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DAVIS: We called him "The Can Man"

December 2, 2011

He walked along the roadside, scanning the ditches with squinted eye. We were never sure if he ever used sunglasses. The deep creases in his skin, etched outward toward each ear, were not created through moments of introspection or thought. They were earned through years of toil and labor, at least that's what we deduced from watching the grizzled figure we came to know as "The Can Man."
Even though he seemed to be well into his fifties, he stood no higher than a boy of twelve. His gait was measured and purposeful when we first noticed his daily routine and how it coincided with ours. With a big black garbage bag trailing behind him, he picked up aluminum cans. Without fail, he waved as we drove by. We returned his wave and the smile he added as a bonus. Day after day, this was our happy routine on the way to dropping our children off at school.
Time passed. The routine remained the same but the school changed. First was elementary followed by middle school. Junior high was the last morning trek as soon our student's driving years approached.
Most of the time, the can man was there. His hair had turned whiter, coarser and stretching in all directions. His AHTD cap seemed placed upon his head without thought given toward fashion or appearance. It was as if the purpose of the cap had gone from work accessory to routine clothing. Nothing any different than underwear or socks.
His once powerful stance had given way to a small limp, a sunken face and a slight list to his right side. His eyes, once focused, now sunken and dull. How sad it seemed that frailty visited with such quick and heavy response.
Or had it?
We had seen him change over a decade expanse of time. The six year old first-grader in our car was now a sixteen year old entering high school. The comparative passing of time now made better sense. We all change over ten years of time, some more drastically than others.
I've thought about this man on several occasions. Who was he? Where does he live? Does he have children? Is he married?
But most of all I thought about his life. I wondered how his early life shaped his future. What were his parents like? Did he have siblings? Where did he go to school? The questions bounced like a cartoon bullet ricochetting inside my brain.
In the greater picture, I began to think about what it would be like if we all had signs over our heads that listed what was going on with us in our lives. I envision it to be something like a Facebook status update. "Traffic was horrible, hope the day gets better." "So happy to be alive today, beats the alternative." or, "Please pray for me. Dark clouds are forming." What would be the can man's update?
Then it hit me. Why not just ask him? By the time I came to this lightning bolt revelation, it was too late. Our routine had changed. The can man was no longer part of our daily ritual.
How many times do we go through our day oblivious to those around us and what pain, joy or suffering they may be experiencing? Imagine the stories we miss because we simply don't ask.

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