By Ann Burack-Weiss
“Ah, Look at all the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”
- The Beatles, from “Eleanor Rigby”
I am seated on a bench overlooking the Hudson River on a clear autumn day. The air smells of salt. The clouds are a floating mass of foam.
I am savoring the scene when I am approached by a middle-aged man with a weird contraption strapped to his forehead; a large, white, rectangular cardboard box with a camera lens at the center. He asks if I would like to take a look.
The scene is the same but technically enhanced. The river and sky shimmer and keep changing color. The sounds are subsumed under a wave of strings playing New Age music. I hastily pass it back and say, “It looks like an LSD trip.”
He laughs more than my response warrants, adds that there are “no side effects” and goes on to show me the smartphone app from which it emanates.
Before walking away, he says that he used to be alone in the park. “Now people want to talk to me.”
My walk takes me past a vacant lot filled with trash, bounded on one side by a graffiti-covered building wall and three sides by chain link fencing. There is a small, wooden, weather-beaten sign tacked on the 2nd Avenue side – “there is no one like you.” And stuck at intervals into the rusted fence are decaying bunches of dried flowers.
I see many older women pushing small dogs in baby carriages (or perhaps there are carriages made for dogs?) The dogs and/or the carriages are often beribboned. On buses or park benches, the dogs are removed and cuddled, often spoken to. They are replaced gently with a smile.
I am reading my Kindle in a doctor’s waiting room and the old man seated next to me asks how it works. Before I can answer he volunteers that he has no time for it now. He is 84, a lawyer till working full time, a specialist in trusts and estates who has published four books. All in less than a minute!
Home alone, I replay the sights and sounds of my days. I wonder how many people the man with the box found to talk to.
What would inspire someone to plead his anonymous love in such a dismal space? Do the dogs sleep in their owners' beds? Sit at their tables? (Is it even correct to speak of “owners”?)
And could it be that what sounded like shameless bravado in the doctor’s office was a geriatric pickup line?Scenes of such naked need used to scare me. It felt as if all the loneliness, all the fears of invisibility I held within burst out and found shape and voice in unknown others. As if all the stored up love in the world, all the longing for connection could not be contained.
Which is, I finally realized, as it should be. I am not a mere observer of these scenes, I am a participant. I am the strangers’ “other” as surely they are mine. I am there to accord attention to their lives and in so doing, extending the boundaries of my own.
"Eleanor Rigby picking up rice
in a church where a wedding has been
Father McKenzie writing a sermon
that no one will hear."
It was 1966. The Beatles wrote those lyrics when they were in their twenties, surrounded by adoring crowds. I was just a few years older, cocooned in a mesh of family and friends.
I played the album with that song on it many times. The opening words sounded to me – and continued to sound until I just saw them in print, “I look at all the lonely people.”
But no, it opens with a sigh, “Ah, all the lonely people.”
I love that Ah. And bless them – the two who have died, the two who remain and grow old along with me. So wise they were to recognize – in the midst of bountiful lives – the essential self within, the invisible links that bind us together, and the special reward of bearing witness.
[EDITORIAL NOTE: This feature, TGB Readers' Stories, appears every Tuesday. Anyone age 50 and older is welcome to submit a story. You can do that by clicking the “Contact” link at the top of every TGB page or at the Guidelines/Submissions page.
Please be sure to read and follow the guidelines before submitting a story. It will save me a lot of time.]