All he wanted was a photograph.
I took his picture, but not the one he wants most of all.
I always leave my door open when I’m on site at the senior center twice a week. I set up shop there to meet low income senior citizens and try to engage with them to show them the kinds of services I can offer free of charge. Ways to save on utility bills, plans for having food when the money runs out before the month does, budgeting help, how to escape from being prey to payday loan companies and so many other services that can make a meager fixed income go much further and last much longer.
This generation of senior citizens are a unique breed. They are the aging baby boomers and what I consider the last of the moral few. They grew up on the belief you should always work hard, scrimp and save, pay your bills and be willing to sacrifice if you can’t. They grew up without computers or an online education and today know very little about how to navigate most things younger people do from their phones in an instant.
And, sadly, they are a generation of lost people. There are no large scale wars that unite them as a group. Their children were born in the “me” generation of self-centeredness and permissiveness and who, for the most part, have found keeping generational ties is generally unimportant. As a result and more often than not, they abandon the older generation as if it is somehow the respectful thing to do. Today’s seniors are also a generation first to experience the insufficiency of social security income to buy the retirement they had hoped. What are so errantly called the Golden Years are truly as thin and flimsy as aluminum foil.
I work the saddest shift at the non-profit charity I chose to join five years ago today.
My open door policy, however, seems to make it a little easier for these needy yet ashamed old people to be willing to break the ice. Like rescue dogs beaten down from years of abuse, they often are afraid to make the first contact. Fortunately, I’m pretty good at that and regularly seek out and engage many solo seniors who have had nobody to talk with for years. Their lifetime friends are now six feet under or six hundred miles away and they don’t have money for milk much less travel in these Aluminum Years.
Again, I made the first move.
For three weeks, he’d passed by while I was in what they call the Library at the senior center. It’s not much of a library, really. It has a cache of donated old books and magazines piled neatly as if they were new editions. Nobody is fooled by the name of the room which doubles for bingo on Tuesday afternoons where winners receive rolls of toilet paper as prizes.
I never heard him coming down the hall and mostly only got a glimpse of his profile as he passed through the light streaming in the doorway so many times before. Each trip, he always turned his head and proceeded at a steady pace as if on a conveyor belt to nowhere.
It took some coaxing. I got up from the computer and stood by the door so a chance meeting might be a little easier for him if it was to happen at all. He was far down the corridor, head down and without direction. But he must have heard me or seen my friendly gesture somehow, for as I sat back down, he was right there at the door, seemingly in reciprocation.
“Hey there!,” I spoke loudly as most of the people around here are hard of hearing or not used to being selected for a conversation.
He looked up and through the doorway. As he approached I could see great depth in the crevasses of his face and his long, black feeble shadow met me long before he did.
“How’s it going on this beautiful day?”
He looked around as if perhaps I was addressing another, more important passerby. I introduced myself and my reason for being here and asked the same of him.
“I’m Al, and I just need a photograph.”
I invited him to sit awhile and tell me about this photograph he wanted.
At first, he wasn’t well spoken but when he did, his long grey beard moved in synchronicity with each syllable. Obviously anxious at the thought of talking with a complete stranger and worse, having a need to present to one, he chose his words carefully.
Al hadn’t seen his three kids in some time. It had been years for two, perhaps a decade more for the oldest. He knows he must have grandchildren by now and wonders if one of them might be an Albert or Alan or Allison…named in his memory as if he were already dead and gone. It’s not likely. After his wife died in ’84, the kids moved him to this senior living community in the desert where he’d “have a really fun time with all the people his age and their games and bingo” and the cache of lies he was told as he managed the last $700 of his savings as a deposit when he signed.
He was all of 81 now, and in addition to winning a roll of toilet paper now and then, he spends holidays, birthdays and anniversaries alone except when he can get a ride to the library or the cemetery where his wife was laid to rest 30 years earlier. To make best use of the ride and the welcomed time away, he goes grave to grave to pull weeds, straighten dirty plastic flowers and talks to all the horizontal people his age and older and forgotten. Except of course Sally, his wife, who only made it a half century before a drunk in a pickup truck ended their marriage and for some reason, the only real connection to the children and family.
Today, he was missing them and wondering about their well-being. He had their addresses on some scraps of paper he pulled from his wallet as I offered him a cold bottle of water. There were no phone numbers, just penciled addresses which had blurred illegible after so many years there next to what looked like high school pictures.
Al hadn’t had a picture taken of him since he could remember.
We talked of his history and my own in extended groups of topics from fishing to art to puppies. I came to discover he was quite a well-rounded man of experience who had evidently cared so much for his wife and children when he was a younger man that his kindness had been taken as weakness and his family had exhausted most of his time and assets before he was shipped out to the desert to wither and die with hundreds more just like him. As he became more comfortable, we even talked about death itself and speculated how each of us might eventually kick our respective buckets.
I didn’t share it with him but by the look of his frail, taut face and thin weathered body, he was sure to die of starvation if something wasn’t done soon. I told him we have a food pantry I bring every Thursday morning and suggested he be first in line with a couple very large bags. It was the first smile he had given me all morning.
I used that smile as an opportunity to fill him in on some things I thought we could do to help his situation and stretch his $718 monthly social security income and $15 in food stamps. That brought the second smile of the morning. I was on a roll and thought I might go for three by asking him to sit back against the wall as I used my IPhone to do for him what he’d come for.
He obliged, licked his fingers and briefly ran them through the few hairs on his head, straightening his beard in what was obviously his own idiosyncratic method for many, many years. I chuckled as he did his little routine and told him my beard would never be as long as his but surely as grey. And the instant he laughed, I snapped the picture and showed him how great he looked in it.
I’d have easily guessed he had not seen himself in a mirror for what might have been years the way he held my phone and gazed at his own image. His last picture was at the DMV four years prior. He had aged quickly in four years. Very quickly.
“Wow, you look a lot different from your ID picture, Al.”
“I kinda guessed I might. A lot has changed in four years.”
Al shared he had been diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer 3 years prior and at the last visit to his doctor, was told he probably wouldn’t make it to Thanksgiving.
Al wanted a final picture of himself that could be displayed on his own grave wherever he might be buried like so many horizontal friends before him. It wasn’t likely that his family would make the trip to see dad and grampa before he passed but if so, he wanted them to see the man he’d become just in case someday they became curious about what happened to old Al.
He said he could never figure out what he’d done wrong for them to drop contact him again and hoped this picture of April 7th, 2015 might be different enough from how they knew him years before and that even from the grave, he might get a second chance to show them how much he had thought about them over the years and hoped they’d made lots of babies, perhaps one named Al.
I printed the picture and presented it to him for the fourth smile of the morning. I don’t think he had had mustered four smiles in a morning for as many years.
With our work done…or perhaps just begun…he got up and shook my hand and thanked me for having stood in the doorway an hour ago.
And as he left through the sunlight of that same doorway, I extended an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner at my house with my own three kids.
The fifth smile.
I took another picture.