He looked so old and feeble, and so out of place in the turbulent hustle of the city crowd,
that my interest was immediately aroused. He was going in the direction of the Hudson
River, crossing the road at Twenty-ninth Street and Madison Avenue. And although he had started with the change of the traffic signal, his progress was so painfully slow that I
doubted whether he could make it in time.
His queer, stumbling gait was like one's impeded movements in a dream—his legs operating as though they were extricating themselves from entangled rope. And, as I had anticipated, before he was two thirds of the way across, the signal changed. However, the traffic was not as ruthless as I had for some reason expected, and with considerate slowness it allowed him to pass.
On gaining the curb the old man chuckled and seemed amused by it all. He carried a stick, as well as an old cigar box which he held high in mock triumph. But no one paid any attention. In his exuberance he over-balanced and staggered, but quickly regained himself.
He was an anachronism—this ancient derelict—with clothes that hung on him as on an old scarecrow. His Christlike whiskers were thin and yellowish white. And beneath an old battered fedora hat, his gray locks furled inward around a sunken neck. His complexion was sickly—translucent, like the inside of an oyster shell. And the features were thin and pointed as though cast from a long illness.
He stood a moment as one having accomplished only a part of his pilgrimage, and looked about him at the milling crowd. As they hurried by, he chuckled and laughed, and made inaudible remarks. There was something ironic in his laughter, I thought—a whimsical resignation of one who knew the torments of hope and its bitter betrayals. He seemed to be mocking them for their hurry, and to be bent on playing the fool. He raised his hat several times to people passing by, but they paid no attention. Nevertheless, his geniality never diminished. And he continued on his way along Twenty-ninth Street towards the Hudson river.
As to what Mecca he was bound, I had no idea. But I intended to find out. I was curious to know more about this old chap and what motivated his journey. So, on the opposite side of the street I followed.
As he hobbled along, hugging his cigar box as an author would his manuscript, he paused occasionally to rest. And while doing so, his legs occasionally buckled. But he would regain them quickly, ignoring the fact. There were no signs of the fool in him now. As he slowly limped along under the eaves of the tall buildings there were only pathos and weariness.
When he came forth into Madison Square, the Metropolitan Tower clock tolled four. The
June day was warm and sunny, and a summer spirit pervaded the city square. Precariously he crossed the wide intersection that leads into the park, and entered it. I did not follow, but remained outside at a vantage point where I could see him.
Without hesitation he hobbled up the pathway to a bench. Methodically he placed his stick and cigar box on it, then felt in his coat pocket and produced a lump of bread. Behind the bench numerous sparrows flitted about the green. With a perfunctory air and a dexterity, he nipped off pieces and threw them to the birds. His manner was that of ”Milord Bountiful.” And he threw with the abandon of abundance. Before his supply was exhausted, however, he was obliged to rest on the bench, throwing the remaining pieces over his left shoulder. When he had finished, he brushed off his hands, took out his handkerchief, wiped his face, wiped his beard, blew his nose, then sat quietly.
Was this the Mecca? the end of the pilgrimage? Surely, I thought, he has not come all this way just to feed sparrows. There must be other reasons. However, I was not kept in
suspense very long, for a moment later he was all primed with renewed energy and was
playing the fool again.
At the end of the bench was one other occupant—a lugubrious, old, fat man who, sphinxlike, sat staring ahead of him, his blue puffed hands overlapped on the handle of his walking stick.
“Penny for your thoughts,” the old man chuckled. But the fat man paid no attention. A
soldier and his girl were passing. Immediately he got to his feet and saluted them, bringing his stick straight up to his shoulder. But they paid no attention.
With a chuckle he picked up his cigar box and ambled off up the pathway. On one of the
benches four middle-aged women sat chatting. As he passed them he bowed with
embellishment and raised his hat. One of the women laughed and he laughed back, mocking her in a falsetto voice which only made her laugh all the more. With such encouragement he turned and went towards them, but not too close, and without further preliminaries he burst into song:
I love a lassie--a bonnie Highland lassie,
She's as pure as the lilies in the dell.
She's as sweet as the heather—the bonnie purple heather,
For she's Mary--my Scotch bluebell.
When he had finished he opened his cigar box and gingerly held it out towards them. In it were shoelaces. They smiled, a little embarrassed, and shook their heads. He smiled and shook his head also, his geniality never diminishing, and closing the lid of his cigar box, he slowly ambled away.
It seemed that nothing could affect the amiability of this old dodger—he was so irresponsible, and I began to wonder whether his whimsical antics, his elfish laughter were as profound and as complex as I had thought or whether they were merely the imbecilities of a senile old man. Were I to accost him, I might find out.
Where the paths cross and the branches of the trees almost meet overhead, I caught up with him. “What have you in that box?” I asked. Tremulously he opened the lid.
“Give me a pair,” I said, laying a five-dollar bill on top of the laces. He looked at the bill, then at me inquiringly.
“You may keep the change,” I said brusquely.
Gone was his buffoonery now. In his sunken eyes was a look of bewilderment. He could vie whimsically with the cruelty of life—its loneliness and indifference—but this gift, as small as it was, perplexed him. He was saddened by it.
As I took the laces, he held on to one end of them by way of detaining me. He tried to speak but could not. I thanked him and went my way. Before leaving the park, I turned and glanced back. He was still standing where I had left him, in the center of the pathway. I waved to him, but he did not respond. He just stood gazing after me—a tragic old man with the shadows of the leaves dancing about him like gloom.