Pop-can George

Pop-can George
November 9, 2007

I never knew his name until I read his obituary. You will think I'm shallow when you read this. You are probably right.

The man has been a joke of sorts in our town since I can remember. When my oldest son was just a toddler, we used to see Pop-can George riding his bike around town. He'd always have three or four plastic bags stuffed with pop cans dangling and swaying from the handlebars and a dirty brown saddlebag attached to the rear of his bike stuffed with them. Around the town he road on his rattling old bike. He was disheveled and pathetic and as unimportant to me as the curbs along the streets.

Even pitiable, filthy, old pop can collectors, deserve a name. So, everyone in town referred to him as Pop-can George. No one knew his real name; no one cared. I know that I didn't care. He was just something that was. He had no purpose. He had no importance.

He had the sort of countenance that caused you to want to look away from him. He looked as though he might have a foul smell. I never got close enough to find out if he did. He had enormously bucked-teeth that were disgustingly yellow from decades of cigarette smoking and bulging eyes of an unknown color that were set far too wide apart in his small, round head. The teeth and eyes gave him the look of an insect. A praying mantis came to mind whenever I saw him pedaling around town.

I really never gave him much thought. As I said, he was just something that was. On occasion, he would pass by my house riding that rusty, broken, bike. He always had a cigarette dangling from his ugly mouth and plastic Wal-mart bags brimming with pop cans dangling from his handlebars. When I paid attention to him, which was rarely, I would wonder if he earned enough from the discarded pop cans to buy a pack of cigarettes. But, the thought lasted for only a second or two as he passed out of my view - and out of my mind.

The last month or two of summer, I saw him walking, more like shuffling along the sidewalk, walking a very little, yappy-looking, dog. For awhile, I saw him every evening as I took one of my walks. I'd pass by him, he on one side of the street and me on the other (when I'd see him coming I would cross the street because I was sure he stunk). He looked more pathetic walking than he did on his bike. He had no pop cans with him. Just a little, yappy dog on leash.

This walking thing was apparently something new; in all the years of seeing Pop-can George around time, I never once saw him walking. I never knew he kept a dog at home. I never even considered whether he had a home. Didn't care.

I noticed, since I walk a lot that he wore the same clothes everyday: An old-man undershirt (I'm sure you know what I mean. The ones without sleeves, white ribbed-cotton; the kind everyone's grandfather wore in the old days - the ones the you saw Humphrey Bogart wearing as he slugged back a shot of whiskey); pants that were too long and too baggy and held in place by red, raggedly suspenders; and no shoes. Barefooted, he shuffled along staring straight ahead as if he had some place to go but was in no hurry to get there. He never looked at me while I shot momentary glances at him. As I've already told you, his face urged you to look away.

I'm not sure what I felt when I looked at him; not sure if it was pity or disgust. It shouldn't be hard to tell the difference, but maybe the line between them is thinner than I'd like to admit. Whatever I felt, it wasn't comfortable. Though I passed him nearly every night during the waning days of summer this year, he was still Pop-can George to me. He wasn't a somebody, he was just something that was; like a stop sign, a tree, or a garden hose. It makes me feel shallow and guilty to say that, but no matter how it makes me look, it doesn't do me any good to lie to myself. I have to accept it whether it I like the way it makes me feel or not. I don't like the way I feel.

Pop-can George died last week, I saw the obituary:

"Jonathan R. was born September 23, 1934 and died on November 1, 2007 after a brief illness. He is survived by one daughter, Katherine, and two grandchildren. He enjoyed biking, walking with his pet dog Cecil and Ohio State Football. He adored his grandchildren and enjoyed taking them to the park and on picnics. His hobbies included collecting baseball cards and stamps. At the request of the family there will be no visitation. Expressions of sympathy, if desired, may be made to the Erie County Humane Society."

That one, small, insignificant paragraph, buried on an insignificant page, in an insignificant small-town newspaper, made me cry. It made me think thoughts I didn't want to think.  I felt like the insignificant nobody that I always thought he was. I had mocked this poor man since my grown children were tiny. I was too shallow and too self-important to think that this pitiful, ugly, old man, might have been important to someone.

Pop-can George was a somebody. He had a real name. He had a family and he loved them. I have a feeling that they loved him too. He adored his grandchildren; I bet they adored him too. I have learned something else too. I've learned that everyone has a life and a story that goes beyond the superficial things - the way they look or they way they live. It goes beyond their social status, money, or how many material things they surround themselves with.

Everyone is important. And, not a single one of us is more important than any other. We all share the same world, walk upon the same ground; breathe the same air; we are all born and each of us will die. We cannot judge someone else's life and no one should judge ours. Our time on this earth is transitory and fleeting. I would have been a better person if I had chosen to spend my time doing something more constructive than making a jokes about Pop-can George. The depth of my shallowness amazes me. I will try harder to do better in the future. For it may well be that in the grand scheme of things and in the eyes of God, that Jonathon was a far better person than I.

"The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone." ...George Eliot

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