It started with a misunderstanding, though I maintain an understandable one.
I was at the smoking area in front of Chinook Mall, on a bench, enjoying a cigarette after all. I had headphones in, so I couldn’t hear what he was saying when he approached me. And to make matters worse, I’d not slept properly in four days due to over-scheduling at work, so my thought processes weren’t one hundred percent up to speed. He said something, his posture implied to me that it might have been a question, I offered him a cigarette without even taking off my headphones.
In reality, he’d wanted to know where the Bank of Montreal had moved to. The one in the mall had apparently been shut down and moved and he had no idea where it had gone. I found this out when he repeated his question and I took my headphones off to actually hear what it was.
Sadly I was of no help there. Bank of Montreal isn’t my bank, so I pay no attention to where they’re located. Still, he took the smoke, so you can’t say I was useless to him.
He took a seat next to me and we smoked, together, whiling away a few minutes in one another’s company. I was in no hurry to get back to work, had two hours between shifts in fact, and he was in no hurry to get much of anywhere, not knowing the location of his bank he couldn’t get anywhere in a hurry even if he’d wanted to. So we sat, and smoked, and shot the breeze.
He told me he was eighty-three years old, and had smoked all his life with no ill effect on his health. Spoke of his distaste for the current fashion for giving it up, told me he’d actively tried to convince his daughter not to bother quitting, because he still, after decades of studies, didn’t believe it was bad for you. Indeed, he thought the opportunity it provided to take three quick minutes to reflect upon your day was absolutely essencial to maintaining mental health.
I told him I agreed with the second part, at least, though I’d still like to quit myself.
He asked where I was born, and when I explained that I’d been born and spent most of my life here in Alberta he told me so had he, though for most of a much longer life than I’d yet had. He leaned back, dragging deeply on his borrowed cigarette, and told me that he’d watched Calgary grow over the course of his eight decades, but that he was still continually surprised by each new development.
This is a thing that happens to us all as we age, I suppose.
He’d known the man who’d owned the land upon which Chinook Mall was built, before Chinook Mall was built, when the area was a golf course. After selling his golf course to Mall developers, the man apparently took the money back to India and spent it building a hospital, because he’d wanted to give back something to the community in which he’d grown up, and that that’d left a tremendous impression on the friends he’d left behind.
“You can’t judge a man by the color of his skin,” the eighty-three year old stranger with whom I was inadvertently spending my lunch-break told me, “or the culture that he comes from. That’s what I’ve learned in my life, there’s goodness in everyone, if you look for it.”
Which is true, though I found the fervency with which he delivered it charmingly anachronistic. The idea that you’d ever have to say “racism, in general, is bad” as though there were people in mainstream society who might disagree wasn’t something that would ever occur to me, though at his age I suppose he’d lived through an era where the idea was more controversial than it is today. The arc of history, and all that…
“That’s certainly true.” I replied to him, smiling.
I don’t usually like talking to strangers. Maybe it’s the amount of my life I’ve spent performing, maybe the service-industry job I work in now, but when I’m alone I’m generally quite closed. Nonetheless, something about the man, maybe the energy he still had even at his age, maybe the willful obliviousness to the modern era that only octogenarians can get away with, maybe just that he reminded me of my own departed grandfather, was incredibly disarming. Given the opportunity, I could quite happily have sat there all afternoon, smoking cigarettes and listening to him tell me about his experiences, separated from mine by half a century, and while doing so reflect upon my own life, my own choices, and what they’ll sound like in fifty years, should I choose to regale another, younger stranger with them.
But, of course, I wasn’t given the opportunity. Cigarettes were finished, he had a bank to find and I a lunch to eat, and so there we parted ways, only knowing one another five minutes but in that time getting to know one another a little better.
Because that’s what life is. It’s connecting with people, even the people you’ll never see again, who you have nothing in common with other than a habit and a city. It’s about being there for them, and with them, and then remembering them after you’ve said goodbye. And most importantly, it’s about taking a little bit of time to stop, and sit, and relax and reflect on what’s going on around you. We all deserve that time, I think, though we don’t always remember that.
There are no Zombies in this story, nor any Orbital Weapons Platforms, Ghosts, Vampires or murderous Cyborgs. It’s just the story of two men who once sat on a bench, enjoying a cigarette, the older saying whatever was on his mind and the younger walking away when he was done in a calmer, more reflective mood than he’d been in five minutes before.
Which isn’t very exciting, I suppose. But really, sometimes life isn’t exciting.
Sometimes it’s just good.