At first, he just wanted someone to help him with his phone.
My friends and I were walking downtown Alexandria the other night and out of nowhere, this old guy, we’ll call him “Mr. Jones”, latched onto the arm of my buddy. He held out his phone bewilderedly and asked, “Can you help me figure out this fuckin’ thing?” Being a good guy, my friend instructed him on how to “unlock” his phone, how to dial his voicemail, which was apparently filled with messages from his worried wife.
In what we thought was a case closed, the man paused, asked if we knew where he could get some ice cream. It was ten o’ clock at night. The ice cream store would undoubtedly be closed. And, frankly, it was far past the bed time of this 75 year old vagrant. We pointed out that there was one several blocks away and, if he liked, we would walk with him until we got to the bar we were going to. His eyes electrified as he smiled and nodded and began walking between my friend and I, hands clutching each of our shoulders.
Right off the bat, I knew I didn’t care for this character. First, he said he would stay out eating all the ice cream he wants because “you only live once and my wife’s a bitch.” Then, in a conspiratorial voice he whispered, looking back forth at each of us, “can I tell you about my campaign? I’m taking back America.” At this point, I went dark. Stayed silent as my friend accidentally admitted he works for Veterans Affairs and the guy started yelling at him about how his Vet friends weren’t getting their benefits and how he couldn’t possibly know what it was like to put your life on the line.
“I also served in the military,” my friend, a vet, replied.
This didn’t seem to make much of a difference and for about four block, the guy raged about how it was my friends fault that California was broke and the world was going to hell and yada yada. When we reached the bar, the guy followed us in.
He ended up buying us a round of drinks at the bar. We sat around the table, making wisecracks, imagining that there was no wife back at the hotel. Perhaps there was some nursing home search party peeling down every ally in town, looking for their beloved Mr. Jones. From afar, we watched as he harassed the fellows sitting quietly on their bar stools, trying to drown out this eccentric stranger, and we laughed and secretly hoped the drinks would come and he would move on to some other group.
What happened next, well, it sort of surprised us all.
After ten minutes or so of ranting at our table, someone brought up his wife again, like, where was she and would he call her since it was, at this point, 11 o’ clock.
He looked down at the coffee he had ordered. He looked up and stared out. He told us his story.
They got married in their twenties and somewhere in the early years, he began sleeping around. Having had enough of this, his wife kicked him out, told him she wanted separation, like, half a country separation. A job called him to Chicago and she stayed in New Jersey, and for a few years, he was lost. His children hated him, his daughter, he said, still does. And in an act of desperation, he asked her to meet him halfway. To drive to Ohio so he could see her once more. He said he missed her. When they met at a rest stop, he said to her, “if I could do it over, I would be better. If I could have another chance, I will love you the way you’ve always deserved to be loved.”
Peering over at my friend and his wife, he said, “don’t let her go. Treat her right. You’ll regret it forever.”
Then he was gone. He gathered his things, paid the bill, and left, smiling at us all, waving at us the whole way to the exit.
Mr. Jones had lived a life like the rest of us. It was one filled with immaturity, despicable betrayals, and meeting his love in the middle, on a nothing-left-to-lose gamble. He was incredibly human, despite all of his show. His story was weakness and adventure, all criss-crossed with light and dark.
Even though his wife took him back on that fateful day, his life remains fractured. Let’s not forget, his daughter still hates him for what he did to her mom and, let’s not forget, he called his wife a bitch and is selling some kind of racist political message to millennials on sidewalks at the 10 o’ clock at night, his wife lying awake dialing his cell phone worried sick over him, tracing her mind over all the nights he never came home. He is still a work in progress and he’s still sort of terrible. But he’s not all terrible.
Here in DC, no one talks to one another on the metro. Ears are plugged with music and faces fixed on screens, scrolling up and down thoughtlessly until the chime of their stop. At restaurants, just look around and you’ll see silent meals with every man, woman and child holding some device below their eyes. I’m reminded, often, of the groundbreaking book on the technological age, Alone Together, in which Sherry Turkle talks about walking into a cafe, look around at everyone staring off into their laptop screens. All of them in their own universe. She notes,
“I don’t know any of them, but I miss them somehow.”
And I sort of miss us too. We are the most connected generation of all time, but maybe we’re the least intimate. We have social media and our blogs and often, we find one another in extraordinary, deep, profound ways. But, just as often, we freeze ourselves, freeze others against the wall of the web. We don’t get past the brand, as Rachel Held Evans calls it. We make one another into either villain or martyr and none of it is all true.
I’m incredibly guilty of non-communication. Be it with strangers over the web or close personal friends, no matter the medium. My inbox is sky-high with “how are you doings?” and “did you hear about this?” and some, just simply, “I miss you.” And even then, it’s too much for me to connect. I get lulled into the position of control over my “networks” instead of sitting through stories of my friends. And I worry that this infects us, steps out with us into the night when we meet lonely elderly men and freeze them. Keep them at arms length. Figure them out in a few slips of speech.
And we had proximity to Mr. Jones. We walked with him, sat with him, listened to his rants about the VA and the government in general and it still took a half an hour for us to unearth his humanity. For us to see that he was more than just some old wack-job-conservative-fart. That he had a story and it matters. That all he really wanted, was to be heard. To be received. To be understood. That he came from a generation where this kind of talk was normal and he was living in a world where he couldn’t figure out how to unlock his phone. He had a story but no way to connect. No way to tell it.
Mr. Jones taught me what it meant to intentionally listen. To not freeze him in my own prejudice and first impression and to hunker down and actually listen, even thought it took time to get there.
Intentionally listening to one another’s stories requires that we meet when on the other’s terms. It means that if you have something to tell me- then tell me in the way you feel most comfortable. If that’s email. Email. If that’s phone call. Call. I cannot know you beyond your avatar, beyond your first impression, until you tell me. Until you draw me in to your reality and let it effect me. When it effects me, there is empathy, there is relationship and in the end, that’s where we’ll find true connection. The very thing we long for.
“Very interesting,” one of the girls noted after Mr. Jones left. Returning to our drinks, we “hmmed” and squinted. Occasionally, we’d laugh over a ludicrous thing he had said, but less cruelly, slowing down significantly. We knew too much, we saw more of the picture, and we couldn’t unsee it.