If you were filming a classic Western movie and you needed an extra to play the role of a grizzled old prospector in a street scene, central casting might have sent you this guy.
I was headed out of town for a supper meeting in Lakeland last week when I caught sight of him. He was sitting alone outside a restaurant, minding his own business. My glimpse of him lasted only a second or two as I slowed for the red light ahead.
In that fleeting instant, he struck me as a lonely man, lost in his own thoughts. I had no basis for that conclusion; maybe he was waiting for his wife to pick him up; perhaps he was waiting for a server to bring him his supper order.
My attention quickly turned to two carloads of teenagers, perhaps four or five in each car, who were stopping for the same light.
They began taunting him, shouting meaningless insults for no reason other than ... well ... for no reason at all. Just plain meanness.
As I looked at them in disbelief, one of them smiled at me and gave me a friendly wave, then returned to his taunting. It was an incongruity that made no sense.
I considered calling 911, but it would have been a futile exercise. By the time the light turned green, the taunters would be gone, and even if they were apprehended, being a jerk is not against the law.
The light changed, and the jerks drove off. In a couple of minutes, they would have forgotten their bullying of an old man; I could only hope he could forget it as easily. I doubted that would be the case.
The incident has stayed with me, and I have wondered what I might have done differently.
I am not Bruce Lee. At the age of 73, I am not going to take on two carloads of punks. I would not have done it at 23.
I have no wish to escalate an act of boorishness into a street fight. You do not kill a man in a movie theater for texting his babysitter, right?
But what I could have done — what I have promised myself I will do if faced with such a situation again — was to turn the corner, find a parking place, and go back to the old guy. My meeting in Lakeland was not that important; one less person going through the line at a buffet supper would not have messed up anybody’s plans.
“Sir,” I could have said to him, “I saw what happened. You didn’t deserve it, and as one old guy to another, I want you to know that.”
He might have told me that it didn’t bother him, that the gray beard and casual dress occasionally drew reaction, positive or negative.
He might have told me his grandson was on the way to take him to supper, and his anticipation of a good time far outweighed the actions of a few punks.
Or he might have looked at me with eyes heavy with sadness, glad that another member of the human race cared about him enough to give him a kind word.
I could have bought us both a cup of coffee, or a couple of Cuban sandwiches if he was hungry. I could have listened to the thoughts that were going through his mind.
Maybe there was nothing wrong.
Maybe he would have told me to mind my own business.
Or maybe that’s what gives meaning to the words, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren …”
If I had it to do over again, I could have handled it better.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. He wonders if the kids who harangued that old man have grandfathers.)