Sunday, January 4, 2015


He is a kind soul. A gentle soul with a soft twinkling laughter in his eyes. He is an intelligent man. You can hear it in his cadence, the way his words weave in and out, the way his voice transforms when he tells me a little story in German, the air about him, the way he carries himself. His hair is greying and his teeth are crooked. His smile is honest. His shoulders curve inward and he has a slight shuffle when he walks. He is never the first to rush in line for food and instead he sits and waits as the line grows, grows and grows and continues to wait as the line shortens, shortens and shortens. Sometimes I bring him a plate even though I'm not supposed to. He shakes his head as he puts his hands up and instructs me to give it to whoever is sitting next to him. His kindness and consideration impresses me. I listen to him.

Steven is his best friend. They have known each other since they were little boys. Steven informs me they grew up two blocks apart. Alfred tells me they didn't know it until they were both stationed in Germany. They sit together every day. But Alfred and I worry together when Steven doesn't show up. It's the only time the laughter in Alfred's eyes is quiet.

As each day passes, and as each cup of juice or milk is refilled, I learn more about Alfred. I hear about the woman he fell in love with in Germany when he was a young man, how his heart broke when she refused to come back to the States with him. I ask if he ever remarried. He quietly says no but suddenly his smile grows loud and I know the woman he left behind is still his true love. He's a jokester. His laugh is high pitched and true. Sometimes he covers his mouth as he laughs, maybe out of habit. He likes to sing made up funny songs as I make my way around the tables. His hands tremble and shake when he holds out his cup or when he's telling me an old war story. He tells me of his demons and how he works hard to keep his demons at bay. I am proud of him even though it is not my place to be proud. He tells me about his Vietnamese neighbor and his wife, and how he often joins them for dinner. He tells me the food is spicy but he loves it. He asks me if I like spicy food, I give him a 'look' and we both laugh. It becomes an inside joke and the following week he brings me a saran wrapped package of Thai chili peppers. The following week a small handful of red peppers found in a parking lot across the street. And a week after that, a little packet of chocolate 'to offset the spiciness'. His generosity never goes unnoticed. I admire Alfred for all he's done and who he is. His kindness and the goodness of his heart is palpable.

I write him a letter the last day of my regular volunteering. I write it in my best handwriting and I try to tell him how much I appreciate his existence. I seal it and when I see him that day, I give it to him and we hug.

I ask Alfred what makes him happy.

It makes me happy knowing your generation will make things better. Things are changing. My generation messed things up. Your generation is so, so smart. Things will change. Things will get better. It makes me so relieved the younger generation will fix what we couldn't. I see it now. I see it here with the volunteers. I see it. Things will change. It will get better. I'm so happy.

I ask Alfred what he likes about himself.

He just smiles.