The old man in the rain

  • Photo of old man artwork by Cherokee Art

While driving back from Port Orchard, Washington's Sedgwick Albertsons store today, my mind was where anyone's mind would be: what to make for dinner tonight, how I would fit all the frozen goods into an already-stuffed freezer and when would it ever warm up enough to wash my truck? After the recent rains and snows, the truck was filthy I was going through a lot of washer fluid to keep the windshield clear.

I didn't see the old man on the side of the road until I was nearly past him, so deep was I in thought and the anticipation of arriving home. At first, it was a blur of white, blue and green - and then I was past. But as my mind registered what my eyes had seen, I realized the white was a thick, stringy beard, the blue was a torn, dirty jacket and the green was a filthy, canvas shopping bag. Part of the blur was the motion of his arms as he waved them both back and forth, the green canvas bag swinging over his head from one side to the other, clutched tightly in his left hand.

The old man clearly needed a ride and there was no telling how long he had stood there in that cold rain. There were no other cars in sight.  Clearly, if anyone was going to help that man, it would have to be me.

By the time I was able to safely pull over to the side of the road, I was fifty feet past him. Activating my hazards, I hopped out and walked up the road, my eyes taking in more and more detail as each step closed the distance between us.

"Need a ride?" I called out.

The old man mumbled something, but I couldn't hear him. He clearly was in bad shape, and I asked him to repeat himself.

"I think I need you to call me an ambulance," he said, cupping both his hands and blowing into them, still holding the green bag.

"What's wrong?" I asked, looking for clues.  He was wet and cold but I didn't see any signs of physical trauma or anything that might signal a possible cardiac or other similar problem.

"I'm not sure," came the answer.  "I was over there a bit ago--"

He pointed across a field to a thick tangle of salal, ferns and huckleberry bushes.  "But then I woke up here. I don't remember. But I know I need an ambulance."

"How about I take you to Urgent Care? It's only  about three miles up the road." By this point, I wasn't sure what to make of things. The man was wet and cold but he didn't seem to be in imminent danger. He was dirty, but didn't stink. His speech was a bit slurred, but he didn't smell of alcohol.

"I suppose so," he said.  "I suppose that would be okay."

We walked to my truck. I had to help him into the passenger seat as the truck is lifted a bit and the running boards can be slippery in the rain. I hadn't turned down the stereo and something from Bob Dylan's "Modern Times" was playing. I reached over him as he fumbled with the seat belt so I could turn down the stereo.

"Sorry," I said. "I tend to listen to my music too loud."

"That's okay," he said.  "I like that song."

Looking at him, I saw a bit of a twinkle in the old man's eye, one that reminded me a twinkle I saw in my own Grandfather's eye when I was younger.  I took an instant liking to the old guy.

Turning back onto Glenwood, I pointed the truck in the general direction of Urgent Care and started driving.

Along the way, he told me a bit of his story. Apparently, he'd been sleeping in a tent tucked back in the bushes a spell off the main highway where I had found him. "Some kind gentleman gave me that tent last week," he chuckled. "But I can't remember where I left it. I was sleeping in it, and then I woke up in the rain."

I asked how long he'd been in Port Orchard.

"I was born in Bremerton," he said, through cracked lips and chipped teeth, "at the old hospital you probably don't remember. Lived in Port Orchard, but left in '68. Too many people. So I went to Gig Harbor. But there's more people there now, too.

He talked some more, but my mind was occupied with the current situation.  What would become of the old man after I dropped him at Urgent Care? Would they see him, evaluate him, treat him? Would he be turned away? I had no idea. I tried to think of other options, but none came to mind. I had never been in this situation before. Like all of us, I'd seen my share of homeless people, but I'd never had one shivering in the front seat of my truck.  

It didn't take long to get to Urgent Care. I pulled up in front of the facility and hopped out to help the old man out. 

"This is Urgent Care," I told him, pointing to the front door.  "They should be able to help you."

I watched him carefully gather his green bag and turn away from the truck.

"Here," I said, handing him a $20 bill I fished out of my wallet while walking around the truck. "Get yourself a hot meal tonight. Get something good."

He took the money and mumbled thanks.

"I wish I could help you more..." I started, feeling frustrated and inadequate.

"If you had a gun, you could shoot me," he said, his words clear and his voice as strong as I'd heard it yet.  He nodded his head and headed toward Urgent Care.

I was dumbstruck and stood there for a bit, watching him until he entered the building. Finally, I jumped up in the truck and drove away.

I'm not posting this to be self-serving or for any other selfish reason. Indeed, I feel like I could have - and probably should have - done more for this man.  But I had groceries to put away and plans for the afternoon.

But he - he had nothing. And I've not stopped thinking about him since.