The old man in the alley
Growing up and until my early thirties, I just assumed that I would be a mother. It wasn’t something that I felt pressured into, yet something that I somehow thought I had to be. Motherhood is such a natural part of my culture, that it never occured to me to question it. I have friends who’ve struggled with trying to conceive, and I also have friends who chose not to have children. Then a few weeks ago it hit me. Whether or not I have children of my own in the future, I know that they’ve been an integral part of embracing my purpose. No matter how much I’ve tried to walk away from teaching, I somehow find my way back to it - whether it be teaching English or dance.
Maybe I thought that having children meant that I wouldn’t be alone in my old age. I grew up in a culture where the older generation were cared for by their children, or at least younger relatives. I didn’t even know that rest homes existed until we moved to New Zealand. There, I’ve seen once active people go into rest homes and over time lose their joie de vivre, not from old age, but from feeling like they’ve been forgotten.
There’s an old man that lives in the gap between my apartment and a brick wall. It’s below my bedroom window on the first floor, so I hear him every night. Sometimes he sings, sometimes he laughs, sometimes I hear him have arguments with an invisible foe. I see him arguing with himself more these days. He’s in a permanent state of stupor but never has he been rude to me, in fact he holds the gate door open for me, especially when it rains.
In the beginning when I first moved in, my landlord told me that he has a house and family outside of Huaraz. Now and then I see a woman in her 50s visit him, and I often wonder if that’s his wife. For him to have money for alcohol and food, he must be getting his money from somewhere, right?
The way he argues with himself reminds me of my late grandfather who had Alzheimers. He’d had it for almost 20 years before he passed away. I guess I was lucky in a way because I only saw the illness’ progression from afar, I didn’t have to live with it every day. I wonder if, apart from alcoholism, mental illness plays a part in his decision to live in the alley way. I moved into the apartment during the rainy season, and now it’s winter. I wonder how long that patch of dirt has been his home?
He walks with a shuffle and spends most of his days in the alley. I have seen him walking back from town, and I wonder if he was just coming back from a drinking session. There’s a concentration on his face and his eyes look straight past me. Usually I see him in a sweater, dress pants and dress shoes. Even though his clothes are dirty, he dresses pretty well for someone without a roof over his head.
One morning when I was having breakfast up on the roof veranda, I looked down at the alley where he lives. There were mounds of dirt and scatterings of old bricks. I didn’t see a makeshift hut, just a shiny piece of plastic about a metre square. I wonder if that’s where he sleeps at night. There aren’t any traces of him, in fact, there weren’t any traces that someone had been living there. It’s like he was never there. How do we as a society turn our backs on people like him?
Actually, thinking about it, I haven’t seen or heard him for a few days now. I wonder if he went back to his house outside of town or maybe he found a warmer place to sleep. There’s plenty of poverty in Huaraz and those who fall within the extreme are the most visible. There are beggars on the street - there are even beggars who come to your table while you’re dining at a restaurant. They tend to target the tourist areas, that’s probably why I’ve seen them so often. What I find most interesting are the walking vendors who sell you anything from fruit, to woven blankets or even rubbish plastic bags. We’ve even bought dessert from a man who walks around selling them as we ate lunch at a nearby cafe.
More often than not, I’ve walked past men of all ages who’ve passed out in the streets. I usually get just close enough to see if they’re still breathing (luckily I’ve never come across one who wasn’t), but after that I just leave them alone. You never really know how they would react, and with the language barrier I didn’t want to find out. When I first came to Huaraz, many people told me that there was a big alcohol problem - especially amongst the men. I soon learned why. Unless you were an avid hiker or climber, there really isn’t much else to do here. I mean, like in New Zealand, social sport often involved drinking alcohol. A lot of it. There was no escaping it. What I wonder is if these men who pass out in the streets go out drinking alone, or if their friends had left them there. Not that I drink, but if I did, I would hope that my friends would never leave me alone like that. Maybe it’s different for men.
I wonder if the old man in the alley is more common than not, not so much the transience, but the disconnect with society. Poverty is something I’m familiar with because I saw plenty of it growing up in the Philippines. Though it’s not something I’ve experienced first hand. My parents’ education made sure of that and it’s something I’ll always be grateful for.
Who the old man represents is that fear of being forgotten, to feel like you don’t matter to anyone. To be seen more as a burden than as a human being. Someone’s son, brother, uncle...a loved one. How do we stop mattering to people who once loved us? His eyes look at me, but they’re not there because they’re lost in the stupor. How much of who he was remains I wonder? I make a point to say hello when I see him, to know that I see him. Whoever he was is gone now, but liquor will never erase his humanity.
Blog Image Credit: Freepik
Ronna Grace Funtelar a thirtyish storyteller, creative, writer and poet currently working and traveling in Peru. A woman with a curious mind who lives for hiking mountains, outdoor adventures and eating pizza. She has a unique brand of optimism that is a combination of her great enthusiasm for life and cups of coffee during the day.