John held on to the grocery cart with both hands. He stood by the automatic exit door at Wegmans Onondaga Blvd, off to one side. He spoke in a voice barely above a whisper, so softly that I was out in the parking lot before I realized what he was saying. “Can you give me a ride home? I’m right nearby.” I must have heard him because I heard myself, saying, automatically, accurately, but not truthfully, that I had to get back to work.
Before I reached the car, I started to ask myself if I really was in such a hurry. As I unloaded my necessary but certainly not urgent cargo – some ant traps and paper cups and a half gallon of milk – into the back seat, I wondered how old he was. Older than me, for sure, but not by a lot. Neatly dressed. His eyes were clear, his voice a little labored, and from the way he gripped the handle of the cart, I suspected that his gait was compromised.
How quickly we take in so much data about a person, even in this case, when it’s someone who, in what I thought was the rush of my day, I was looking for reasons to ignore. I did have to get back to work. My front seat was covered with books and tools (and paper clips and wood screws – don’t ask me why). I had reasons to keep moving. At some point in my thirty-second walk to my car, I realized that I was performing the exact same mental exercise with John, an audit of sorts, that thousands of drivers had engaged in while passing me by on the side of the road.
I didn’t want to leave this old guy standing in the grocery store entrance, but I really did have to get back to work. I pulled up and parked in the fire lane (sorry), punched the emergency flashers, and scooted back inside.
He was still there. “Let’s go, I’ve got a few minutes.” That’s when he introduced himself as John. He spelled his last name. I didn’t write it down. He slid two plastic bags of groceries from the hooks that held them on the cart and removed his cup iced water from the cup holder. As we made our way toward my car, not quite shuffling, but something between a walk and a shuffle, I told him my name. John took a minute to get in the seat. I watched to see if he needed help with the seat belt. He did not.
He explained where he lived.
In the course of a trip of less than two miles, he told me the bones of his life story. This is often the case with hitchhikers, the unspoken deal, that you get a ride in exchange for your company, but more than that, for telling your story, giving your driver some insight into the life you have led and how it left you standing on this day in this place asking passersby to transport you somewhere.
John grew up not far from here, just a few blocks from the house where I raised my sons, where my older son still lives. His family moved from Strathmore to a house closer to Community Hospital when his brother started studying medicine. That brother went on to be a successful surgeon, and John made a career in the insurance business.
He pointed me left at the light, then another left, and a quick right. The house he lives in today, he explained, is the one where his parents lived their final years. Everything is on one level. John had an automobile accident a few years back that caused him to give up his license. This past month his wife was in a bad car accident. She is in a rehab facility., where he says she is being given excellent care. She’s got broken bones in her legs and chest. The car is totaled.
John is home alone. He makes his way to Wegmans to find his dinner, then asks for a ride back home. I didn’t get to ask him how he gets to the rehab facility and back again.
He’s a hitchhiker right in my neighborhood, a vulnerable man who makes himself more vulnerable by asking strangers to take him home.
It was a nice house, on a quiet street in a nice neighborhood. I’m glad I stopped.
I made it back to work with time to spare.