Davy Carren describes an encounter with an elderly drunk, and reflects on aging.
By Davy Carren
A stumbling old drunk goes down on the sidewalk. By the time I arrive he’s splayed there, face down, lying half in the street. His shirt’s got a couple of buttons undone, and his wiry, silver chest hair’s peeking out at me as I attempt to lift him to his feet. His breath smells of stale beer and hay. He waves me off. Says, “Don’t, damn it, need no help, damn it,” as he slowly rises on all fours, stiff and creaky, all bent arms and crooked legs, inching his way up like some rusted robotic contraption coming to life.
His mesh hat’s in the gutter. It reads, “Where’s My Senior Discount?” on the crumpled foam front. I grab it and hold it for him. I feel like I should be doing something.
Soon enough he’s up again, but not for long, as he immediately starts teetering back towards a parked car. I grab his shoulder to hold him steady. He squints at me through a grizzled countenance, not kindly at all, and slurs, “You…you are a nice fellow. Yes. A real nice…man, aren’t you?” People don’t usually call me a fellow, or nice for that matter, but I don’t let it bother me.
“You okay to make it home? You live close by?”
I hand him his hat. He takes it, attempts to put it on his head, gives up, and drops it again. His flour-white hair’s at attention and ruffled like some wheat field after a windstorm. I pick the hat up and put it back in his quivering hand where it dangles from his pinkie by the plastic snap.
“I…live…yes…” He seems confused, bleary, yet somehow focused too, and gives me a knowing wink. “You? You’re a nice man.”
“Yes. Yes. I’m very nice. Now. Do you need help getting home? Want some company? I can walk with you if you want. Look out for you. Until you get home.”
He does something between a grin and a grimace. I pray he’s not soiling himself.
“I…I…I don’t need no…help.” He again starts wavering and tottering as he stumbles a few steps in various directions, then leans against the iron gate of an apartment building. His pants are brushed with grass stains and dirt, and his belt’s a bit twisted up on him as he cocks and swivels his head while shakily rocking back and forth: some obscene woebegone clown whose mouth’s in search of a lost painted smile while he rests there with weeds tucked into his socks.
I’m not sure what to do with this tanked duffer. He’s probably accustomed to such journeys, and could very well live somewhere within the vicinity of a few scrapes and slides along the walls of the buildings. It was only about three in the afternoon. People don’t die at a time like three in the afternoon. I keep a watchful eye on him as he plods along, veering left and right like a dizzy downhill skier trying to zigzag between flags, or some lunatic halfback avoiding ghost tacklers. He almost goes down a few more times, but steadies himself before anything terrible happens again. I hear Howard Cosell’s voice in my head narrating the whole thing:
“Well, there he goes, unsure and wavering, yet still somehow managing to shake imaginary tackles and bob his way through. My heavens. He looks like his car broke down on the way to the stadium. Oh. Yes. He’s drunk alright. He’s blasted. Blitzed out of his gourd. But, wow, how he keeps fending them off and heading downfield. Oh no, he’s buckling at the knees now. Wait. No. He’s being held up by a stop sign. He rights himself. I can’t believe it! He’s shaking and baking again. It’s miraculous, let me tell you. What resourcefulness! What resilience of the spirit! If I were not seeing this with my own two eyes, well, I’m not sure I’d believe it myself.”
It started me thinking about something my father had once told me: “You get old all at once. It just happens. You’re going along and everything is fine, and then you take a spill, break a hip, and that’s it. You’re done for. You’re old and incapacitated, unable to do all the things you used to take for granted. Pretty soon somebody’s even wiping your ass for you. That’s all we’ve got to look forward to.” He took a shotgun to his head a few years later. I guess that was his “spill,” or perhaps a way of avoiding it.
I watch as the old tippler slowly negotiates the terrain, rooting along like he’s on pebble-dash concrete and gravel mulch. He rests from time to time on the wall of a building or the hood of a car. He’s got his hat back on now, bill veering out crookedly to one side, plastic snap loosely clinging to an ear. He takes out a crumpled cigarette from his pants pocket, holds it out as if to ash it, and then flicks it at a fire hydrant. He seems very pleased by this action. After spitting a couple of times on a parked car’s window, he manages to turn and wobble away some more, and soon lowers his hindquarters and squats down on the fire hydrant — posing there, arms outstretched, elbows resting on knees, proudly defiant as his hat proclaims, “Where’s My Senior Discount?”
Perhaps a bit out loud, but mostly keeping it to myself, I think, ‘He’s drunk, but not disorderly. Not at all. Just a bit tight. A little schnockered in the afternoon. That’s all. Just needs to sleep it off. He’ll be alright.’ Maybe I’m just trying to convince myself. But the guy wanders off, and somehow manages to round the corner in an upright position. I figure there will be mailboxes and lampposts and telephone poles to hold onto: the city’s ready-made walking sticks. I figure I better be moseying on. I figure my own safety should come first. Wouldn’t want to trip and fall myself, end up injured, and then old and indigent: a whole life’s living gone like stuffing from a used-up couch cushion. No. Besides, I had errands to run, time to take, people to not see and places to not go. I was a nice man.
This article originally appeared on Human Parts.
Photo credit: Getty Images