Cold Soup from a Can
"Do you mind..?"
An elderly fellow silently appeared next to me. I noticed the
odor, the soiled clothes he wore, and to be completely honest,
I wondered how I could possibly explain not being able to spare
any of my dwindling vacation funds. He nodded towards the empty
space on my bench and from his hesitant manner I could tell
that most people just told him to go away. I couldn't do such
a thing, so I moved my things and shifted over.
That was the summer after my first year of teaching. After working
in office cubicle-world for several years, I changed careers
to pursue this lifelong interest. I took full advantage of my
first summer off by driving across the country. A friend offered
a place to stay while in California and I gladly accepted. During
my journey I made it a point to experience all that I could,
having little time constraints to limit me. And yet, after all
I'd seen and done, there was one more thing I needed in order
to make this trip complete; and I'd almost resolved in my mind
as the summer neared its end that this wasn't to be experienced.
While exploring the coast near my friend's apartment, I discovered
an old park bench at the edge of a bluff. There was a rusted
sign nearby. It read, "Seal Retreat. Established (a date and
something else I couldn't read because of rust)." This place
had been forgotten, hidden away between a gentle wall of tall
grass and shrubbery and the edge of a bluff. I sat here for
several hours with only my thoughts and my journal. That is,
until this person appeared next to me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him arrange his bags
in a very particular manner. Occasionally the wind would change
direction and I found myself fighting to breathe because his
odor was so strong. He had an occasional deep, scratchy cough
that shook his entire body.
I watched him open a can of chicken noodle soup. Then, from
one of his several bags, he pulled out a plate, a spoon, a knife,
a half-loaf of bread and a couple dabs of butter offered free
in restaurants. He cut a slice of bread and offered it to me.
I shook my head. "No thanks."
He then very meticulously buttered this bread. Not one tiny
space was left uncovered. His motions were very deliberate,
as if he was preparing to savor every morsel. He didn't eat
immediately, but instead carefully set down the plate of remaining
bread and butter along with the knife between us next to the
soup. Then he sat back like a king to enjoy his meal.
After several bites, pausing in a very ritualistic manner between
each one, he broke the silence between us. After hearing nothing
but the wind and sea for many minutes, his words startled me.
"That's my Charlie." A mischievous seal sneaked up on an older
seal sunning on a rock and knocked it into the crashing waves.
"Named him after Charlie Chaplin. First person I thought of
when I saw the jokester down there." He spoke to me, long pauses
between each sentence, but continued watching the seals. I politely
smiled, acknowledging his words. "He's hiding now. He'll come
up when the coast is clear."
My bench-mate cut another slice of bread and buttered it just
as carefully as before. He took another few bites of soup and
sat back to finish off the bread. Eventually, he asked, "So,
where're you from?"
I found myself allowing the same amount of time between sentences
as he. I thought about my response a bit, 'Where did I grow
up?' or 'Where did I arrive here from?' I chose the latter question
since St. Louis rarely sparks conversation. "The East Coast
- near Boston."
Another bite of bread and spoon of soup, "The East Coast?" He
turned to look at me. "What happened? Take a wrong turn?"
Humor! My fragrant visitor with impeccable table manners just
made a funny. I smiled at him, realizing this is the first time
we actually looked at each other, really looked at each other,
in the eye. "No wrong turn. I'm on vacation." Through the wrinkles,
the dirt, and the unkempt gray beard, his eyes had a youthful
sparkle. I figured I could also joke in return. "I just started
teaching and since I have the summer off, I decided to seek
out a wise man rumored to frequent West Coast seal retreats."
He chuckled. "Ah, yes." He folded his hands over his stomach.
"How can I help you, my son?"
We smiled at each other. For the first time in quite a while,
I felt like talking to someone, really having a worthwhile conversation.
I had gotten used to traveling alone, just me, my thoughts,
and my journal. But now, I began to tell him about teaching
and also detailed several experiences I had during my travels.
He listened attentively, asking a question here and there.
We drifted into a moment of silence, smiling again as our thoughts
went their own ways. He finished the soup and cut one more slice
of bread. I asked, curious but unsure if he wanted to talk,
"Where are you from? What experiences have you had?"
He looked at me without speaking and I could see the thoughts
on his face. Did I sincerely want him to share a part of himself
with me? I could tell that he was used to people ignoring him,
abusing him, treating him like he were less than human. But
after a hesitant pause, and while allowing that questioning
eye to remain as my silent interrogator, he spoke, cautiously
at first, then with vigor. His voice was scratchy and deep.
