I love living in hostels. My first hostel stay was in 2009 (Hawaii). After that, I had some pretty interesting experiences in Paris, Portugal, Puerto Rico, and now Chicago. It is a wonderful way to be surrounded by action, and see a constant flux of faces from different parts of the world. And I absolutely love hopping onto a bunk bed and sleeping high above ground level. It reminds me of traveling in long-distance trains in India.
The following day, I had breakfast with a bunch of Europeans and Brazilians who are backpacking around the world. The interesting stories they shared abound. There is always a dude with the guitar, sitting by the porch in the evening and singing his heart out. And a bunch of nicely dressed people partying and drinking beer. Since I was jetlagged, I was falling asleep by 7 pm. So my first night in Chicago, I fell asleep listening to some live music right outside my room.
I'll prefer staying with strangers in a nice hostel any day to staying alone in a luxurious hotel.
An old man boarded the bus the next day with some difficulty. He wore a nice beret cap, formal clothes, and a walking stick. He walked slowly to find a seat. The nearest seat was occupied by a man, who was too busy browsing on his phone to look up. Grandpa took the opposite seat, behind the driver.
I was watching him from the back, awash with a sense of sadness. Why were old people left to walk alone and board public transit on the busy streets of Chicago? Why didn't he have company? Whenever I see old people, I wonder if my life will also look like this not too many decades down the line. A few stops later, the young man was still on his phone, too busy to look up.
As the bus left a particular stop, grandpa got up to get off at the next one. Suddenly, a cab pulled up from nowhere in front of the bus, and the driver had to brake hard. I am shuddering to write about it, reliving the memory again. Everyone lost their balance momentarily, and we heard a loud thud. Grandpa had fallen flat on the floor. The noise reverberated loudly, and it was so loud that my mouth went dry. I don't know what grandpa felt, but that noise made me dizzy. I know that thud from childhood, when my own grandpa had slipped in the bathroom, had a cerebral stroke, and never quite recovered after that. It was the first day of the year in 1990.
A bunch of men rushed to help grandpa up. His glasses were gone, cap had fallen, and he had that disoriented, helpless look on his face that would move you to tears. I held on to the rod tight, watching him as tears stung my eyes. It was no one but the cab driver's fault, but of all the people who could be hurt, grandpa got hurt. I kept wondering, why did his family leave him to navigate the busy streets alone. Old age looks so much like childhood. Just that in childhood, your parents and elders and the entire world is smitten by you. In old age, the parents are gone, and no one else cares.
"Are you alright, sir?", people asked him.
"I don't know. I guess that I will know the pain tonight", said grandpa in a painful voice. There were no visible signs of injury, but that fall was bad. The bus moved to a corner and stopped. Grandpa thought that his stop is here. He started to get up again. He was visibly embarrassed and confused.
The driver made an announcement. He said that he cannot let the old man leave like this, and he had to call the doctor. So it would take a while, and everybody is welcome to wait, or get on the next bus, and they would not have to pay bus fare again. Everyone nodded and understood and started to get off. Grandpa protested, saying that he was going to the church and he would be late and he felt alright. But the driver insisted that he could not let him go without making sure that grandpa was alright. Most people wished him well or touched his arm before getting off the bus and disappearing into the crowded streets of Downtown Chicago.
In less than 5 minutes, I had witnessed two thought provoking things. First, what the scary picture of old age looks like. Second, what good citizenship looks like. I don't know if the driver did it out of humanity, rules, or the fear of being sued, but he did the right thing. And hats off to grandpa, who still goes on with his life, attending the church and traveling in buses. And for me, it leaves me so much to reflect on. I might have a thousand things in life that are not perfect right now (okay, make that a hundred), but I am sound, physically and mentally, and do not have to depend on anyone. If I don't feel like driving or taking the bus, I can walk, jog, and sprint. I do not forget things easily, and am usually not ailing or in pain. But these are the perks of being my age. Things will only go downhill from here.
And thus, I spent my third jet lagged night being alert and awake, hoping that grandpa was sleeping soundly, and was not in pain.