I was reading Joe Posnanski’s post on the Harlem Globetrotters and the brilliant, witty quote from the man who runs the Globetrotters’ patsy opponents, who are apparently going around again under the Washington Generals banner. That reminded me, as every mention or sighting of the Globetrotters does, of the one time I saw them perform live, a day that – for no reason related to the Globetrotters or anything that happened on the court – brings back to me a tremendous feeling of sadness.

It was a small thing, really, over in a few seconds. I was with my parents and younger sister – this was between 20 and 25 years ago – and we happened to have seats on the floor, in the front row, on folding chairs. When we got there, one of the four seats was already occupied by a solitary man, probably in his 20s, a little shabbily dressed – I remember his clothes were largely gray, but not much more about them. My mother got the attention of an usher, who checked the man’s ticket and informed him that he was in the wrong section. He stood up and sort of shuffled off, with a slightly defeated look on his face – not a crushed or devastated expression, but one that seemed to say, “oh, again.” It occurred to me even at the time that he might have some sort of developmental disorder, but the expression and the way he wandered off – shoulders sagging, head down, with no hurry to get to his proper seat before the game started, perhaps with no idea where he was headed – made it seem to me that he was, more than anything else, alone. And I found that state – not just loneliness, but a pervasive, chronic loneliness, a state of being permanently, irreversibly alone – so saddening that it stayed with me through the game, the day, the ensuing days, and twenty-plus years after. I still return to that feeling of sadness for that man every time I see or hear about the Globetrotters, even though I enjoyed the show, and can still remember some of the gags. (Stopping the game when someone left her seat to head for the concourse so one of the players could walk over, wag his finger, and say “I know where you’re going” stands out the most. I’m sure they still use the same joke.) I remember the ride home, wondering about the man in grey, who took care of him – did he need taking care of – where were his parents, or whoever raised him – did he go home to an empty house – was he as sad as he looked. I know I didn’t want this sad, gray man who should have passed in and out of my life in a matter of seconds to be as sad as he looked, because it made me sad, and I couldn’t bear the thought of someone feeling like that all day, every day, for the rest of his life.

There’s one other alone person who has haunted me for nearly that long. My wife and I were shopping at the Worcester outlet mall, which means it was either 1995 or 1996. That place was always depressing, even though the building itself seemed relatively new and in good repair; the lighting was dim, and it was never busy when we were there, even on weekends. It wasn’t easy to get to or find, and once you reached it there was less there than you expected, which sort of describes the city of Worcester as well. And the food court area was particularly poorly lit; I remember being there just after lunch on this one day and finding the whole place in shadow, with just hints of sunlight taunting shoppers – “I’m out today, people, but there is no way on earth I’m coming into that place.”

As we were leaving the food court, my wife spotted an older woman, 80 if she was a day, sitting by herself at a table, sipping one of those tiny cartons of milk from a straw. And my wife asked me if I thought the woman was drinking milk because it was all she could afford. I said no, although I wondered then and still wonder now if that was my instinctive ability to come up with a positive explanation for a probably unpleasant situation, and perhaps we should have done as my wife suggested and offered to buy the woman a meal. At the time, what overwhelmed me, even as I was trying to believe that I wasn’t witnessing the sad poverty of old age, was that the woman looked inescapably alone, and that she herself was drowning in the sadness of solitude. I can still picture her face – not ragged or dirty, but worn, used, with an expression that said she was finished, that she’d had more sadness, more loneliness than one person could possibly absorb.

In the intervening years I’ve certainly seen more alone people, but none have affected me quite like these two did. Maybe I don’t notice them because on some subconscious level I’m trying not to notice them, because I know it can upset me for days. I do tend to walk around with some sort of distraction handy, usually a book but often my Blackberry, so maybe I’m spending less time surveying the surroundings. And maybe it’s because I talk to people when I’m out and about by myself, because while I don’t mind a quiet afternoon with a book or some music, I don’t really like to be alone too much either.


  1. Keith:
    this is touching.

    I want to add my own experience, but it doesn’t seem important in the greater scheme of things…

    There are way too many people marginalized by nothing more than life and dumb luck…


  2. god, tell me how you really feel.
    my wife’s currently in germany visiting her family and man, after reading this, aren’t i feeling rather lonely. thanks a lot klaw, she’ll be gone for another 2 weeks.

  3. Hey klaw, nice piece. For some reason the part that sticks out for me in the second story was that it was in a mall. Malls are already feel like such desolate places to me, but maybe because I didn’t grow up with them.

  4. Keith,

    That’s great stuff. I just recently started reading your blog, and it’s really nice to see this “side” of you. This sort of thing has always bothered me as well. It does seem that the more you pay attention to it, the more lonley people you’ll find. What always crushes me is when I drive by a bus stop and there’s big group of kids together and then there’s that one kid off to the side, all by him(her)self, with their head down, hoping no one notices them. Sometimes I wanna stop and chat it up with the kid, but now-a-days that would be looked at unfavorably.

