Rocky is third in line for lunch at the soup kitchen. He has a big red face, crooked aviator sunglasses, and a navy blue tracksuit. His jacket is opened wide to reveal a gaudy silver dog chain that hangs down to the middle of his chest. He’s got a bunch of faded tattoos peeking out from the bottom of his sleeves, and the word “Elvis” tattooed across the side his neck.
“So, I guess you’re an Elvis fan?” I ask, unimaginatively, as I serve him salad. “Oh yeah, man, I love him. Spent thirty-five years on the road as an Elvis impersonator!” Rocky proceeds to tell me, in loud and elaborate detail, about the songs he has sung, the places he has been, the (professional sounding) albums he has recorded. Eventually, the people behind him grow impatient and Rocky has to move along.
The people continue to trickle by… The aboriginal couple I see nearly every time, thirty going on sixty, the young woman who refuses to meet my gaze, the cheery middle-aged man who tells me that he can’t complain because “complainin’ never did nobody no good anyway,” the younger guy who I see at the library over the bridge whenever I’m there. Especially when it’s cold outside. He sits at a basement workstation with his socks off playing games on his computer. Often he gets angry and starts swearing at the screen. I ask him if he wants some salad. “No,” he mumbles. He doesn’t look at me either.
The flow of people in line begins to slow to a trickle. All of a sudden, Rocky is bellowing at me from the table. “Hey, there’s this fifteen year old kid I came across in Quebec last year… Best f***’in’ Elvis impersonator I ever saw… You need to look him up on YouTube… It will blow your f***in’ mind!” I smile and nod. “You know,” Rocky loudly continues, I used to have some good sh** when I toured… Bose speakers, the whole works. Had to sell them when I came to Lethbridge, though… Needed money for smokes…” “Is that right?” I respond.
By this time, other volunteers are growing a bit weary of our laboured long-distance conversation. “Just go sit with him,” one of the older ladies tells me, a hint of exasperation in her voice. “We can handle this.”
I make my way over to Rocky, bracing for another long story. And it is. A long story full of injustice, pain, and regret. But also full of a surprising amount of happiness. Rocky’s been around. He’s traveled all over the world, imitating the king. “Man, you’ve been everywhere, man… Just like Johnny Cash!” I say, assuming he’ll get the reference. He looks at me with a sly smile on his face. “You don’t know the half of it,” he says. And he proceeds to launch into a loud rendition of Cash’s famous song. I’ve been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo… Rocky’s getting excited now… Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow… The saliva is starting to fly out of his mouth… Sarasota, Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma… I wipe some of Rocky’s spit off my hands. He smiles, out of breath.
We talk and talk and talk. Well, actually, Rocky mostly talks. We’re two of the last people sitting there when I tell him I have to get going. “Yeah, sure man, I gotta go, too.” We shake hands. He holds mine a bit longer than I anticipate. “Hey, it was nice to talk to you.” “Yeah, Rocky. You, too. Take care of yourself.”
As I drove away, I though about my conversation with Rocky. About what brings people like him to places like soup kitchens on dreary, wintry days. Was it an empty stomach? Yeah, probably. Rocky left half of his food untouched, but I don’t doubt that he (and many others) come knowing the gnawing ache of physical hunger. The promise of a warm place to sit for an hour? Undoubtedly. Ours can a harsh and unforgiving climate for those with inadequate housing or no place to call home, especially during winter.
But I think what Rocky was hungry for, more than anything else, was simply human contact. Someone to listen to him. Someone to pay attention. Someone to sit across a table from him and ask him questions about his life. Someone to treat him like a human being instead of a client or a project. Someone to look at him, to smile at him, to laugh at his profane, not terribly funny jokes. Someone to spend half an hour with, talking about Elvis, singing Johnny Cash songs, reliving the glory days that probably were never all that glorious.
So much of what we do doesn’t seem like all that much. What’s half an hour in the context of a lifetime of loneliness and abuse? What’s one hot meal in the big frame of a lifetime of struggle and dependency? What are any of these little things we do in the face of the badness that so often threatens to overwhelm and defeat all that is or could be good?
Not much. God knows. But not nothing either.
I hung a right out of the soup kitchen and crossed the bridge to get back to the highway. There was a little old man standing on the sidewalk in the middle of the bridge. He had dirty jeans stuffed into oversized winter snow boots, layers of poorly fitting clothing spilling out of a big brown parka. He had a hunched back and a long, grey, scraggly beard. He looked a mess, in every sense of the word.
And there he stood, in the middle of the bridge, face turned toward the west wind, combing his hair. Combing his hair. “Why on earth would you bother?” I wondered. And then a little voice whispered in my ear. Why wouldn’t you bother? It’s not very effective, in the big picture. But it’s not nothing, either.