”
- GROWING OLD: “to spring up and develop in maturity”
- ONLY AS OLD AS YOU FEEL: (see number 3, above)
- ANCIENT: “having had an existence for many years”
- FIFTY IS THE NEW FORTY, ETC: “pure rationalization which is defined as “the act of substituting the natural for a supernatural explanation”
And for number three of our rules, this writer realizes that much about his persona is dated from the remote past; that he has grown old and at times feels his age. He is still springing up and developing in maturity, having been in existence for many years, and at seventy-nine there is no way he feels like he did when he was sixty-nine.
If he had to pick one phrase from those above, to describe his current physical and mental condition, he’d pick ‘growing old’ since every day of his old life he feels like he is springing up and developing in maturity.
And to all you whippersnappers out there who try to lay the other phrases on us old folks when you learn our chronological age, please relax, because whether you realize it or not, you are also in the process of ‘springing up and developing in maturity’…hopefully!
[i] Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, (Copyright © Merriam-Webster, Inc, 2009).
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