  5. Keith,
    The really interesting thing is the what you described as your instinct to come up with a positive explanation. As a child, if you’d asked your parents about the man they would have reacted the same way. For some reason we feel the need to protect our loved ones from the awareness of others situation.

    Also, I often find myself looking back at situations and wishing I’d had a different response. A kind word, an offer of help, even just a less sarcastic reponse to a friend or coworker. It just seems difficult to feel that way as an initial reaction….it seems to come too late.

  6. If you ever find yourself in Philly alone, email me. I’ll play some board games or get gelato with you.

  7. I was moved albeit I cannot explain why just I guess as why does the image of some people stay with us and others not. There is a disconnected between our rationalising (conscious mind) and our sub concious. Maybe there is just no reason as a strong emotional reaction once does seem to sear a memory. (A player makes a high profile play and is talked highly of in the face of facts being an example)

    Do you have a particular personal fear of being alone?

  8. Well done Keith. Your blog is one of the of the few things for which I leave time to read (as well as Poz) and I certainly wouldn’t mind reading more pieces like this. Thanks.

  9. That was a good read – very interesting. Thanks

  10. Jonathan: No, I wouldn’t say that I do. It’s something I seldom even think about. I think I’m just feeling others’ sadness, rather than putting myself into their situations.

  11. Keith, that was really good. Too good. Now, I’m even more depressed. 🙁

  12. This side of you, Keith, is very interesting to me in that the dichotomy between your snarkiness and this tender, rouching story reminds us all how tough we try to be on the exterior while we’re all human inside.

    I also can’t help but recall the Dr. Seuss quote: “”All alone! Whether you like it or not, alone is something you’ll be quite a lot””

  13. Have you ever read any existential literature? Much of it has to do with the tragedy of humankind- the exasperating experience of loneliness and the disgusting need for others.

    It might be said that ones feelings of pity for others is really a reflection of ones own self. That’s a true Sartrian thought! “Existence proceeds essence.”

  14. Jay,

    This is actually something I teach as part of my 10th grade literature classes. I fold it into several novels we read, from Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson to 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, to Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

    In fact, one way (among many) I teach it is by connecting it to high level athletics. I show clips of famous moments in sports (Montana/ Clark “The Catch”, MJ over Ehlo, Laettner’s buzzer beater, Ichiro’s “The Throw”) and how athletes practice and practice to make their bodies perform even under extreme pressure.

    Similarly, it takes practice to handle situations like the ones you describe in a kind, compassionate manner. And we fail at it even when we try, just like athletes do. As one of my students said just last week, “isn’t there hope in the fact that people try?”


  15. No disrespect, but I believe this is the basic definition of a progressive/liberal/ democrat (and I include my self). To observe, feel and ponder the moment. A conservative/libertarian/republican wouldn’t have noticed…or if one had would have said, “Oh, that’s sad.” and then completely forgotten about it in 10 seconds. Just saying…

  16. Randy: I think it would be more fair to say that a progressive/liberal/democrat would decide that it was the government’s job to end all loneliness, probably through a tax on happy people.

    brian: I have read The Stranger, which I found boring and cold, and No Exit, which was at least very clever. So not much.

  17. Or simply reallocate already existing tax revenues from current dead-end waste to solving an actual problem (even if it is one of those gross social/class problems that people aren’t supposed to advocate fixing).

  18. Keith-

    This is fascinating and certainly a feeling I can relate to. I have certain memories burned into my brain that I can’t shake, mostly from my childhood.

    My question for you is, and really for all of us who identify with these feelings, is how much of ourselves are we projecting onto these people? For all we know, that lady was happily sipping away at her milking, reliving a fond memory of her childhood. Maybe that man was just pissed he got busted with the ticket.

    This is not to call in to question your skills of observation or recognizing emotions. It’s just that, sometimes I reflect on these situations, and I struggle to figure out WHY I felt the way I felt looking at the person in question. Sometimes I wonder if it is because I would feel sad if I was in that person’s situation and the sentiment I am feeling is really for myself. I dunno. I wonder about it myself sometimes and end up just lost in thoughts and emotions I am unable to make sense of. I wish that, as an educator with a firm background in social and emotional development, I would be able to better make sense of these situations, especially the particularly intense impact they have on children, but alas, I am at a loss.

    Thanks for this piece. At least I know I’m not crazy or alone in feeling this way at times.

  19. re: Existential literature — my impression of the actual literature is that it is thinly veiled philosophy in a story form. None of it is very good as far as entertainment goes, however it is vastly superior to a 800 page opus of Sartre or Heidegger or someone else. Perhaps you might think about picking up Brothers K soon for a nice healthy dose.

    The main point, and one that is very much cold, is exactly what BSK stated. We define our self through the magnifying glass of others. We cannot define ourselves in any way except by comparing and contrasting our experiences. I suppose the cold reality is that even in our experiences, try as we might, we can never quite know who exactly we are or even our condition. Knowing the “I” in equation of my being is an impossibility. Alone, that is the pure human condition.

  20. “Randy: I think it would be more fair to say that a progressive/liberal/democrat would decide that it was the government’s job to end all loneliness, probably through a tax on happy people.”

