Thursday, June 28, 2018

This Meagre Existence

He was one of the kindest men I knew. By now, he has long gone.

Though he never spoke of where his home country lay, I always assumed that he was Eastern European. His soft voice and subtle accent intoned a mix of German, Polish, or even Russian. If I had to make an educated guess, I'd say Bulgaria.

I should have asked.

While he was carrying extra pounds, I wouldn't ever consider him fat. He had that well-fed look that many men get with age: that belly that makes us almost look pregnant. I have a bit of that look, these days, but his age—somewhere in his 80s—also gave him the jowls that could wobble with laughter. His grey hair was thinning but, in lifting high over his head, seemed full. He wore thin, silver-rimmed glasses, and always had a smile on his face.


He was a regular customer of the camera store, and so I saw him a couple of times each month. He would drop off rolls of film, would be in no rush for the prints to come back, and took the one-week return. Because he was a good customer, if the in-store lab was slow, we would ask him if he had other errands to run in the mall. If he did, we would tell him to come back in a half-hour to hour. Though we would charge him for the one-week turnaround, we'd process the roll right away.

Any time he entered the store, I would always call out to him, even if I was already serving another customer. "How are you, Mr. G—?"

His answer was always—always—the same: "Oh, you know, surviving the trials and tribulations of this meagre existence."

I never tired of his response.

Even later, when I moved from the camera store to one of the banks in the mall, to which I learned he was a customer, I would greet him the same way and he would give me the same response.

As a customer of the camera store, he would sometimes show me his processed photos. Photography was a casual hobby of his, though even in his 80s, he was looking to learn. He would show me a photograph and would ask me for advice: "How could I reduce the clarity in the background? I want to focus on the subject." "How could I keep the sunset while keeping the person illuminated?" I would take the time to explain the aperture settings and how they affected depth of field, or I would suggest he add a flash to a sunset, to illuminate his subjects. I didn't know the answer right away, I would ask the other photographers in the store, or I would consult one of the photography books that were kept in a display case.

In the bank, I would try to meet with him at the side counter, ask him about his photography, ask him how he was feeling. I anticipated his pat answer to the latter. He would also ask me about my interests. He knew that I had developed a love of wine, had studied several books on the subject, had enrolled in the sommelier program at Algonquin College.

One day, as my day at the bank was drawing to a close, Mr. G— came in and went straight to the customer service counter, asked to specifically speak with me. He was conducting no bank business, that day, but wanted to see me. When I finished with my customer, I approached him.

Mr. G— pulled out a gift bag from the LCBO. "I know how you love wine, and I wanted to give you this."

"Thank you!" I said, "You needn't have gone to such trouble. What's the occasion?"

"No occasion," he replied. "I just wanted to. I wanted to give something to my favourite person in this mall."

I was deeply touched. I thanked him again. "How are things going with you?"

"Oh, you know," he began, and we finished it in unison, "surviving the trials and tribulations of this meagre existence."

As fate would have it, on the day that I received this gift, I had plans to meet friends who worked in a boutique wine shop, downtown. Every week, I paid these friends a visit, and I would always bring a bottle of wine that we would share and appreciate in the boutique's tasting room. That day, we enjoyed the Bordeaux that Mr. G— had given me. Though I have long-forgotten the label, I have never forgotten the richness of that Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend.

A couple of days after that tasting, I discovered that wine in the LCBO. It came with a $50 price tag.

I said a fond farewell to Mr. G— before my wife and I left for Korea. I wrote him a couple of postcards in the first few months, but he never wrote back. Perhaps, the address seemed too strange for him to copy. Perhaps, he just wanted me to get on with my life.

He was in his 80s when I last saw him, more than 20 years ago. Surely, he is no longer among us.

On a recent visit to my massage therapist, it came to my attention that every time we greeted, she asked me how I was doing. Without thinking, my response was the same as it is for everyone who asks me. "Fine." Only, when I see her, she's looking to know how my body is doing, how she can help me in my visit. I always have to step back and explain where I'm hurting, where my stiffness lies.

I've realized that my response of "Fine" just doesn't cut it, anymore. Going forward, my response will be a nod to an old man who was always kind to me, who never wanted anything in return. If you ever run into me and ask me how I'm doing, I know what I'll say.

"Oh, you know, surviving the trials and tribulations of this meagre existence."

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