All the lonely people

Anybody who talks with misty eyes about the innocence of children never had a kid. I can sure remember what I was up to at 7, and a lot of it was no good. But that doesn’t mean we still can’t learn something from them.

Near the building where I work is what we used to call a soup kitchen. Operated out of a local parish, it exists to serve the hungry. Lunch is passed out every day from an open red door, and the queue begins about an hour before noon.

My Irish-American mother railed against the “Soupers.” They were Irish-Protestant ministers who, she said, demanded conversion before they would serve a starving Catholic a bowl of soup during the Potato Famine of the 1840s.

There are no Soupers at the red door. This is an ask-no-questions food ministry. There are no forms to fill out, no dog-eared log book, nobody deciding who is deserving and who is not. There is certainly no religious test. Show up at the red door, stick your hand in, and you get a solid lunch.

The lineup for the red door is eclectic. You have those right out of central casting — the disheveled older guy that smells like musty bourbon and carries on a conversation with his left shoulder, and the woman of indeterminate age with bags of stuff overflowing a push cart.

But there is also the mother with a kid in a stroller, a young man shouting into his cell phone like a stock broker, and an older teen with a backward ball cap, arms filled with tattoos and damp eyes that never stop moving.

The line confirms every stereotype, yet confounds every assumption at the same time. The only thing in common is their shared anonymity. Nobody picks these people out, nobody makes eye contact, nobody starts a conversation. They come from nowhere and go back to nowhere as soon they get their lunch.

I was out there the other day, not even realizing that it was time to line up, as I was off to something important. Standing there looking for a break in the traffic, one of the guys thought I was part of the walking wounded and he lined up beside me. I motioned him ahead, trying to decide how insulted I should be.

Heading down the street at the same time was a gaggle of kids. There were seven or eight of them, and they looked like they were preschool age. They were looped together by a soft rope that didn’t allow for anyone to wander off. It looked like a child care contingent with a young woman in front and another playing the caboose.

As the kids walked by me, each looked up and gave me a little wave. It made my day as one-by-one I got my greeting and gave mine back. I had to smile.

Then they hit the line of people heading for the red door. It was a usual day’s collection, people leaning against the building smoking cigarettes, some staring off into who-knows-what, others arguing with no one in particular.

The kids walked by and, as eagerly as they did for me, they waved at each and every person in turn. The old gaffer with the bourbon cologne, the toothless woman with the push cart, the teenage addict, the mom with a baby.

Everybody on that queue waved back at the kids. Most of them smiled. The little kids said nothing and those in line said nothing. But the world became better that moment, if only for a moment.

I thought of John Lennon in the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” wondering about all the lonely people — where do they all come from, where do they all belong? And I thought about the sin of not knowing the answer to either question.

The kids in their innocence took me to school. But then I had to leave to do something important. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.