    Or he would extend warmth to the person in some way, from a smile to an offer of food and company, then build teachings on compassion into his college prep English curriculum so that young people might too notice loneliness and act to quell it, if only for a few moments at a time.

    Careful with that broad brush Keith.

  21. Liberals would assume they could and should cure the person’s loneliness; Conservatives wouldn’t care whether they could or not and would presume it to be the individual’s responsibility; Libertarians would take the person to task for imposing his/her own sadness on others.

  22. Todd: I was merely spoofing Randy’s own broad brush. Sorry you didn’t see it as such.

  23. I liked BSK’s take the best.

  24. A great piece-I think the sadness often comes from a sense of helplessness; knowing that even if you had bought the lady in the mall a meal, she would likely be in the same situation tomorrow. I have been involved with many charities that have fed/helped the needy “today”, but I was always left wondering about “tomorrow”.

    A quick defense of conservatives/libertarians-we feel the same sorrow/angst/sadness as progressives or liberals; we simply believe that a more efficient and effective means of helping the needy is through private charity and smaller governmental intervention (state, county, local).

  25. Todd,
    Interesting…and kudos for your efforts. I’ll cross reference the books you listed with the Klaw 100. Keep up the good work. Be aware that there are independants with republican views on government who strive to be more compassionate and helpful towards those in need.

    Love the snark, Randy needs a clue. I’m tired of people who think they do good just by affiliating with a political group. Make an effort in your own life and vote however you choose.

    Still hoping you write up Boston eats… lots of them…

  26. “Todd: I was merely spoofing Randy’s own broad brush. Sorry you didn’t see it as such.”

    Yeah, I know. And no need to apologize.

  27. “…we simply believe that a more efficient and effective means of helping the needy is through private charity and smaller governmental intervention (state, county, local).”

    I’m all for efficiency. I haven’t seen it practiced consistently in either private or public sectors, but I do get to vote on public spending.

    “I’m tired of people who think they do good just by affiliating with a political group. Make an effort in your own life and vote however you choose.”

    Could not agree more.

  28. At the risk of tipping this into the political maw… Of course the labels I used were presumptuous and to a certain extent insulting, but I do believe the world can be simply divided into those who care and do something and those who don’t and don’t.
    And when I say don’t care I don’t intend that to mean literal care-lessness, but rather they don’t care as a priority. There are certainly many conservative/republican/whatevers who perform gracious acts of charity and kindness that would put me to shame, but at the same time some of them, perhaps the majority, maybe not, would support political and governmental policies that include prolonging and deepening human suffering both in our nation and the world, perhaps not in a deliberate way, but as I say, in a lack of priority.
    There are some progressive/liberal/democrats who would do the same. I believe, however, that in this generality that I have encased myself within the latter has my preference.
    Yes, let’s all make an effort in our own life, but when we vote however we choose let’s keep in mind that the power to vote, to place individuals and political parties in positions of power, has a huge impact on the wellbeing of people and whether they remain that way or not.

  29. Keith, great piece of writing & expression here. Very moving.

    Add me to the list of those also haunted by similar personal experiences. To this day, we’ll leave a restaurant, store, etc, and my wife will say “you’re thinking about the man eating by himself, aren’t you…..”

    Yeah, I am. Some more than others.

  30. Marc B-

    My comment was meant to spoof all 3 groups, so if it seemed as if I was favoring one over the others, that was not the intent.

    My general take on liberal vs conservative is that liberals pay too much attention to situation and not enough to the individual while the conservative pays too much attention to the individual and not enough to the situation. I think the best approach lies somewhere in the middle.

    As for libertarians, I don’t think of them as being on the conservative/liberal spectrum, but rather representing that it is not a spectrum at all but a far more complicated matrix. How would I characterize their shortcomings in a nutshell? I suppose I’d say they have too narrow a focus on what “individual liberty” means that ultimately denies the dignity of the individual.

  31. “I think the best approach lies somewhere in the middle.”

    Simple and true. Extremism’s byproducts are almost always ugly.

  32. BSK-

    My response was to the group in general, not to a particular post. I was simply compelled to offer a defense to the inaccurate and unfair stereotype that portrays conservatives as indurate automotons, oblivious to the plight of others. I have a large circle of friends, family and colleauges, encompassing the gamut of political ideologies; I don’t think their individual empathy for the poor/suffering/lonely directly correlates to which poltical party they are affiliated. There are good and bad people on the left

  33. …right and in the middle.

    I prematurely sent my previous post.

  34. Marc B-

    Duly noted and I agree. I was given a general parody of the public perception/criticisms of the groups at large. My later post noted what I find to be the general faults of each group, those obviously there are merits to any and all.

    You’re absolutely right that we wrongly assign individual traits/morals/values based on political ideology that is wrong-headed. Someone may disagree with welfare, for instance, but still feel sympathy for the poor and privately donate or otherwise lend support. And we should not be surprised to find people who exhibit an apparent contradiction like that in all aisles.