Copyright 2001 William J. Cronin
Females, Frustration and Fear
Perched on the edge of the park bench across from me, the old man leaned forward resting both hands on the bronze handle of a dark, brown, wooden cane. His gray fedora was as weathered and soiled as his beige raincoat. A gray, dirty, unkempt beard hung to just above his collar. Deeply set ice blue eyes, framed by swollen flesh and dark circles hinted at the exposed conditions of living in the street. But they were happy gleaming eyes, clear of trouble or care. Beneath the tufts of gray, which surrounded and partially covered his small mouth, were the upturned corners of a subtle smile.
Nearby, thunder clapped. Cool and exhilarating air, freshly washed by a just passed, early morning storm, reminded the young man of why he loved the early morning so. Boiling, dark clouds hurried across town to clean the air of the city before its citizens stirred from slumber. As the sun broke the horizon, and dodged the departing clouds, the old man’s face sought its warmth. Sunlight struck his face without casting the smallest shadow.
Amber leaves swirled around the old man’s unlaced and scuffed shoes. The breeze moved upward and bathed his face sending his gray matted shoulder length hair in every direction. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back ever so slightly, water streamed from the brim of his hat and down his back, but a look of pleasure spread across his beaming face.
Every morning for several months, the old man had been here, sitting on the same bench, in the same spot, almost in the same pose. Each morning the young man jogged past him, he thought about the old man for the remainder of his run. The streets down by the river were filled with hobos and derelicts. Although the police kept them off of River Street, they were drawn inexplicably to the older section of the waterfront area.
In the early morning, the street people, with their shopping carts and cardboard shelters, abounded in the business district. These transient, timeshare, residents of doorways and park benches heeded the unwritten police code to leave the streets before the shopkeepers arrived. Aside from the old man, there were few faces he recognized morning after morning, fewer still recognized him on his daily trek through Old Town. Those who did acknowledged him with a faint wave or a nod of the head.
Unlike the human refuse of the riverfront, the face of the old man sitting on the bench across from him was not a face of hopelessness. It was a peaceful yet powerful face. The eyes were not empty and bloodshot, or clouded from alcohol and cheap wine. His eyes were clear, challenging, probing, and confident.
Some mornings when the young man ran past his bench, the old man would look at him. Weeks ago, his looks were one of curiosity, then later acknowledgement. On recent mornings, when the old man wasn’t deep in thought and he raised his head as he approached his bench, his eyes were expectant, warm and familiar. Even though they had never spoken, even though he had never outwardly acknowledged the young man’s passing, his eyes showed friendship.
The young man knew, inevitably, he would stop and sit on the bench across the sidewalk from the old man. He had wanted to stop for several mornings but lacked courage. This morning, curiosity won over his concerns.
He sensed the old man had not noticed him sitting across from him. The young man was uneasy, intimidated, and intensely curious. The silence melted his resolve. Now that he was seated, he wanted to leave. What drew him to the park bench was the contradiction he saw in this man’s face. His were not the eyes of a down-and-outer; these were the eyes of a man who had been somewhere. His were knowing eyes, eyes you would find on the face of a successful man. The young man prided himself in reading people. How would he interrupt the old man? What would they talk about?
“What’s troubling you?” The old man’s eyes were still closed, his face pointed at the sun.
“What makes you think, something’s troubling me?”
“For starters you’re hardly out of breath. So you didn’t stop to rest. Second, you always come by here at precisely the same time every morning. You’re on a schedule, a disciplined schedule; a schedule you normally wouldn’t deviate from. It’s not compassion, because as many times as you’ve passed this bench you would have left money or food. So what’s troubling you?” He turned his face away from the sun toward the young man.
“Nothings bothering me?” The young man was unconvincing. He did not like the direction of this conversation. He felt exposed and vulnerable. “I was just curious,” he said thinking that he just made the old man seem like some kind of odd curiosity.
“What were you curious about?” The old man looked away from the young man, his hands still resting on the brass handle of the cane.
“About you. I’ve seen you sitting on this bench every morning and I just got curious.”
“What are you curious about?” the old man asked again.
“I’ve run through this section every morning. I see lots of street people. You just don’t seem like you belong here. You just don’t fit the mold.”
“How do I not fit the mold?” the old man looked up from the ground and up at the young man again.
“When I look at the people on the street, their faces lack arrogance. Sometimes their faces say anger, or they look away from you. Or they have the look of a victim. I don’t see the look of a victim in your face. Even the way you sit on that bench says that you own it.”
“So I’m a bum with an attitude. How is that any of your business?”
“It just doesn’t fit. It’s like finding a Texas steer grazing with sheep.”
The old man laughed softly, amused by the comparison. “Again, how is it any business of yours?”
The young man leaned back on his bench and crossed his legs. He unzipped the jacket to the jogging suit about half way down his chest. Perspiration dripped from his face as the past two miles of running finally caught up with him. He looked around the park then looked up at the last remaining storm clouds. “I guess I just let my curiosity get the best of me. I saw strength in a man who had no reason to be strong. I saw something in you that I don’t feel in myself.”
“You saw all of this in someone you only looked at briefly while jogging.”
The young looked at the old man without responding. He was beginning to feel self-conscious.
The old man pushed back on the bench letting his hands fall to his lap, the cane rested in his hands. He relaxed, and shifted his body in the seat so that he faced the young man.
“My name is Al, what’s yours?”
“Roger,” the younger man said.
“What do you do for a living, Roger?”
