This was his favorite, of the photos that I showed him.
This morning at about 10am, I put my wallet and my camera in my backpack, and walked to the local market. On my way there I passed by the canal dock where I planned to later stop and photograph some pigeons. I noticed a man sitting on the steps above the dock. He was older, with unkempt curly white hair, and a beer can in his hand. He was staring quietly out at the canal, and looked somewhat forelorn. I didn’t think much of it, until after I finished at the market and came back to the spot. I saw that he was still there – it looked like he hadn’t moved an inch. I sat down a ways away from him, on the far side of the steps, and pulled out my camera.
Although I don’t generally condone feeding wildlife, I don’t consider city birds to be typical wildlife. I am poor, and therefore very stingy with both my money and food. But I will always share my food with “city birds.” These animals are some of the very few that can survive in a city, and despite all the hardships they face from living in a concrete environment, they are so fearless and full of character. I admire them.
So I sat down on the steps and pulled out some crackers for myself. The single, scruffy pigeon there saw that I had food, and started cooing and looking at me with an expression that could only be described as a mixture of hunger and curiosity. She cautiously walked closer and looked at me hopefully. So I crumbled up some of my crackers for her, and soon enough some of her friends started showing up in hopes of getting a meal.
Then the forelorn Dutch man startled me by yelling out a greeting to a boat passing through the canal.
The man then looked at me and said something in Dutch, to which I responded, “Sorry?”
He repeated himself, this time in choppy English and with a thick Dutch accent. He told me about how these boats are special, as they clean the canals. We chatted about them for a moment; then, after a prolonged silence, he stared down at the beer can in his hand.
He said quietly, “my vife…she is dying.”
At first I was shocked to hear this, and didn’t know what to say. Then, after a moment, I stood up and walked over to him. I sat down next to him, and put my hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “What happened?”
“She is sick. She has dee uh…dee cancer.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” I paused for a moment, unsure of what to say. “How much time does she have left?”
“Maybe…vun week, or two.”
He paused and stared down at the beer can in his hand again. “I am sorry for drinking…but I vant to be drunk.”
I felt my heart break for him. “That’s okay…this is a nice place to do it.”
“Yes…I like de birds, de pigeons…dey hav good uh…good community here. And you, I can see you like dee birds too?”
“Yes, I do…I’m glad you like them. Not many people do, but I do. This is a nice place to see them.”
“Yes…dey like de food. Is nice.”
There was silence again as I sat next to him. I crumbled up some of my crackers and dropped them at our feet. I took a few images while the birds cautiously picked at the crumbs, and the man began to tell me about his experience with photography, and how he has had his photos in exhibitions and museums. He silently watched me interact with and photograph the birds for a while.
Then he asked me, “you have uh…uh friend?”
I smiled, not fully understanding what he meant. “Yes, I do have a friend.”
“Oh…dat is uh pity. I vould invite you to be my girlfriend.”
“Oh!” I paused. “Well thank you. I do appreciate it.”
“Yes, yes, of course…I like you. Vould you like to have sex?”
“No, I’m sorry.” I smiled again. “I do have a good friend.”
“Of course – das is okay. I not have sex for…for long time.”
“For how long?”
“Maybe…uh…fifty year? My vife, dis her fourth time wit de cancer…but now vee know she is dying. She is in dee…dee…hospice.”
I could feel my heart breaking for this man. A complete stranger, spending his morning drunk and alone, watching the water flow through a canal. And despite his very forward invitations for me to be his girlfriend and to have sex with him, he seemed quite harmless. I could tell his questions were stemming from the hurt he was feeling, and I could empathize. Not sure what else to say, I told him about my own hardships with health problems.
I told him that although I do not have cancer, I have been sick for a very long time. He asked about my illness, and I explained it as well as I could through the language barrier. I explained how even light sensations of touch can be painful, how my disorder affects my brain and central nervous system. I explained it the way I generally explain to people who don’t understand how the disorder works – by lightly poking his hand.
“For me,” I said, “that hurts.”
He looked surprised, then very gently poked my hand. “Dat? Dat hurts? Vare does eet hurt?”
“Well…everywhere. The disorder affects my brain and central nervous system. So the pain is everywhere.”
“And, your brain?”
“Yes. The disorder does affect my brain, meaning sometimes I can get very depressed and anxious.”
He was silent and contemplative for a moment. Then he asked me how long I’d been sick, and I said, “for 12 years.”
“And now? You are how old?
“I’m 22 now.”
“So, since you are 10.”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
He was silent again, then he looked at me with misty eyes and said, “you haav a friend?”
I smiled again. “Yes, I do have a friend.”
“Oh! Das is pity…I like you.”
“Well, thank you! I like you too.”
He watched me feed and photograph the pigeons for a short time, and told me again about how he has had photo work in exhibitions.
Then after a while he said to me, “I like you. Dee vay you tink and act…I like dat. You are very good wit dee…dee camara. You hav good uh…approcetion.”
I thanked him, and he contemplated for a moment before saying, “dat is good English? Approcetion?”
“I think you probably mean appreciation?”
“Yes! Dat. Eet is good.” Silence ensued for a moment. Then he said, “can I ask you? Do you have two euro for me?”
I had a gut feeling that he wanted to buy another beer, and maybe one for the man his age who had just shown up and sat down on the steps next to him. And although those two euros could buy me food for a day, I didn’t have the heart to tell him no. Because right now I am experiencing the start of medication withdrawals. My antidepressant and acid-reflux medications are stuck in customs somewhere in Amsterdam, and I have now gone two days without them. I can feel the depression, anxiety, and inability to keep food in my stomach starting to grow stronger with the withdrawls. And I know that, when things gets really bad, sometimes having a vice seems to be the only possible way to find comfort.
For me, it is not alcohol – I don’t touch the stuff. My vice is maybe a bit unusual; I tend to wander. I walk the streets, or trails, or wherever I may be. I wander, alone and upset, hoping a stranger will notice and care. I hope that maybe, if I am lucky, I can find someone to hold me and assure me that everything will be okay. I have been alone for so long, so desperate for someone to love me, that I will take nearly anything I can get in those times. I wander, and I hope that someone will notice, and I hope that someone will care. It’s not a good thing to do, but it’s the only way that I have ever found comfort in the terrible days – because being alone in those times is a living hell. The only way I have found to stop the panic, the crying, and the desperation is to let someone else take a bit of the weight off my shoulders. What I do is certainly a vice, so I guess I can understand the pressing need for one when the world seems so dark.
So I told him, “sure. I think I can find two euros.”
I put my camera back into my bag, then stood up and pulled out a £2 coin. I handed it to him, and he smiled. Then he gently put his hand on my arm and said kindly, “dank you…dis is good.”
“Of course.” I smiled and stood up, and put my hand on his shoulder. “You have a good day.”
Then I slung my bag over my shoulder and walked away.