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.