Nothing To Be Done

I pass a retirement apartment building each day on the route to and from preschool. There is always a character somewhere around - the lady who wears lace gloves and hats from the 30s and pushes her dog in a stroller; the lady who is bundled up in eighty layers of warmth even in summer, waiting to cross the road in her electric wheelchair; an old man in a plaid beret and highwater pants going for a tentative lopsided walk.

Day before yesterday when I passed, there was a moving truck blocking part of the road out front and various household effects stacked and strewn around the back of the truck, on the road, on the little lawn area, up near the driveway in front of the apartment building. I passed by in about ten seconds, but could sum up the situation almost immediately - an old man stood holding a list of his things in one hand, alternately propping his cane against one leg so he could turn a page, looking about, trying to tell people something (I could tell it was broken English), trying to decide what needed to be done.

He couldn't carry all the heavy things up to the apartment. They wouldn't let the large truck park closer to the door because it would block the bus lane and driveway. And no one seemed to be around to help him, only telling him the impossibility of his situation. Because they were so far from the door, the truck driver was saying that it wasn't part of the deal to haul the stuff so far.

When I passed again around noon, the old man was still there, more of his belongings were unloaded and scattered, and I would bet that there was a time frame on when the truck and driver needed to leave to avoid more charges. This time, it looked like people from the neighborhood in general, were actually picking through his stuff - exactly like a yard sale.

There were several people around, but I saw no one carrying anything into the building for him - there were no hand trucks or anyone speaking directly to the man to whom the stuff belonged. They were just assessing, rummaging, tossing things over their arms to take home with them. A little kid was jumping on the couch. It looked like two ladies - they were definitely not related or associated with him - were trying to decide if his bookshelves would fit in their own house or not.

Yesterday, in a steady drizzle, I passed by and the boxes and the truck were gone, some of the large pieces of furniture had been moved somehow, but what remained was a couple of damaged desks, some lamps, a backless chair and several boxes and cushions, fragments of the original pile. It looked like things had been looted and the rest was being damaged in the rain. The old man wasn't there, but a maintenance worker from the apartment building was standing there on his cell phone, gesturing and obviously telling someone that the mess needed to be cleaned up and hauled away.

Today when I passed by, there was a garbage truck backed up against the curb in the driveway of the apartment building. The old man was there again, in a ragged overcoat and leaning heavily on his cane, his face somber and dim, resigned and sad. I came around the bend, recognized him as he watched the truck, and saw the crusher in the back end of the truck come down on the last of his things, some splintered wood splaying out the crack at the bottom.

I don't know why exactly I was so affected by this. It was just so clear what was happening, even though I saw it in brief moments through my car window and didn't hear anything of what was said. It was just like a very well-produced silent movie.

I was sad on Monday because I knew the stress that the man must have felt in the midst of moving to a retirement home and no one would forget themselves enough to help him make the adjustment.

I was sad yesterday because it was clear he had narrowed down the things that were really important to him - much of the stuff that had been important enough to bring along from his old home had to be left on the curb after all.

Today I am sad that he watched pieces of that old home be rummaged through and disregarded, then crushed and hauled away in a garbage truck.

And maybe I am sad that although I wasn't the unhelpful truck driver or a neighborhood rummager, I kept passing by all the same, somehow knew exactly what was going on and not thinking that anything I could do would help.

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