Many of us have strangers in our lives, people we see often on the street, in the library, or the grocery store but never talk to. We make up stories about their lives in order to try to understand them. We might even create a name for them. I call my stranger, The Oil Man.
I began seeing him a few years ago on a route I often take. The first thing that I noticed was that he began his day oily. He wore an auto mechanic uniform, but it was never clean. His hair was greasy and swept way over to the right side of his head. He looked like he was well into his fifties, very worn, like one of those leather-skinned guys in the old Western movies. I realized he could be much younger, and just not have aged well. Sometimes, I just wanted to clean him up. Every time I saw him, it felt like he had no one to take care of him.
One day, I happened to park my car next to an auto shop. I was surprised, when I glanced inside the old garage, to see The Oil Man working on a car. I could tell he enjoyed his work because he was completely focused on some part of the engine of an old red Jeep. He never looked up.
A year passed and the auto shop went out of business. I didn’t see The Oil Man for a for a long time and I wondered how he was doing. I hoped that he got another job. Then one day, as the snow was coming down heavily, I spotted him. Things had clearly gotten worse. He was walking with great difficulty on crutches and as I got closer I noticed that he was missing part of his right leg. I gasped. It was freezing out. A couple of teenagers passed him on the street, but he paid no attention to them. I wondered if he had diabetes. I wondered if he had been in an accident. He looked gaunt and tired. Why did he have to go out in the snow? Where was he going?
After that, I started seeing him almost every day, roaming around. Sometimes, I saw him heading north, sometimes south. He never talked to anyone or sat down.
I don’t think he wants me to help him. But I’ve chosen him somehow. So I say a prayer when I see him, hoping that he’ll keep moving forward.
The last time I saw him, he passed me on the sidewalk, on my way to CVS. I smiled at him. He looked right through me.