I never knew his name until I read his
obituary. You will think I'm shallow when you read this. You are
The man has been a joke of sorts in our town since I can remember. I
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, I
referred to him as "Pop-can George". I didn't know his real name; I
didn't care. He was just something that was. He had no purpose. He
had no importance. He just took up space and served as an object of
my disgust and ridicule.
He had the sort of countenance that caused you to want to look away.
He looked as though he might have a foul smell - but I was careful
that I never got close enough to find out. He had enormous,
bucked-teeth that were disgustingly yellow, probably from decades of
cigarette smoking. His dull, bulging eyes, were of an unknown color,
and they were set far too far apart in his small, round head. The
teeth and eyes gave him a 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've said, he was just
something that was. On occasion, he would pass by my house riding
that rusty, broken-down, 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 did pay some small
attention to him, which was only rarely, I wondered if he earned
enough money from selling those discarded pop cans to even buy a
pack of cigarettes. Any thoughts I had of him lasted no more than a
few seconds. He was just something that was. To me he was not a
person and he certainly was of no importance to anyone.
The last month or two of summer, I saw him walking - more like
shuffling down the sidewalk - walking a very small, yappy, dog. For
a time, I saw him almost every evening when I took a walk. I'd pass
by him, he on one side of the street and me on the other. We were
always on opposite sides of the street. I made sure of that. When
I'd see him coming, I would hurry and cross the street; I was sure
he smelled as foul as he looked. He appeared even more pathetic and
disgusting when he was walking than he did when he rode his bicycle.
He had no pop cans with him. Just that small, gnarly-looking dog,
attached to a leash.
This walking thing was apparently something new. In all the years I
saw Pop-can George around town, I never once saw him walking before.
I never knew he had a dog at home. I guess I never even thought that
he had a home. I didn't care.
I noticed too, that every time I saw him he was wearing the same
clothes: 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 kind you saw Humphrey Bogart
wearing as he slugged back a shot of whiskey. "Pop-can George" wore
pants that were too long and too baggy for him. They were held up
and in place by dirty, red, raggedy suspenders. He wore no socks or
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 but I shot momentary and furtive glances at him. His face
compelled me to look away quickly.
I'm not sure what I felt when I looked at him, but it seemed to be a
rather odd combination of pity and disgust. It shouldn't be hard to
tell the difference between pity and disgust, but there is as fine a
line between them as there is between pity and love. Whatever it was
that I felt, it wasn't comfortable, and it didn't feel good.
I saw him around town nearly every night during the waning days of
summer this year. 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 feel,
it does me no good to lie to myself and pretend I saw him as a human
being. Whether I liked the way it made me feel or not, I certainly
don't like the way I feel now.
Pop-can George died last week, I saw the obituary:
"Jonathan R Rogers was born September 23, 1937 and died on November
1, 2005 after a brief illness. He is survived by one daughter,
Katherine, a son Timothy, and two grandchildren. He enjoyed riding
his bike, walking with his dog, Cecil, and watching college and
professional football. He adored his grandchildren and enjoyed
taking them to the park and on picnics. His hobbies included
collecting baseball cards, coins and stamps. At the request of the
family there will be no visitation. Expressions of sympathy, if
desired, may be made to your local chapter of the Humane Society."
That one, small, insignificant paragraph, buried on an insignificant
page, in an insignificant newspaper, in this insignificant little
town, made me cry. It made me think thoughts I didn't want or like
to think. I felt like the insignificant nobody that I always thought
he was. I had mocked this poor man in my mind for a long time and I
had been too shallow and too self-important to even consider the
possibility that this pitiful, ugly, poor, 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 must have loved him
too - and now mourn him. He adored his grandchildren and I bet they
adored him too. I have learned something. I've learned that everyone
has a life and a story that goes beyond the way they look or they
way they live. It goes beyond their social status, money, or how
many material things they have accumulated.
Everyone is important; there is not a single one of us who is more
important than the other. We all share the same world and we all
walk upon the same ground. We all breathe the same air. We are all
born and we all die. We cannot judge someone else's life. Our time
on this earth is too short and fleeting to judge others by the way
the look or the way they live. I would have been a better person if
I had chosen to spend my time doing something other than making
jokes about the poor, old man, I called "Pop-can George".
The depth of my shallowness amazes and disgusts me. I will try
harder to do better in the future. 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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