the old man in pain

This morning I took the long way to work. The place where I walk off the passenger ferry from Vashon — after 30 minutes of writing or reading — to ChefSteps is a 15-minute walk. I don’t like to fall too much into routine. Some? Yes. Structure, always. But the idea of taking the exact same route to work every day makes me feel a little antsy. So some days I walk down Alaskan, along the water and past the cheesy tourist souvenir shops. Someday I walk up the block to Western, and walk amidst construction, past the building where my friend John had a painting studio 25 years ago (my, how the neighborhood has changed), past all the hyper-expensive Italian furniture stores, and up the steps to my work. And sometimes, I walk up the steep set of stairs, over the walkway, out of Colman Dock, and walk the long way to 1st Avenue, 3 stories above the street, along the new path. And then I walk past the art museum, a dozen coffee shops, the old shuttered Lusty Lady, and right into the heart of the Market. It depends on how I feel that day. It depends on how I push myself to see new things. I always want to keep my eyes open. 

Today, I was going to walk along Western, but my feet took me up the stairs and over the walkway. Okay. As I reached the end of the dock, about to pass onto the 1st Avenue trail, I passed a man hunched over a trash can, his hood hiding his face, his body withered into itself in pain. Beside him, a young woman, with 3 overstuffed bags, looking perplexed. And an older woman with an employee badge from the ferry system. I looked at them and kept walking. And then I walked back. 

“Do you need help?” I asked them. The young woman — no older than mid-20s — with the wide face and frightened eyes, looked up at me. “It’s my grandpa. He can’t walk. His back has seized up and he just can’t move anymore. It’s probably the cold weather.” 

I looked at him again. For some reason, I had seen his frail body and fairly new sneakers and wondered if he had been an addict. Now I saw he was in his late 80s, the veins on the back of his hands prominent. He looked up and winced in pain. 

The ferry employee talked with him for a moment. I asked the young woman if they would like help getting to a hospital. 

“We’re on the way to the doctor’s now. He has a Parkinson’s study. But he can’t get down to the street to reach the car that is picking us up from Catholic services.” Shelooked all around as she said this. 

Hm. Well, if they had a car coming, all we had to do was get him to the street. 

“Do you think he would let me help?” I asked her. “We could both hold him by the arm and slowly walk down the steps.” 

Her face looked relieved. 

“Grandpa, this lady here will help us. Will you let her take your arm too?”

He nodded, slowly. The ferry worker went back to her booth. 

I was carrying a big bag of gluten-free flours to work, about 15 pounds’ worth. I wrapped the top of the bag over the top of itself to close it, then put it in my right arm like a baby. I’ve held babies against my hip for years. I could do this. 

The granddaughter told her grandpa that we were ready to go. She threw away her coffee, settled all her bags on her hip and over her shoulder, and reached for his coffee. She took his left arm. I took his right. And I slowed down my pace, and my breathing, to let him lead. When we reached the stairs, there wasn’t enough room for the three of us across the right side of the stairs. So she went to the other side of the stairs, and reached for his hand over the railing. And I held his right arm and let him guide us at his pace. It took about 15 minutes for us to get down the stairs. 

When we reached the bottom of the steps, she cheered him. But then we couldn’t find the car. I asked if she had the number for the driver. She did. “But I can’t really understand him because he has such a thick Southern accent.” She tried talking to the driver, messing up the name of the street we were on. She apologized. “I’m sorry. I don’t know Seattle that well. I really don’t know it at all. We never get over here.” 

I figured out quickly they were from the Peninsula, from a little rural town somewhere in the woods. The number of bags she held told me they were going to be staying at the hospital for a couple of days. And they were both frightened. 

So I offered to talk to the driver, led him to the southwest corner of Alaska and Columbia, and waited the few moments until the driver arrived. They were both grateful. The older man in pain hadn’t said a word. But when the car pulled up, he patted my back with shaky hands, then pulled me in for a hug. I gave him one back. When I pulled away, I noticed he was mouthing, “Thank you. Thank you.” And when I stood up straight, I noticed, for the first time, that his cap had a Confederate flag on it. And the words: forever rebel.  

When I talked to the driver, I had an idea from his voice that he was black. And when I helped the man into the car, I saw my supposition was true. There was an old man in the back seat of the car, wearing a confederate hat, being driven to the hospital by a black man. 

Life is complicated. 

Or is it? 

Would I have refused to help that man and his granddaughter if I had seen the hat first? I hope not. I don’t think so. But I’m glad I didn’t know. He was, quite simply, a human in pain. I had the chance to help. 

Given where they lived, and his hat, I’m pretty sure he must have voted for Trump. It’s no secret — I did not. I continue to be horrified by Trump as an unhinged person, terrified of the policies he puts into place, and especially concerned that his tenure as president is destroying so much of what we thought was solid in democracy, which turns out to be merely a flimsy gentleman’s agreement. Stephen Miller, who seems to be the only person remaining in that administration from the inauguration until now, is a white nationalist who admires the immigration laws of Adolf Hitler. (Read this piece, if you will, please.) And he has created most of this administration’s immigration policies.

I fear for our country. I fear for the numerous people in this country who have been made to feel small and repugnant by people who feel safe saying hateful things and committing terrible acts because of their virulent racism. 

The Confederate flag has become an even more potent symbol of white power than ever before. (And don’t let biased Southern textbooks fool you. That war was over slavery.) I will honestly never understand why anyone who knows those facts would still want to proudly claim it? 

Would that hat have stopped me from helping that man, given all this? 


He was a man in pain. His granddaughter was frightened. And I was able to help. 

I’m not a hero. I’m only human. 

I think that’s what I wish the most fervently: that we could meet each person we encounter as a fellow human, instead of masking them with labels and turning away from them. If we could actually meet each person anew, none of this repugnant stuff would exist. 

I’m doing the best I can with this. I hope to do better.