The Old Man and the Beer

or:
How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Rhetorical Question

An old man sitting at a table of a café in a mall. He looks like he is well in his seventies and reminds me a lot of my grandpa, who never got to be in his own mid-70s. He is one of those old-fashioned old people, old people how they used to be, back in the day when old folks still were old folks. His clothes are a mish-mash of browns and dark greens and his trousers are made from corduroy. He sits at his table, all alone, drinking his beer. This is Germany and well in the afternoon, so nothing out of ordinary there. And yet, this frail, smallish old man, sitting alone among all the young and hip people in the food court of this young and hip mall of a small town with delusions of grandeur throws me completely off my track.

He does not really look sad. His clothes are well-worn but not worn down; and he is wearing socks, in his age a clear sign that he does have someone to take care of him, what with arthritis and stiff joints and bending down and so on. But there is definitely a melancholy air about this old man. Or is it me, projecting?

How old is he? What is he doing in a mall, 75% of whose stores sell clothing to 14 year old girls, with a couple of cheap decorating joints and an electronics superstore thrown in for good measure? How old is he exactly, what did he use to do? How did he even get here, can he still drive? Public transport is notoriously shitty here once you get to the outskirts, where people like him usually live. His coat is right next to him on the seat, which does not help my deductions one way or the other. Does he not want to leave is coat with somebody or does he not have anybody to leave it with? Is he waiting for grandchildren, or a wife, perhaps?

I take a sip of my own beer and continue watching him, putting my 30 minute break to good use. No, he is definitely none of those ’70 is the new 50′ kind of modern old folks and thus looks out of place in two ways at once, old man of yore among teenagers I myself have long since lost touch with.

Once my break is over, I will resume peddling overpriced junk to people who either don’t really care about any of it or care way too much. The fake smile and the just-as-fake amicability have to resume and there will be no more time left to ponder an old stranger who sticks out in my surroundings like a sore thumb. So I savour the moment, the uncertainty, the Holmesian deductions I fancy myself capable of coming up with and the melancholy the situation fills me with. I take another sip from my non-alcoholic beer and so does the old man. From his own beer, of course. Which I highly doubt is non-alcoholic. He does not read anything, he does not talk to anybody, he does not even have any bags with him. Just sitting, sipping, watching and, unbeknownst to himself, being watched.

The more I observe, the more I deduct, the less of a blank canvas the man becomes for my projections. Or does he? Do I only come to conclusions that presuppose my projections? And why can I not simply enjoy my break and that is that?

Anyway, the minute hand of my watch gets dangerously close to the 30 minute mark. I wave the waitress over, pay my beer, pay the old man’s, too and go back to work, never to see again the person who made my day a little deeper than it otherwise would have been. I do wonder about his reaction when he wanted to pay his tab, though…

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