The Kindness of Strangers by Sue Barizon


     I’d caught sight of him between the slats in the blinds. He’d walked past my window more than once, twice, maybe three times before venturing across the street. I’d been nearly oblivious to all but my computer and the gibberish I’d produced since early that spring morning. Yet, I was aware of the old man’s step – like hoofbeats that slowed considerably, and become less syncopated. The welcome distraction prompted me to lean back in my chair and part the blinds for a better look. The elderly gentleman plodded along in his black winged-tipped shoes, as if he had two saddlebags strapped to his feet. I watched as the toe of his shoe barely cleared the edge of the curb, before catching the heel. He reached out in time to steady himself with the support of an obliging stop sign. Nice save. He righted himself and readjusted his flat cap in an effort to regain his composure. He stood on the corner for a time, looking both ways, up and down the street, much like a toddler going through the right motions, but lacking a hand to hold before crossing.

     I slipped into my gardening clogs and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge hoping to intercept him, but he had retraced his steps, and crossed the street back to our corner. I found him sitting on the fire hydrant that shares a patch of dirt with the rose bushes on our property. When I greeted him with a cheery “Good morning,” he nodded affably, dabbing at his forehead with a limp handkerchief. I feigned interest in the roses, fondling the young buds in an attempt to strike up a conversation.

     “Nice, sunny morning for a walk,” I smiled.

    “Yes.” His response was cordial, but I sensed he was having a hard time getting his bearings.

     “Do you live around here?”

     “Over on 7th Avenue, 220.” His voice cracked.

     “7th Avenue!” I echoed. “We’re on the corner of 24th and Isabelle,” I explained, pointing up at the street signs overhead. “You’ve come a long way.”

     He nodded without looking up. I eyed his navy blue sweater vest, cashmere, I mused. The kind a doting daughter gives her elderly father at Christmas. The kind my salt-of-the-earth Papa would have hidden under rows of frayed work shirts, only for me to discover years later with the price tags intact.

     “Would you like some water?” I said, twisting open the bottle cap.

     Again, he nodded, his eyes fixated on the sidewalk in front of him. He was from the old school, embarrassed by a strange woman’s attentions.

     “I’m Sue. What’s your name?”

     “John,” he said reaching for the bottle. “Thank you, kindly.”

     “Do you need a lift home, John?”

     He tilted his head back to take a sip, and allowed himself a look at me — searching my face for some shred of familiarity before surrendering.

     “Yes, I believe so,” he said.

     I loaded him into the front seat of our SUV. He sat staring straight ahead passively allowing me to buckle his seat belt. He was well groomed: clean shaven, nails manicured, nose hairs and eyebrows neatly trimmed. I felt a poke from a plastic thread and then spotted the outline of a price tag in his vest pocket. Surely, someone was waiting for him at home.

     We drove two miles to the downtown area where I knew 7th Avenue to be, in the older section of San Mateo. When we turned up the short block, I leaned over to my passenger and asked for the house number.

     “220, 7th Avenue.” He replied.

     There was no 220. I parked in front of the only two existing residences, 218, a triplex and 222, a duplex, clearly built before WWII. Both were flanked by well-established apartment buildings that didn’t look much newer. I rolled down the passenger side window to afford John a clearer view. He stared blankly at the strip of hedge between the two buildings.

    “Does this look familiar, John?”

     He had no words, nothing to offer up, nothing to fill in the gap left by this missing address. His vulnerability washed over me. This morning, he had ventured off, walking among the clouds of his past. He failed to navigate his way home in the void. I was the last cord on his chute. It fell to me to bring him home safely. Wherever home was.

     I thought about driving directly to the police station. Instead, I headed back home thinking it would be less confusing if an officer came to us. I parked the car in our driveway and called the authorities from my cell phone. I was hesitant to move John, again. The 7th Avenue scene had left a fresh film of frailty on him. He sat motionless, staring out the windshield as if waiting to dry.

     We listened to classic tunes from the 40s on XM radio. Half way into Dean Martin’s “All of Me,” my cell phone rang. The caller ID read, “Officer Ellis, SMPD.” I was surprised to hear a woman’s voice identify herself as “Greta Ellis.” She asked to speak to John Mason, and readily agreed when I suggested we put the phone on speaker.

     “Hello John, this is Officer Greta. We’ve been searching for you all morning, and we’re glad you’re safe. Mrs. Marquez is on her way to bring you home.”

     The officer’s tone was professional, yet upbeat. John simply nodded into the phone.

     As I filled the officer in on the details, a bright yellow mini van pulled up behind us blocking the driveway. Mrs. Marquez, a wiry Filipino lady, with a broad “take charge” smile sprang from the van through a cloud of exhaust fumes. Without introducing herself, she reached for my phone.

     “Let me speak to Greta,” she said.

     Evidently, this was not John’s first flight from the residential care home down the street and around the corner from our house. According to Mrs. Marquez, he was a relatively new transplant from his hometown in Wisconsin. His daughter had moved him to the Bay Area to escape the harsh winters and be closer to the family. Mrs. Marquez chuckled as she handed me back my phone.

     “This man just can’t get enough of our Bay Area weather. He’s up at the crack of dawn and hangs out on the patio from morning till night. If he finds the gate unlocked, he bolts. We’d love to put a bell on him!”

     She chirped of gratitude and blessings while maneuvering John into the van. I heard her cell phone ring as she slid behind the steering wheel. She flashed me an apologetic grin before answering the call.

     “Of course, Evelyn, I’ve got your father right here. We’ve been looking all over for him.” She gave me a wink as she started up the van. “A nice neighbor lady found him for us.” I leaned in to wave good-bye to John.

     Back at my desk, I settled in motivated to unravel the gibberish I’d left on my computer earlier. Through the slats, I could see Mrs. Marquez was still on the phone to John’s daughter. Her mouth chattered away like a set of dime store windup teeth. Exhaust from the van’s engine clouded my view of John. He had parted without so much as a thank-you, a good-bye, or a dismissing nod.

     I wondered if our encounter was a fluke, or preordained by some higher power. What if, for a moment, I was his “guardian angel?” Hadn’t I watched him stumble, offered him water, drove him on his 7th Ave adventure? Wasn’t it through my efforts that this lost soul in the navy blue sweater vest was safely tucked back into the center of his storm?

     I chuckled to myself. Me, “guardian angel,”  to a retirement home runaway. Gibberish.   


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