There is an old man teetering through the locker room, pedaling homemade DVDs and breathing like a Freightliner truck. He’s wearing mismatched tennis shoes, a plain white shirt and a pair of khakis wrinkled like the skin of a cottonwood. “Did I give you one of these already?” he asks. “Yes,” they say, “I believe so,” and he keeps moving, three steps forward, one step back, inhale, exhale, a stack of rose-tinted jewel cases fixed between his fingers.
They are lying, these men, financial advisers and media specialists and high school civics instructors. They do not possess this man’s DVD. They do not want it, and do not wish to give him the wrong idea. They are not the right audience. They are very busy. They must go home now, back to their wives and children. They must be on their way.
Soon he will reach my locker. I have just showered. I am still wet and half-naked and my own family is waiting on me for Pancake Night. But I know better. I am better. I have read books, walked through museums, paid money for feature-length documentary films.
I understand empathy. I employ it on a regular basis. I tip the doorman at my office building. I ask my secretary about her weekend plans. In truth, I’d rather not speak to this man, either; I’d rather duck his gaze and sprint for the exit. But to circle this room like a hopeless poltergeist, day in and day out, invisible and ignored—how he must suffer! None of us know him. We do not know his story, but to land at the YMCA pedaling nondescript DVDs, well, the word “downtrodden” comes to mind.
It’s important to ask questions to men like this, to say hello, to meet their gaze when we pass them on the street or find them pedaling DVDs at the YMCA. It’s important to remember the world is unfair, that we do not all share a common heritage, a common childhood, a common blessing.
He’s coming closer now, his shoelaces trailing like alley cats behind him. He looks arthritic, hunchbacked, emphysemic. He’s probably been smoking for years, since he was a kid. They started young back then. No filters. Or maybe he picked it up in the war—maybe he’s a veteran. Korea. Vietnam. Could you blame him for smoking? Flushing out the tunnels, braving booby traps and landmines. And if he is a vet–I’d put money on it–how will you feel then, knowing you’ve ignored a man who nearly died for you and your country, an American hero?
Of course, I could be wrong, and that’s the point: we don’t know. But this much is evident: he’s lived hard. I worry he’s alone in the world. If he had a family, surely they wouldn’t let him live like this, smelling like a dumpster and pinballing from one locker to the next.
Maybe he had a family like mine once, a pretty wife, two kids. Maybe they loved him, and maybe they died, or maybe they fell out of love with him and left, and maybe then he crumbled, fell from grace to the nearest YMCA. It’s important to ask questions to men like this.
There are now only three men between us. I have not looked him in the eye, but I can sense his trajectory, I’m sure of it, can feel his gaze heating up my neck like the coils of an electric stove. I won’t ignore him–of course not–but what will I say? How will I answer his questions?
And how long will it take, because truly, my family is waiting for me. On Pancake Night, I cook dinner. I flip the pancakes. “I like my syrup with a bit of pancake,” Casey Jo likes to say, mimicking me. Kevin likes his with peanut butter. Jane knows my pancakes are only pancakes, but the kids believe they are something special. They believe in the ritual of Pancake Night, and Jane plays along. Pancake night is their favorite night of the week. I really shouldn’t let them wait. I really must be on my way.
“Did I give you one of these already?” he asks, placing the DVD in my hand before I can answer. He’s looking right at me. I can see a bit of food on his tongue. His lips are wet.
The smell is overwhelming me and I am holding my breath. There is something crusty on the jewel case.
“I’m not sure,” I say, “what’s on it?”
“Nothing,” he says. “Totally blank.”
And before I know it he’s shuffling away, head hung low, whispering something I can’t make out.
“Fill it with whatever you like,” he says.