A warm gesture can soothe the lonely

IN THE MIDST of the seething mass of humanity that is the holiday rush I stood still for a second — a second that went unnoticed by anyone else, but during which I reminisced on all the decisions of my life that had led me to that moment.

Dozens and dozens of people shouting at you nonstop for several hours and you might reconsider some of your decisions, too. The sweat dripped down the raised hairs on my back. Stress can make you feel alive all over, literally tingling with a combination of adrenaline and excitement. But, then again, stress can kill you, too.

A man waved his wine glass directly in front of my face. To his right a petite brunette kept shouting in a big voice, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Two seats down a little old lady cussed like a truck driver and in the seat next to her a middle-aged woman openly wept. All around them people laughed and some even sang.

A virtual mosaic of the range of human experience all crammed into one little bar. The only constant was that they all wanted something, and they all wanted it from me.

“I want a martini.”

“Gimme two Manhattans.”

“I need a beer.”

Everybody but one little old man. In his outdated hat, he waited patiently, too. He was jostled a little by the two overly made-up blondes with gigantic purses pushing their way through. The guy in the yacht club sweater simply cut in front of him without a second thought.

If it weren’t for the Christmas music playing on the speakers one might easily have forgotten it was the season for giving. Underneath that wishful musical message everyone seemed more interested in the getting. Everyone but me, because it’s my job to do the giving, and I was giving it all I got.

I was busy mixing up pisco sours, old fashioneds and Vieux Carres like they were going out of style — again. Odd how one generation’s hot new thing is the next generation’s bore, only to be rediscovered by the subsequent generation. It is said that talent skips a generation; I humbly submit that originality does, too.

At any rate I kept noticing the little old man. For some reason I was reminded of Hans Christian Andersen’s short story about the little match girl who freezes to death surrounded by people too busy to notice.

That little old man never ordered a thing. He just hung around on the periphery. He watched with fascination as the threesome opened presents at the bar. He observed the well-dressed family force their way through an unrelaxing evening, the mother constantly adjusting her young sons’ ties, hair and attitudes. Some hours later the crowd thinned, as crowds do, and the little old man finally sat down. He doffed his hat, straightening out the crease in its top.

“Can I get you something?” I asked.

“No,” he said quietly.

Usually people taking up barstools but not ordering can be a bother. Nature may abhor a vacuum but bartenders abhor dead spaces, especially ones that could easily be filled with income-generating holiday goers. It is one of the reasons why bars often forbid the practice of the saving seats, one seated customer generates far more revenue than three or four “on their way.”

Tonight I felt differently.

Maybe it was because the little old man reminded me of my grandfathers, both now deceased. Or perhaps it was because I also noticed the battered wedding ring on the old man’s hand. A ring that he kept turning round and round.

I don’t know if it was the first or the second or even the third holiday season that the wife whom that ring symbolized wasn’t with us. I just know that it didn’t matter. Like the little match girl’s matches, each turn probably represented a memory.

“You miss her, don’t you?” I asked after some time had passed.

He looked up with tears in his eyes.

“I’m sure she misses you, too.”

“Do you really think so?” he asked.

“I’m sure of it.”

In a room full of people, one man so utterly alone finally smiled.

Reminding me that sometimes the cure for loneliness is as simple as someone else noticing. Just ask Hans Christian Andersen, or one little old man.