My eighty-four-year-old neighbor is counting in the supermarket. He greets me and then shrugs.
“I don’t remember, boy. You know I’ve been retired for a while, but it’s never been so hard to make ends meet. Shopping has become a puzzle. I love Yorkham, but I’m not going to pay 3 euros for 100 grams, am I? I’m not a complainer, you know me, but I’ve worked all my life for a pension and now it turns out that’s not enough. Do you know that I just cut my hair myself?” he asks.
I had already noticed this, but I didn’t reveal anything. The neighbor looks like a scarecrow after a big storm.
“It does look good. Beautiful layers. It’s like going to a real hairdresser.”
“That’s sweet of you, but I can’t go to a real hairdresser anymore. They ask at least twenty euros for a haircut. I can live on that twenty euros for a week. Do I have to live a week.”
I check the neighbor’s shopping cart. Its content reminds me of the days when I was still a student. Everything is cheap and nothing is healthy. I see ready meals and lots and lots of cans. Pineapple pieces in juice. One kilo of pre-packaged noodles goreng. Ravioli. Eight packs of coffee filters.
“Do you drink that much coffee, neighbor? That’s not good,” I say.
“No, I never drink coffee.”
“Then why are you buying all those coffee filters?”
“Do you know how expensive toilet paper is, kid? That’s how I should go shopping. I don’t have the money for fruit, so I just buy pineapple chunks in juice. Otherwise I don’t get any fruit at all, you understand? And of course I’m old. I don’t have to grow or anything, but I don’t have to shrink either. I can eat from such a pack of noodles for four days. And so I have money left over for my two biggest addictions. Chocolate and liquorice. I’ll tell you honestly, boy, I’m glad my wife doesn’t have to go through this anymore.”
“Did you buy her toilet paper?” I ask.
“Naturally. I had bought the softest and strongest paper for her. Love is more important than chocolate and liquorice. A real lady doesn’t dab with coffee filters, but I don’t mind. My butt has even gotten used to it a bit. The human body is a wonderful thing, boy. I no longer feel those filters.”
“May I buy you some stuff?”
“No I do not want that. You know what it is, boy next door? I’m not pathetic, the situation is just pathetic. How this country treats its elderly. Also how this country treats people. Not everything was better in the past, but people still did their best for you. Banks for example. When I call the bank, I get a robot on the line. I don’t understand robots. When I’m in trouble, I don’t hear them, but if I unintentionally cause trouble, a whole team is right after me. Banks have become ruthless. If I want to pay by card, I have to walk three kilometers. I find it painful. If I need the bank I have to talk to a robot and if they want to reach me they have a whole team.”
“Let me buy you something. I am not a robot. What is your favorite licorice?” I ask.
“Honeydrop. Okay, you can buy me honey licorice, but that’s all. You also just have a wife and child. I’m just an old neighbor.”
Sucking on a honey drop we walk home. I look at my neighbor’s hair. He still looks like a scarecrow, but the storm has passed for a while.
James Worthy (41) is a writer, journalist and columnist. He is married to Artie and father to James (8). For Libelle James writes columns in which love is central: for his parents, his family and life. Witty, sometimes heartbreaking, but above all honest and moving.