He had alarmingly white hair, but more so because his skin was such a dark olive-brown. The shocks of lightening rising from his head jumped out that much more brightly because of it. He was Iranian, an immigrant from the Middle East back when the Shah was still around.
"But I love it here. I love this country," he told me in his cigarette accent. He adored everything.
I suppose that's what old men do. They learn to love everything around them because it's just easiest that way. Like water, life runs a little easier downhill, so when you get to the age of 80, well, you're willing to accept a little more of your surroundings as a-okay
. Things don't seem nearly as bad.
I guess they don't call them wisemen for nothing.
This wiseman was rolling a cigarette so I asked him how long he'd smoked.
"Not long," he said, inhaling sideways, looking at me with one eye... exhale, "just thirty years."
He explained that it started on his trip over from the old country and that there was really nothing to do on a boat but smoke cigarettes so that is what he learned to do, smoke cigarettes.
"How about you? Where are you from?" he said looking at the whole of me, up and down. I could tell he knew I wasn't from the area. Sharp old eyes catch everything.
"I'm from down south, actually," I said, blinking at him in the smoke.
"Oh, so you know this?" He said, eyeing his hand as he tapped his butt into a glass.
"Drum tobacco?" I asked.
"No, cigarettes: the weak mans cigar." He rose his hand in front of his face and held the cigarette out to me as if on display. He pulled it back to his lips and sucked in another lungfull and then kind of rolled his eyes at me as if to say oh well
"The thing about a cigar is," - he paused to pick tobacco from his tongue - " is that you have to really know what you are doing."
"This is no joke, a cigar. There is much to it, like a long war. And a man has to be prepared, has to know what he is getting into. Cigarettes, they are for babies. An infant could smoke one and not know he lived. But a cigar, you know. Deep down in your gut, you can feel it. Like life, it hits you down in your viscera." He poked around among the folds of his jacket around his abdomen.
I was starting to feel the nauseous pangs of cigar syrup in my own stomach just hearing him talk about it.
"So what do you drink, eh?" He wanted to know now.
"Cheap stuff," I said flatly, "anything I can get my hands on."
This arose a hearty laugh from the old man and he clapped his hand down on the bar.
"Yes yes, this is true. I like your style," his eyes twinkled. "Two whiskeys here, please," he said looking at the bartender and pointing downward to the spot in front of him. "Yes, we will enjoy some of this cheap stuff
." He said 'cheap stuff' with a sort of fluffed up sarcasm to it that made me think he was no better off in his own way of alcohol selection.
"Well," I said as I raised my shot glass, "to the cheap stuff!"
"To the cheap stuff" he mumbled in reply and downed the whole thing. He looked back up at the bartender and said, "another."
It continued on this way for some time and we enjoyed eachother's jokes for awhile. It was soon apparent that this man could love as much as anything could possibly love. He loved his homeland and his new land. He loved the sunset, the sunrise, and everything inbetween. He even loved the frat boys in the corner being overly loud at the pool table and he loved the bum that came through the bar begging for change. He loved to pay the bartender, he said, for his drinks.
"I love the feeling of paying for something with my own
money. I earned that," he tapped a dollar coin on the bar with the back of his knuckle, his wrist twisting quickly into position as if it were a motion he had made a million times before.
"This is real - not like some sort of dot.com guy that gets billions for coming up with a catchy name!" he exclaimed, "no, this is real
. This wasn't given to me, which is why it is my
choice and my
choice alone to decide who I give it to. Now that's freedom, my friend."
When last call rolled around and the lights were turned off the bartender locked the doors.
"Do you guys want another one?" he asked us as he slipped back behind the bar.
"Sure," we both replied. I looked at him and he looked at me and he smiled.
"Yes, so it's true." He shrugged. "So life is good, I should not live it?" He seemed to be almost asking himself the question, not really directing it at me.
"Well, how old are you?" I asked. This one always works
, I thought.
"I am 73 years old," he said proudly. "That's not a number of years to wrestle with."
"No, I suppose not," I said. "I figure 73 is license enough to live your good life."
I looked back at the bartender as he put both our pints on his serving tray and carried them over. "These are on the house, guys," he said. "Thanks."
By this point is was getting late and so the Iranian pulled out some papers and began to roll a small joint. He made it tight, and thin.. the kind that burn slow and last for a long time on very little actual weed.
"Life is so good," he said as he licked the papers, "that I'm going to get up tomorrow and enjoy it, I think." He sort of chuckled at this but then stopped, and looked dull in the eyes for a few seconds, "I think I'll probably enjoy it the next day, too.. and the day after that."
For once he looked worn, like a tired animal at the end of a long day of mule work. He didn't look happy or sad or even indifferent really, as the suggestion of indifferent
would impart that he showed any feeling at all. He just looked tired. We sat silently for a minute contemplating the narrow view of the world through the windows of the dark cafe.
"That's what life is, you know," he said after awhile with a refreshed and bolstered twinkle in his eye, "life is living today and then the next day."
I thought he was talking about the odd jobs he did; the way he told me that one week it would be carpentry and the next it would be a night security man. I thought he was telling me that life serves up curve balls and sliders and sinkers and you never know what or where you might be even a day from now. I thought he was trying to give advice like old men like to do, but he wasn't. He was saying the exact opposite. It's all the same, every day, and it's here.
When we finished our pints and the bartender had the last drag out of the small joint the Iranian had rolled we pulled back our seats and stood up, stretching as if we'd been hibernating for some time.
"Well this discussion was wonderful," the old man said. He held out his hand to shake. I gave him a solid grasp and shook down quickly twice; an old man's shake. "I loved it, I really loved it."
We walked to the door where the bartender turned the key in the lock to let us out. When the Iranian stepped through he tripped on the lip of the door frame and I caught his jacket and held him steady. "Whoa, whoa.. whoa," he said steadying himself up. "I am fine now, thank you," he smiled.
"Have a safe night, guys," the barkeep said as he swung the door shut behind himself.
"This was a good talk, tonight," the old man repeated. "I much enjoyed it."
"Yes, it was nice. I will see you again, I am sure."
"Yes yes, I will see you again. You stay well because I will see you again," he smiled again, clapping his hands in the cold. His breath rose from his mouth in a pale white cloud. Just then two college-aged girls came floating by on a bicycle. One standing up, pumping away at the pedals and the other one riding on the seat with her legs splayed out so as not to hit the other girl's feet. The one steering had on a long red scarf that trailed off into the night behind her, keeping the other girl leaning in the opposite direction. They talked loudly and floated on past the intersection and back into the darkness of the early morning.
"Yes, I will see you again. You keep well, I am going home now." he said it finally, but then stopped and turned back around. "They were beautiful, weren't they?" He asked it like an afterthought. I wasn't sure if it was meant to be answered or not.
"Yes, they were." he said, seeming to reassure himself. I nodded. He winked. "I am going home now."