Gentle Giant

Friday, June 8th

The man who sits across from me at lunch and dinner is about six foot five inches; still has most of his hair, and has a difficult time keeping his eyes open. He was a boxer in his youth, and later went on to become a jazz organist.

He told me that he learned boogie-woogie by emulating Fats Domino. That was how he learned the importance of playing separate lines of music with the left hand. At one point he was one of the top 5 jazz organists in the world.

He can still play. If you are lucky, you can catch him on the piano in the activity room.

However, he can’t hear very well, and he can’t remember anything that happened ten minutes ago. Every day he comes in to the lunch room (they like to call it the dining room) dressed in several layers of sweats, covered by a wind jacket.

After wiggling his fingers at you and smiling to acknowledge you, he looks around as if it’s the first time he’s been in the room, says, it’s cold in here, then leans his head sideways in one of his hands.

He never wants to talk about his fights, or his jazz playing. I tried in the beginning but now I just leave him alone.

After a few minutes, he’s called by the waitress who says: Chicken or Hamburger? He opens his eyes slowly and says, Chicken.

The wait staff generally expect that you’ve read the menu on a board outside the room, and so they usually say: Chicken or Pork? Mac & Cheese or something else. In general you’re better off picking the first thing because the second is from the day before.

So after making his selection, he gets up from his seat, every meal, and hunts down some napkins to put his bridge in while he eats. (I used to do the same thing). Sometimes he just says: can I have some napkins as the waitress walks by.

Every single meal, it’s the same ritual. Sometimes I get up and go to the serving station and grab a handful of napkins for him.

He smiles and places his bridge in them.

Then he looks around and sees that the door to the lunch room is open. He says, it’s cold in here. I have to explain to him that it’s not coming from the door, it’s the AC.

He puts his head back in his hand, smiles sweetly and mumbles, someone should do something about that.

Yesterday was a little different because he showed me his cheap flip-phone, and says they’ve turned off his phone.

“How much do you owe?” I ask.

“$50. I don’t know where I’m going to get it.”

“Who’s your carrier?” I ask.

This brings a puzzled look to his face. He thinks about it.

“I’m not sure,” he says.

I name a few of the well-known carriers but nothing rings a bell (no pun intended).

Of course this is something he should discuss with his case worker. My instinct is that he may have the money and just not realize it. However, my experience with the case workers is that they are useless. No offense to the social workers around the world that do good work, I just haven’t run across any yet (and my father and sister are or were social workers).

So, biting my tongue doesn’t work and I tell him, why don’t you just get a tip jar, and put it on the piano whenever you play. I’ll start it off with ten dollars.

He smiles at me, but I’m not sure if the authorities would go for that. Still, it’s worth a try.

I ran into him this morning in the “Wellness” center (dispensary) and reminded him again about the tip idea. He smiled his gentle smile and told me his phone was still not working.

I took out a pad I carry with me and a letter sized piece of paper, and wrote on it, Tips Welcome to Pay Phone Bill. I have scissors with me and made it narrow enough to tape to a cup.

And gave it to him.

He looked at it and smiled. Then closed his eyes and fell asleep with it in his massive hands.

Published by Dave

My name is David Beckerman. I am a fine art photographer working in New York City. Or I was before I had two strokes. I now write from a Nursing Home.

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