Monday, February 13, 2012

The Old Men and the Kids

"You know the old guy who used to sit in the SUB all the time?" my young friend Elizabeth said to me just before the UBC basketball game the other day. "He died."

I had seen him often in the Student Union Building (SUB): reading a paper or having something to eat, always in one of the "comfy" chairs that had been part of the SUB since I frequented the place as a student 40 years ago. Students came and went, and I wasn't sure if they even noticed him. Turns out, they did.

Elizabeth sent me this photo of the shrine that had developed around the chair. Kids did come by and chat with him, although apparently, he rarely talked about his past.

Another friend, Justin, the editor of The Ubyssey,  did some digging and found out more about him. Clearly, there was something about the Travers Wimble's life, presence and demeanour that made some of the students want to reach out to him -- and something about being around young people that kept his own mind active. (I can relate.)

(Sad observation in the article: that Travers was convinced that God did not love him. I look at those flowers and the reaction from the kids, and I believe Travers is, even now, being proven otherwise.)

Coincidentally (for those of you who believe in coincidences), my friends Don Mowatt and Carolyn Finlay told me a story over the weekend about another youth-and-age encounter: this time, one of Carolyn's students and a fellow in a care home. The girl -- 16 years old -- had gone to the care home as part of a project she and some classmates took on for a Professional Development Day. Lots of kids tend to hit the malls on Pro-D Days, but these decided to take the time and do something in the community. Volunteer community service is a requirement in some high schools, and the kids decided to visit a care home in the east end.

As part of the visit, the students entertained the residents. Carolyn's student sat down at the piano and played some classical pieces. Then another student sat down and played some jazz. One of the selections was "What A Wonderful World" -- the Louis Armstrong song. "Suddenly," Carolyn said, "from the back there came this amazing bass voice - strong, clear - singing the song. He sang the whole thing - and you would have sworn it was Satchmo singing!"

Carolyn's student caught up with the man afterwards, and was shocked by what she heard. The students had already noted that the care home, located in a heritage house, was very sterile and cold on the inside. Staff made decisions for the residents, and there was a sense that the residents' lives were highly "organized". (I had noted something like that, to a lesser degree, in the care home where my dad spent the last six months of his life.) The girl found out that the man had played piano and sung in clubs his whole life. (Being black severely limited his prospects during the era he was growing up; yes, even in Canada - we have no right to be smug about our own civil rights record.)

"Do you play now?" she said. "Oh, no," he replied. "The inmates here are never allowed to play the piano. Just staff and visitors."

Yes - he said "inmates".

How much wisdom and joy do we miss out on because we write off our old people? How many people walked past Travers Wimble and wrote him off as some homeless guy who hung out at the SUB, without stopping to say, "hello in there"? How much more joy does the fellow in the care home have in him, to share with others? (How many lives can he help prolong and enrich, just by sitting down at the ivories once in a while and bringing that light to the people around him?)

And yet, looking at the flowers and candles -- and even the copy of the Globe and Mail someone put there for Travers -- it's clear that there is room and a desire to bridge the generation gap.

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