Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Old Man and the Cheese Sandwich

We still used the word "hobo" when I was a boy, instead of the word "homeless." Neither word seemed to apply to the old man sitting in the public laundry room. He just seemed out of place in his white robe and simple head covering. Only English-speaking Americans lived in our new apartment complex, as far as I knew. I was seven. My father taught English as a Second Language, and we had just moved to Saudi Arabia.

The old man wasn't scary-looking. I don't remember whether or not he made my mother feel nervous. He was probably just looking for a shady place to rest. His robe looked light, airy, and comfortable: ideal clothing in the oppressive desert heat. The white cloth on his head was shorter than what most civilians wore in the city. There were no black rings to anchor his head covering in place as I had seen other Arab men wear.

His beard and mustache were also white, both neatly trimmed. He didn't seem poor, exactly, just from a different era. He was like my great-grandmother in Japan, who still wore yukata robes and sandals on a daily basis, rather than adapt to western slacks and hard-soled shoes.

Did he speak to my mother, ask her for something? I can't remember. I doubt that he would have spoken much English, and we had not learned any Arabic yet. My mother went into the kitchen and unwrapped a thin square of cheese which she placed between two slices of bread. The old man accepted the sandwich silently and graciously.

We never saw him again, but I have never forgotten my mother's quiet, simple act of kindness.

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