Last week I sat down at an outdoor café to drink and to read a little. Across from me sat an elderly man, disheveled, alone. I smiled. He returned a gentle, lingering grin of his own. ‘How are you?’ I said, more acknowledgment than question. ‘Just fine,’ he answered, ‘the sun is shining!’
We chatted for a while; or he did and I listened. He had a distinguished but indeterminable accent—European of some sort. His eyebrows were noticeably thick with age and his mind wandered as he talked. From the ‘whispering pigeons’ at his feet to the sparrows in St Peter’s Square to his father’s warning of some unnamed but imminent danger. I was lost, but not in a confused way; safely lost, somewhere between the 1940s and now. It was almost comforting , and good to listen for a while.
The book I had with me, unread, was by the great American poet Ted Kooser, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps. Kooser tells a story of his visit to an old dilapidated car shed on a farm not far from his home in the hills of southeast Nebraska. I’ve not read it until today, but it made me remember the man and his whispering pigeons.
‘It had been used not only for shading a car but also as a workshop, and there were lots of interesting old hand tools hung on nails. They had been used and unmoved for so long they were becoming part of the walls. Everything was the same color, a warm brownish gray. … This wasn’t just the result of field dust that had collected over the years but of that dust combined with the timeless shade and stillness, the cool motionless shadows that resisted the busy workday light which stood beyond the open door.’
‘All those tools, once so different in shape and color and purpose, all those cartons of spark plugs and odd nuts and bolts were, through their neglect, becoming one homogenous mass of gray: wood, steel, rubber belts, cardboard, and straps of leather. It occurred to me that unless somebody cleans out that building, there will come a time when it can no longer be cleaned. Everything will have been inextricably woven together, like a bird’s nest, like the life experiences of the very old, buried in cartons and loose gray coils of memory, where things take on a color of the singular mind in which they lie unwanted and unmoved.’