Earlier today, I ate at a Community Panera. Situated in between the yuppie-ish Chicago neighborhoods, Lincoln Park and Lakeview, is the nonprofit version of the café which customers go in and essentially get to choose what they pay for an order. There is a suggested price but the concept is to encourage people who can afford it, to pay more than the suggested price to make-up for those who pay below the suggested price. Today was not the first time I had come in to buy something but it was the first time I had stayed to eat inside. But this is not a story about Panera; this is a story about a lonely place.
As I sat down, I noticed how almost 80% of the people, like me, were eating by themselves. You have to understand as a Nigerian, an African, eating is a communal activity and I will always believe it to be such. It is one of the very few things I hate about living by myself. Cooking and eating is supposed to be a shared experience that brings people together, at least that is my default cultural conception. One of the reasons I think many Americans struggle with their relationship to excess food is an obsessive attitude to food. Food is not seen as part of a means of relating to other people and in so doing, nourishing the body; but as a source of comfort for filling one’s emptiness, perhaps, one’s loneliness. But that is not even the loneliness that concerns me today.
An elderly man in a walker who I believe was with his caretaker came over to a table next ti mine. I watched as she brought him everything he needed and then she was off. He sat and began to eat. There was nothing about him that could have led me to believe that he was a sad person. Like the 80% of the people, he just sat there and ate in silence, not looking particularly happy or sad. But then I made eye contact with him and there was something about his eyes that caught me off guard. His eyes had a deep desire in the midst of an aged face that looked worn out. I smiled at him and I hoped it was the kind of smile that informed a stranger that you cared for them even if you did not know them. He didn’t smile back and he continued to eat in silence. I wanted to cry.
Those eyes that had probably once been young and vibrant are now headed to the finish line of life. But those eyes still had desire. I wondered if the man had a desire for a long lost love that was maybe taken away too soon from him. I wondered if the man had a desire to have lived life differently than he had lead it. I wondered if those were the eyes of a man who desired to once again be young in a society that places so much emphasis on youth and all the apparent perks that come with it. But most of all, I wondered if this is what it is like to grow old in this country – to be at a neighborhood café, cared for by someone who is paid to do so, and sitting alone, eating by one’s self.
Since coming to the United States, I have volunteered quite a bit at retirement centers. I like elderly people – sometimes I think they understand me better than my peers. Moreover, they make the best listeners and tell the best stories. Of course, the idea of a retirement center that you send elderly people to is a taboo in many African cultures; it might as well be a curse. It is often a source of humor among Africans that part of the reason one has kids is to be looked after in old age. To me the idea of sending my parents who worked hard their whole life to feed me, clothe me, educate me, and above all, love me – to a place to be cared for by others in their last years, is unfathomable. I understand that for health reasons, for financial reasons, and simply because people perceive life from their own cultural lenses, people may feel otherwise and that is their prerogative. For me, it is unimaginable.
Is old age a lonely place? Is it where all the dreams that you didn’t make happen, all of a sudden come and haunt you? Is it where you truly have time to wonder what life means and if it means anything at all? Is it where you worry whether your existence made a difference? Is it a place where you live with desires that will never be fulfilled but a desire nonetheless, that cannot be replaced by something else because there is just not enough time left? In my African cultural lenses, age is valued and the elderly are some of the most esteemed in a community, perhaps even to a fault. But as someone who is always doing a dancing act transitioning between African culture, European, and particularly British culture, and American culture, I wonder, will this apply to me? Will I be surrounded with love and affection and curiosity of young people who want to learn from me? Or will I be found fifty, seventy, seventy years from now, sitting at a café, left by a care taker, eating by myself?
I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t realize that tears started to well-up in my eyes. There was something about this café where 80% of the people were eating by themselves. There was something about the old man with a deep desire in his eyes that had left me so struck. This was a lonely place where people who were lonely came – elderly people, people who were homeless, and people who just didn’t have anyone to eat with. So I got up from my chair and moved my plate and my things over to the old man’s table. I said, “Hi, my name is Kovie. May I sit here?” He said, “Hi. Yes, please.” And we didn’t say anymore. We just sat and ate in silence. But at least we were together, in that lonely place.