In early summer the downtown area was home to a bazaar, a fancy name for giant sidewalk/garage sale. All of the shops had racks and shelves of bargains outside. People were invited to bring their used clothing and household items and set up tables to sell their wares.
My mom was a bargain hunter. With seven children she had to be. My brothers and sisters decided to stay home that day. I’m sure they had better things to do. I wanted to go with my mom.
This was the kind of day my brothers and sisters loved to swim. There was a cold northwest wind blowing and the waves on the beach would be enormous, way over my head. I loved these days as well. There was danger involved in swimming these waves. They towered over you, threatening to squash you into the sand if you didn’t catch them just right. If you went out too far, the undertow could snatch you up and pull you out.
This latter danger was for people who didn’t grow up on the beach. Almost every day that the wind whipped up from the northwest during swimming season someone along the beach would be swept away. Chicago, Gary, Miller Beach, Porter Beach, the Indiana Dunes State Park, Beverly Shores, Michigan City. We would read about it in the paper, occasionally see a helicopter flying by on these days. When we did we knew someone had probably died. We pretty much knew what we were doing. We never ventured out far. Still there was the danger.
As for being smashed into the sand if we didn’t get on top of the waves we were body surfing, that happened all the time and we routinely walked back into the house with bad scrapes and sand rashes from this hazard. Those wounds were all right. Those scabs would become badges of bravery.
I got ear aches on these days. I could have worn ear plugs but that would be a sissy thing to do. So I chose to go with my mom to the sidewalk sale. With six brothers and sisters, I didn’t get much time alone with her anyway so this would be my chance.
The bazaar was very busy. Vendors, crowds of people, the smell of sausages and popcorn, laughing, bargaining, little kids clinging to their mothers’ dresses, occasional babies crying. Teenagers, parents, old people.
My mom let me wander around by myself for a while. There was a huge clock tower so, even though I didn’t have a watch, I could see to meet her at noon. I only had a quarter with me so I was just looking. I’ve always been intrigued by crowds, always been a people watcher even as a kid.
There was a table of old used clothes in front of St. Anne’s church. They were musty and wrinkled and piled on the tables not folded neatly or hung on racks as the clothes were in front of the stores. The poorer people were drawn to this area because the prices were so low. There seemed to be something for everybody. They were practically giving the clothes away.
One old man was wandering between the rows of tables. I’m not sure why I was drawn to him especially. He was one of so many. But I watched him carefully for the next few minutes. His clothes were very worn. Gray pants frayed at the cuffs and pockets. They were pleated pants. My mom would have called them trousers. He wore a tired old jacket which could not have kept him warm on this chilly day. His fancy old dress shoes were terribly worn. He needed a shave. His cheeks and throat were covered with short gray stubble.
His head must have been cold. It was early summer, but that northwest wind… He was very bald and the gray fringe that surrounded his head was shaggy and blew in the cold gusty wind. He could have used a hat.
I wished that he had newer clothes. In those few moments that our paths crossed I felt sad for him. I’m not sure why I remember him after all of this time, after all the years and distance; his windblown hair, his disheveled yet somehow classic clothes, his stubbly cheeks and the smile lines around his eyes. I don’t think I could pick him out of a lineup after all this time, but I remember the feel of him.
It was chilly. His head, shiny on top, was blotchy from the cold. He must have been freezing with his threadbare jacket and his thin, worn pants.
As he walked down the long tables in what I thought of as the poor peoples’ section in front of the church, he would pick up one item then another. He would pick up a woman’s scarf, turn it over in his hands and, almost as if he were having a conversation with himself, would shake his head and return it to its place at the table.
Finally he came to an area on one table with hats. There were stocking caps and baseball style caps, earmuffs and old fashioned felt hats like the one my dad wore to church. The old man stopped at these, meticulously searching through them for just the right one.
Why was I concerned about him finding the right hat? I had never seen him before, would probably never see him again. But I was mesmerized, silently urging him to find something comfortable to warm his bald head.
He picked up a gray felt hat with a wide brim. Is it called a fedora? He tried it on and it fit snugly. He sort of swiped his hand around the brim in an automatic gesture. I had seen people do that kind of thing in movies. They were rich people or gangsters.
The hat looked great on him. A lady at the end of the table was eying him suspiciously. She had a gray metal box in front of her – the money box. Perhaps she thought he would walk away with the hat without paying for it. The old man didn’t look at her. I could tell that he was pleased with the hat. He had this dreamy faraway look in his eyes like he was remembering something from long ago. His fingers went around the brim again. He smiled a small stubbly smile, a satisfied smile, the smile of a younger man. It was the look of one who has found a jewel.
The money lady continued to glare at the little man. He reached up and took the hat off. There was a little piece of masking tape on the band inside the hat. A price tag. I couldn’t make it out but the man stared at it unbelieving. I could see his disappointment.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. All change. It surely wasn’t enough. I could tell by the look on his face. I wanted to buy it for him. I only had a quarter. It wouldn’t help much.
With a look of quiet disappointment and even embarrassment the old man put the hat back on the table - slowly, almost reverently. His shoulders drooped and he shuffled softly away. The money lady smirked.
All these years later I wonder why the image of the old man stays with me. Certainly I have witnessed sadder moments. On the news. In the papers. In books. So many tragic stories with greater magnitude. Why this man? So long ago and so far away.
Perhaps in a way this little story has served to make me aware of the small sufferings all around me. Perhaps this little memory reminds me of all the rich blessings in my own life. I pray that I never take them for granted.