"Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
"It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there..."
-- Bob Dylan
The old man would show up at the cafe at dusk, sitting at the same outside table as the sunlight gradually retreated into the shadows. You could set your watch by him. But on the other hand, who wears a watch anymore? He always dressed simply but with a certain elegance, a wine-colored beret cocked at a jaunty angle on his head. But on the other hand, who wears a beret anymore? As the patio lights would snap on and glow with a yellowish aura, the old man would take a notebook out of a weathered satchel and begin writing. But on the other hand, who writes in a notebook anymore? Often, he would stay there until those lights too retreated to the shadows, always carefully putting the chair back in place before making his retreat as well.
"This old man at a cafe really interests me," read the email from my friend Dave, a recently retired English teacher and now fledgling novelist. He was working on a murder mystery novel set in New England and from his third-story window where he wrote, he had a view of the cafe. As he would struggle at times for inspiration, he became friends with the glimpses of his fellow writer at night. "I wonder what he is writing?" he would say. "I wonder what his story is?" For Dave, the man became a kindred spirit, and in time, a muse.
His speculations reminded me of another old man. Now, with the passage of time, definitely not that old, but to a teenager, your grandfather seems like Father Time himself. When I would stay summers with my grandparents, I quickly became used to his nighttime ritual. After dinner, while my grandmother would clear the table, he would go to his front porch, turn the outside lights on and sit in his aluminum lawn chair. I say sit, but there was a process he would follow. After sitting, he would adjust the position of his chair four or five times, each adjustment emitting a loud screech from the concrete porch floor. Over time I would learn that these sounds were a signal to his next-door neighbor that it was "porch time." Often the neighbor would come out shortly and sit in an aluminum chair on their porch, and the story telling would commence in full force.
Dave, on the other hand, soon dropped his murder mystery altogether and began a new novel featuring a quiet old man sitting outside a cafe. In his first draft, a writer who lives across the street from the cafe and often watches the old man from his third-story window, finally goes downstairs and sits with the man at his cafe table. "What are you writing?" the character asks, to which the old man turns his notebook to him which reads: "I am watching an old man who sits alone at a third-story window writing."
My friend Dave died three months ago after a sudden savage attack of cancer. His story lies unfinished, but I couldn't help but think of how much he saw of himself in that silent figure writing alone in the glow of artificial light. Things quiet down, slow down in the evening, and he couldn't help but feel the difference, feel the connection.
And perhaps Dave was like that old man, like my grandfather, maybe like us all, for when the darkness starts to fall, we all need a light for the night.