His name was Arthur Cooper, although it seemed most people in the bar called him simply Cooper. He was an older gentleman, in his 90’s I figured, dressed as a solid New Englander- a checked, button down, LL Bean shirt with a beige cardigan and worn brown slacks- neat but nothing fancy. You would call him natty in his day but his day was mostly passed and his clothes sagged on him now, a size too big on a body a size too small and shrinking. I guessed it was a familiar outfit, something he had been wearing without variation for years, something he didn’t change in a world that constantly did. And I guessed he was alone, and had been, for longer than he liked.
He walked without a cane, his voice was steady, his stance strong and as he walked up to a barside table next to mine I watched as the regulars nodded and greeted him, smiling. He sat by himself, quietly, scanning the bar, waiting for a chance to be one of the crowd. He wore glasses, his hair white and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. What brought him here all by himself? Had he lived here all his life or was he just passing through? And what did he do in his day?
I was drawn to him, this elderly man, strongly so, oddly so. You see I never approach strangers, never talk to people I don’t know. I leave everyone pretty much alone and I’m happy when they do the same with me. I am pleasant when I have to be but certainly not convivial with strangers always preferring solitude to inclusion. But with Arthur, a stranger, I reached out in this most public of places. Why? I think it was because with Arthur I knew there was more. With Arthur, I just knew he had stories.
As I finished my food two stools at the bar opened up. He gathered himself and took one and I gathered my courage and took the other.
“Hi. How are you doing? My name is David, David Middleton.”
“Hello. Arthur, Arthur Cooper. Pleased to meet you.”
“Pleased to meet you, Arthur.
He shook my hand firmly and took a sip from a small glass of red wine. As the crowd swayed with a new surge of people wanting drinks while they waited for their tables I leaned in closer. He stared ahead, past the bar and into the mirror as if he were looking for someone in the reflection.
We exchanged the usual pleasantries, the weather, the town, how things had come and gone. I felt there was more and I knew from his age he was anxious to tell. The elderly have friends but they don’t have cohorts, no one who knows what’s it like. They are the past living in the future and there is no one in the present who understands or even, if they are alone, who cares.
I paused, knowing that stories only come with patience. I didn’t know Arthur, had never met him before but he was an old man and my experience with my 95 year old friend Hugh on the dairy farm told me that old men have stories they want to tell. If you wait, if you are sincere and if you listen, really listen, the stories will come tumbling out.
“I came up here after the war, I was 33. A friend asked me to help out at a boy’s camp and 30 years later I still was. Met and married my wife up here. Bought the house next door to here. Raised two kids. They are gone now, don’t see them much anymore. My son lives in Virginia, my daughter in Tennessee. I have grandchildren but I barely know them. They haven’t been up for a visit for some time.
My wife died 10 years ago and I have been alone ever since. I help out at the afternoon tea here everyday but I’m not much good for anything. I go home, have dinner, come back here, have a drink and then go back to the house and go to bed. Not much changes, its pretty lonely over there. That’s why I come over here. Company is hard to find at my age.”
“I knew a man just like you, Arthur. He was a 95 year-old dairy farmer in Vermont where I live and I went over to his farm every morning so I could to help out. Got to know him pretty well over the years and he would tell me the same things. He was surrounded by people but he felt alone. He had no one to listen to his stories.”
“He must have been in the war. I’m 95 as well. We all were. I was a bombardier in the Air Force, got shot down over Germany and spent two years in a German prison camp. Was bad but wasn’t so bad. They treated us about as well as they could, we got mail from home, enough food, took care of the sick. The Germans aren’t bad people.
The major brought the plane down in a farm field, all 12 of us survived. Now that was good flying! We didn’t get very far, the Germans were right there and before we knew it we were all in the camp. It was quite a shock.”
I looked at Arthur, this 95 year-old man, cradling his glass of red wine as he carefully cradled his memories. Nothing appeared extraordinary about him- he was more likely to be overlooked than noticed- and yet he had lived through an extraordinary period of history and had extraordinary stories to tell. If I had had a hour, a day, a week, a month to spend with him he would’ve told me stories day and night. As it was I had 20 minutes in a crowded bar with him but it was 20 mesmerizing minutes and my life is richer for that short time spent with him.
I left the bar, saying my goodbyes to Arthur, and headed off to LL Bean to look for things I didn’t need. On the way back to my room I spotted Arthur again, sitting by himself on a hallway couch at the juncture of two long hallways of rooms. People shuffled by but no one stopped and he didn’t much seem to notice the traffic. He just sat there, all by himself, staring down the hall, waiting for nothing to happen.