“I have a company that manufactures fiberglass replacement- parts for antique cars.”
“The company belongs to you?”
The young man fell into a comfortable pattern of answering the man’s questions. The old man had a disarming manner. His voice was soft but had authority, the same authority he saw in the old man’s eyes.
“Yes . . . well sort of. The bank owns most of it.”
“Is the business successful?”
“Incredibly so. It’s beyond anything I ever dreamed possible.”
“Then you must be very happy.”
“Well . . . yes.”
“You don’t sound sure.”
“When I was younger, just out of school, I had nothing, but I was happy. Although I like what I’m doing now, better than anything I have ever done, the pressure is intense. It isn’t the work, although sometimes I feel like I work too many hours.”
“What is it then?”
“The worry. The constant knot in my stomach. That’s why I started running. It’s the only way to get relief from it.”
“What’s causing it?”
“I wish I knew.”
“It’s been my experience that there are only three things that can give you a knot like that, females, frustration and fear. Are you married?@
“Very. The only problem is the amount of time I spend at the plant. Other than that things are great.”
“Then what are you afraid of?”
“What makes you think that I’m afraid.”
“Your business is going very well. And frustration usually comes when you are blocked from achieving something. That just leaves fear.”
“People go to school for a million years to learn psychiatry and you boil it all down to three “F=s”. Don’t you think that oversimplifies things a bit?”
“In this case it is as simple as that. You’re afraid of something. What is it?”
The young man squirmed on the bench. He was agitated. “I can’t believe that I am being analyzed by a . . .”
The old man wouldn’t let him finish his sentence. ” . . . by a bum. Well I didn’t ask you to sit on that bench and interrupt my morning. And there is no one tying you to that bench either.” He turned on the bench away from the young man and pulled the collars of his coat up to his chin.
“I’m sorry, ah look, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” The young man stood to get up.
For the first time the old man’s posture changed from being relaxed to showing signs of concern. He once again faced the young man. “Wait, don’t go. As I said a minute ago, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t bothered by something. I think you are afraid of something. If you leave, and you don’t get it off your chest that knot in your stomach won’t go away. Sit. Tell me what are you afraid of?”
The young man slumped back onto the bench in a heap. He looked around as if to search through his brain for the right collection of words. His gaze finally settled on the old man. He noticed water ever so slowly dripping from the old mans rain soaked hat. For the first time the strong complacent look on the old mans face changed to gentle concern and anticipation.
“I’m afraid of losing it.”
“Afraid of losing what?”
“Everything that I have worked so hard to build.”
“And what is that?”
“My business, my home, the income. You know what I’m saying?”
“You mean you’re afraid you’ll end up like me.”
“No, No. I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that you seem to understand.”
“But, you’re afraid of ending up like me.”
“I guess I am just afraid that things will go sour.”
“No, you’re afraid that you end up on the streets like me. That’s why you jog down by the river every morning.”
“No, that’s not it.”
“Yes it is. You’re curious. You want to know how bad things could really be.”
“No, I don’t think . . .”
“You’ve stopped here to find out what it’s like to be at the end of the line. You’re trying to figure out how bad it can really be. You’re trying to understand the worst that could happen to you.”
The young man was silent.
“You, my friend, are afraid to fail.”
He just stared at the old man.
“You’ll never truly succeed, unless you get over your fear of failure.” The old man paused to let the words soak in. They were not words that the old man just created. They were memorized words. Important words. Words of conviction.
The old man pushed himself to a standing position. Water that had pooled in the folds of his raincoat ran off to the ground and onto his shoes as he pushed himself up with the aid of a cane. He rotated his hips to work out kinks in his back.
“There is nothing to be afraid of here. We are all trying to survive. We each do it differently. The rules may be different. The methods may be different. But the goal is the same. On the street the goals are very simple: eat something, stay warm, and if your lucky find cover to sleep under.”
“How long have you been on the street?” The young man stood up.
“You seem so happy, so out of place.”
“The world out there,” the old man gestured toward the waking city, “is in such a hurry to accumulate more things that ultimately don’t make them any happier than the last possession they acquired. Here on the street, you don’t have anything, and it is the small things that begin to have tremendous meaning. The Mockingbirds that fill this park early in the morning, the sweetness of the air after a rainstorm, the noises the city makes as it comes to life, these are my possessions. They fill the soul in ways that money never will.”
The young man stared at and through his mentor. The old man turned and walked towards the river. He stopped and turned back to look at him. “The thing that you should fear is getting to the end of your life and finding that you were so busy accomplishing things that you forgot to enjoy it.”
The old man shuffled away, the cane tapping on the wet concrete as he walked.
Six months later, at a meeting of the Chamber-of-Commerce at the Hyatt Regency Riverfront, the young man sat at the head table, an honoree for the jobs that his business had created in Savannah. J. Alan Daniels, president of Savannah River Oil and Gas, was the keynote speaker. Just as the master-of-ceremonies was to announce that Mr. Herbert was running late, an elderly gentleman, assisted by a cane, stepped down the center aisle to the podium. He had a full, neatly trimmed, gray, beard, and long hair pulled back into a ponytail. As he passed by the head table, the old man smiled when he recognized him. Just before he spoke, he took a few labored steps to the young man’s chair, leaned down to his ear, and said, “I was afraid to.”
The old man returned to the podium, leaned his brass handled cane next to it, and began. “My name is Al Herbert. I started my Company in 1946 after the war, hauling fuel oil up and down the river . . .”