The man in the gray coat
Published: Saturday April 18, 2009 in Living in Armenia
Yerevan - In the winters he wears a long, tattered, gray coat. He is usually sitting on a stone bench along one of the narrow side streets in Yerevan, his legs crossed, with a cigarette in his hand, a look of melancholy on his face.
It is on these streets that one can see the real Armenia. Far from the eyes of tourists and visitors, some of these residential neighborhoods tend to be bleak, depressing places - no flowers or trees, no fountains or stores or cafes or restaurants. Just the living, breathing masses huddled in their homes, carefully hidden behind crumbling stone fences. With the first blooms of spring, they emerge, tired from the cold and dreary skies, their movements labored until their bodies thaw with the first warm rays of the sun.
This man in the long, tattered, gray coat is my friend. I think. We see each other daily. We have never spoken to one another. I don't know his name or where he lives exactly, but I have my suspicions. I'm quite sure he knows where I live. Small country, very little privacy.
So many times I have seen him sitting or wandering aimlessly on those side streets. He is not an isolated character. He is not alone, although he is almost always in his own company. The one thing you cannot avoid noticing, are his eyes.
While he sits smoking his cigarette, a grandfather holding his grandson's hand walks by him and waves. A group of children chase after a ball blissfully unaware of the melancholy man sitting on the stone bench. The neighborhood dogs lie in the sweet, hot sun, trying to warm their cold bones after a long and chilly winter, while a few of the newborn pups jump and trip over each other as they try to greedily get to their mother's milk.
Two young Molokan women, their blond hair tied in buns and carefully covered with a handkerchief, stroll with large plastic bags in their hands.
This is known as the Molokans' street in the district of Arabkir. Molokan families, moving from the northern regions of Armenia, have settled in different neighborhoods throughout Yerevan, including the street behind our apartment, where my friend sits.
He always has a hint of a beard, never quite a beard, and looks like he has a perpetual tan. Winter or summer, he always wears a gray, woolen hat. I see him on my way to work. Me in my car, he on foot. Either sitting or walking, we always manage to look at one another. I have never mustered the courage to smile or wave or acknowledge that I know he exists. But our eyes meet and what I see always is the barren, hollow stare of a very lonely old man. Perhaps he is not so old. He could be my age, he could be 60. I can never tell. But he reminds me of a friend from another lifetime, in another country, who continues to suffer in a prison not of his making. It always catches me off guard, yet it always draws me to him.
For two years now, our paths have crossed almost daily. We have witnessed the seasons. The only time we came close to talking was a few weeks ago, during a freak snowstorm. I had called a taxi that day to get to work and the driver, thinking that he could negotiate a small, steep hill around the corner from my apartment, skidded, and the car spun out of control and came to a stop in a snow bank. My friend, seeing that the taxi was stuck with me inside, its wheels turning uselessly, came running to push the vehicle to get it out of the snow bank. I was taken aback by his sudden spurt of energy and he looked almost clumsy as he was trying to run on the icy snow.
It was the first time I had seen him up close. I wanted to reach my hand out and thank him for his efforts but before I could roll the window down, the taxi driver managed to break free and drove off. I turned back to look at him, to say thank you with a gesture or a wave, but he too had already turned his back and was slowly walking toward his spot on the stone bench.
I wish I knew his story. I wish I knew what it was that caused his eyes to be so profoundly and hauntingly sad. Was it poverty? Was it a lost love? Was it a family tragedy? Was he simply tired of living?
We have forgotten about the countless stories that are being lived along the narrow side streets of Yerevan. We forget to see the humanity that is staring us in the face.
In a few weeks, I will stop taking my usually route to work. I will rarely drive through that particular side street. I will stop seeing the man in the long, tattered, gray coat. I wonder what will become of him. Will he wait to see me in the mornings at my usual time. Will he wonder what became of me? Will he miss our chance encounters?
I will miss my friend.