His words came in a dramatic way with an occasional pause as
though to emphasize a point.
"I could see my father's belt straight on when he brought us
here to California. I didn't know anything about the depression
or how poor we were until I was on my way to fight in the war.
Someone told me that people picking stuff from the trees don't
have any money. Anyhow…" He stared out into the ocean as his
words dropped away into silence. I guessed that maybe he were
reminded of something he hadn't thought about in a long time.
I looked at him, then out over the ocean as he did. With his
several bags and his many layers of clothing, it was difficult
for me to imagine him with a home and a normal life. But to
hear him speak so fluently and with humor, I couldn't understand
him having to live on the street praying for a meal. I wanted
him to continue, so I prodded, "What is it? What are you remembering?"
He seemed surprised that I was interested in him. He took a
napkin from his pocket and neatly wiped a drop of soup from
his beard. "Oh, I was just remembering how young I was." With
that same napkin folded differently, he thoroughly cleaned his
spoon. As he moved on to cleaning the knife, he looked down
towards the seals and continued. "I remember how I was so filled
with life and patriotism. I got all energized and riled up by
the words being shouted at me; the screams of a madman trying
to take over the world. I wanted so badly to help save our country,
to help save mankind." He paused a bit, then allowed a sad grin
to show through his grimy beard. "But I was also thinking about
how healthy I was then, and how I thought my dreams of seeing
the world were coming true."
After a moment of silence, he continued the conversation with
an odd mixture of eloquence and occasional bad grammar. He explained
the area's history; how great sand dunes were bulldozed away
to create a beach just north of here and why the seal retreat
was built below us. How Hollywood celebrities moved in acting
like they discovered this town. He shared stories of the war,
of his childhood, of meeting a few people of influence. He even
had names for the seals that played below us. He knew how old
they were, whose baby was whose. The mischievous one, Charlie,
was his favorite since, as he put it, "That seal acts just like
me when I was growing up. That seal," pausing to look at me
directly, then down to the ground, "keeps me young, helps me
He didn't talk in detail about some things. His wife and family
were mentioned, but then he quickly changed the subject. He
also mentioned getting wounded, again followed by a subject
We sat together for maybe two hours. As the sun reached up and
painted the clouds and sky in oranges and reds, he noticed something.
"Young man, this must be your lucky day." He waited for me to
look at him. "It's not often I see the dolphins play." I wasn't
sure what he meant at first, but then he tilted his head and
nodded out towards the ocean with a grin. I couldn't believe
my eyes. There they were, twenty or thirty of them dancing across
Luckily my new friend had an eye for such things, because I
would have never spotted them. Their color matched the water.
The larger waves blocked our view of them. And they were maybe
a hundred yards away. I walked to the edge of the bluff to get
a closer look. It was like a show: a long line of dolphins leaping
out of the water in pairs across the horizon. I took in a deep
breath and smiled a huge thank you, one of those smiles that
just happens to you. I imagined that their dance was just for
us, and that somehow they knew just how much I had wanted to
I stood there mesmerized. Although I had wanted to swim with
or maybe just see a dolphin or two so very badly, I'd resolved
that it wasn't going to happen on this trip. But here I was,
having an experience that made my cross-country travels perfectly
complete. All I could think of was how lucky I was to be here
to see this.
Finally, after watching the dolphins disappear in the distance,
my new friend said, "Even though I've seen them so many times,
I still get excited when they come along." With this thought
and with the sky darkening into purples and blues, the space
became ours as we shared a long, silent moment.
That was the last night of my Pacific Coast visit. As much as
I didn't want to leave, I had to meet my host for dinner, and
I was already late. So, I thanked him for his company and for
a wonderful conversation, then I reluctantly walked away.
After trudging a few minutes towards town, I realized that I
had to go back. I had to talk to him just a little bit more,
to offer him something, anything. I don't know exactly what
I was going to do. Maybe I just wanted to share with him how
much our time together impacted me.
But when I got back, he was already gone. Even today, I can
feel the emptiness I felt then as I searched and found no trace
That evening, as I sat at a table with a $25 plate of hot food
in front of me, I felt guilt reaching into my chest and yanking
at my heart. What other things should I have done, should I
have said? Why didn't I tell him how special he was? And the
Why did I leave him there with only cold soup from a can?
© 2002 Rob Daugherty