I watched him as he hobbled his way through the parking lot. He was slightly bent at the waist and at the neck. He had a strange bounce to his steps. The up and down motion exaggerated on his bent knees was enough to draw attention, almost like a hop, hop and a skip motion. As he came close to where I sat in my parked car, I could see he was probably in his eighties. His hair fell all the way down to below his shoulders peppered in black and white under a sea of gray. His forehead had receded to his crown and the stubble on his face was a day or two old. If he had a moustache he could do a stand in for Fu Manchu.
My attention was now totally riveted to his being. I saw him stop abruptly to pick up a stray piece of paper and look at it, flipping it back and forth, back and forth looking at both sides. After satisfying his curiosity with what it represented or didn’t, he continued on his way to deposit it in the trashcan. He stood there for a moment and then without much ado he walked towards a lone stray shopping cart, which had been left between the parked cars by a consumer of the store. He pushed it towards the department store. I figured he would take it into the store for collecting his shopped items, but reaching the threshold he deposited the cart where it belonged and then headed towards the donut shop that was next to the grocery store. There he stood by the trashcan. He looked at the garbage within for a lingering minute. Finally his hand went deep into the trashcan from whence he started retrieving several brown bags one at a time. He reviewed their contents and not finding what he was looking for he placed them back in the receptacle. Just as he turned, something caught his attention and he leaned over and pulled out a box of discarded donuts. He opened the box and being satisfied with his discovery, he closed it placing the box under his right arm.
With my social, moral and ethical concerns all in a state of collision, I got out of the car and headed his way. This was a curious example in a world of curious. This elderly man with a bounce in his step, a bent back from the psychological weights in his mind was exploiting the virtues of all social norms against the ills of society. He had managed to do some things in a matter of minutes to convince my skeptical mind of the good that resides in humans.
As I walked closer towards him, I could see his face was weathered to a crusty discolored yellowish brown skin. His eyebrows hung thick over his deeply recessed eyes and there were several skin lesions on his face, the challenges of which would undoubtedly be a dermatologist’s dream. His left hand free from encumbrances was remarkably younger looking then his face belied.
“Hi!” I said.
He stopped, gathering his box in front of him with both his arms, protecting his find.
“Would you like to go in for a cup of coffee?” I asked, not knowing what else I could say to him. How does one introduce oneself in these circumstances?
“No thank you.” He said as he turned to avoid me.
“ I am sorry. I figured if you had a minute, we could both enjoy some fresh hot coffee and donuts together.” I said stammering like a 7 year-old not knowing what to do with my hands flying in different direction for no apparent reason.
“I don’t have any money.”
“My treat.” I said happy for what sounded like an affirmative statement.
“”Why?” He asked in a state of confusion. His eyes now wide and expressive with their arcus senilis bands, reflecting the cataracts from within the dull grey irises.
“Company.” I said and meant it.
We walked in to the donut shop and sat down.
The waitress looked oddly at us both and then turning to my companion she said, “Hey Willie is everything all right?”
Willie, I realized was well known to the waitress, who eyed me with suspicion. I smiled back and said, “Would you please get Willie and me some coffee and some fresh donuts?”
“Sure.” She said as she walked away to complete my order and as she did so, she sneaked a look back over her shoulder still not convinced.
“So Willie, tell me about yourself.” I said.
“Why?” He answered.
“Oh, I am not trying to be nosey or anything. I wish to help if I can.”
“I don’t need anybody’s help. I am fine.”
“Okay. I am sorry. Lets just enjoy our coffee and donuts and if you want to talk, fine. Let me tell you about myself in the meantime.” And I proceeded to tell him a summary version of my present life. He listened as he sipped his coffee and bit into the donuts. He would sigh intermittently during my monologue and mostly remained silent. After he was done with his sugary meal, he wiped his face clean and I noticed the way he handled the paper napkin that this man had been groomed somewhere in time with social manners befitting a gentleman. He thanked me after he was finished eating and drinking. As he started to get up, I called on the waitress to bring a box of dozen different donuts and muffins, which I placed in front of him.
“For me?” he said and for a moment I think there was humility and a total breakdown of his guard, but then as quickly that moment vanished leaving him cocooned in his protective shell.
We parted company that afternoon both traveling to different worlds. From then on, as I drove through the neighborhood streets and the byways, I would look out for him on the pavement. Occasionally I would spot his hopping bent figure trudging along immersed in his solitude. I would wave to him but I never received a response. I wondered if he saw me or even recognized me. It became a fascination for me especially given my brief encounter with him. It was etched in my memory of this gentle soul trampled by age, downtrodden by circumstance and weathered from the outdoors striving to survive as an unwashed, armed only with self-reliance and convictions. Indeed as winter came and the cold winds blew everyone into the comforts of their warm homes, I wondered and thought about Willie. Where was he? What was he doing? How was he staying warm?
Soon however springtime followed and the trees blossomed thicker with green hiding the ghostly brown within, my thoughts still remained with this unusual man of grace and strength, human dignity and personal worth.
Not having spotted him in weeks, I went back to the donut shop and spotted the waitress. I asked her about Willie and whether she had seen him lately.
Her young face suddenly and without warning contorted into a mushroom of emotions, “Willie died this winter.” She said and turned away hiding her loss.
I found his obituary. Willie was William J Knowles III. He was a former Marine, An attorney who had graduated from Harvard Law and was a former principal with a large firm in New York. The obituary went on to say that he had lost his family in a tragic accident ten years ago. Mr. Knowles, it read, was hit by a truck in a roadside accident. He had strayed into oncoming traffic while collecting a wind-blown piece of paper from the roadside. He was 72 years old. He had no survivors.
There was such brevity in describing a man who had consumed my thinking. There was such limitation of words where indulgence would have appropriately complemented. His was a life that for a brief moment, I shared. His being touched mine briefly and for many days, weeks and even now many years removed, it still invokes a compassion of sorts. I often wonder about him. He must have imagined a different life for himself. Maybe he had imagined a Caribbean cruise or a trip to Monte Carlo or a walk through the Coliseum in Rome or maybe just Saturday nights in the comforts of his family, Whatever that was seemed never to have been fulfilled. Life had a different ending in store for him, a much lonelier existence.
And so the truth within these words; “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” was laid bare in the life and times of William J. Knowles III of New York. His memory lingers in the few who saw him. His simple acts of goodness unnoticed and selflessly dictated from his inner being served the many that failed to take notice.
Life changed him and he changed others’ lives. We do not know what turns the creek will take. Which pebble will change the direction of the water and whether that change will merge the creek with others to grow into a mighty river of mention, or just end into a unmentioned pool of water, forgotten and left for someone to throw pebbles into it to stir its secrets from within. One never knows.