Conversations with few words, Part II: weird karma and the old man

When I got back to the dismal ticket office with the long wait, all the seats were taken. I looked at the board: 292. My face was still flush, but not leaking as much and the coughing was under control. I was planning on ignoring the daily limit on those throat lozenges, popping a new one in my mouth as soon as the last one had dissolved. Just a little while longer I told myself, and I’d be resting at the hotel.

Every couple of minutes I’d look over my shoulder to see if a seat hadn’t been freed up, and after a while came a gentle tap on my shoulder. It was the older woman I had asked about the pharmacy. She was motioning to me to come sit. I’m not sure my face was capable of a smile at that point, but I’m sure my relief showed. I settled in nodding my head and muttering gracias as many times as I could muster. She asked if I had found the pharmacy. She seemed genuinely concerned.

There were children playing and clearly some of the people sitting around me were related or together. Who was with who, however, wasn’t so clear. People seemed to start conversations easily, which isn’t my experience in France, so it was hard to know (added to the fact that I only understood a word here and there). Then I realized someone was talking to me. She was extending me a ticket. I took a closer look: 361, otras días. Oh wow, she was offering to shave my wait off by 40! She motioned to another ticket she had and I gathered that someone else had given her a new ticket too.

Maybe that’s how it worked here. People come and go, some decide not to wait around and tickets get exchanged. And she chose to give hers to me. In my dire state, I was feeling blessed.

To my right sat two young women from China who seemed confused about the ticket numbering system, so I butted in to their conversation to explain the two lines: the one for people leaving today, and the one for people leaving any time after today. They seemed relieved to have found someone who spoke English and maybe knew some things, and started asking more questions. They wondered, for example, if their credit card would be accepted at the counter. We examined the card together and concluded that they’d better get some cash just in case, since it had no international Visa or Mastercard logos on it. Then they asked, “Do you know if there is another ticket office?”

I felt a pang, like a distant memory that I couldn’t quite place. These girls were traveling to France too and wanting to leave the following day just as I did. I saw the word “hoy” imprinted on my mind and said, “No, I think this is the only one.”

The old man was not in good physical shape and yet somehow managed to move about with considerable force, dragging behind him a suitcase on wheels without making use of them. I had seen him wander back and forth through the ticket office and now here he was in front of me looking longingly at the row of occupied seats. Just a few minutes prior, a young woman had given up her spot to an elderly woman. To my left was a gaggle of scantily dressed school girls. Not seeing any of them budge, I begrudgingly rose and offered my place to the old man.

But just as soon as he was sat down, he called me back over by way of snapping his fingers repeatedly – he’d gotten the gaggle to scoot down and made room for me on the bench. Then, he wanted to talk. Except that he couldn’t talk, he was mute.

The conversation started casually with an exchange of gratitude over us each having a seat, then on to the long wait ahead of us. The board was over 300 at that point for otras días and somewhere in the 700s for hoy. He showed me his ticket: 512. In light of my knowledge of the numeric system, I assumed he must be leaving una otra día, and went about trying to confirm. Through strings of words that didn’t form complete sentences and lots of hand gestures (but mostly my logic that the 500s were after the 400s and before the 700s), I was satisfied and took out my old ticket that was still stuffed in a pocket and offered it to him.

He seemed skeptical at first, but when it sank in that the ticket I was giving him was a mere 401 to his 512 he perked up. We were all happy, for a minute. His attention turned quickly toward the group of adolescent girls with their short shorts that couldn’t be any shorter. Apparently that’s a thing these days. He would try to talk to them, and then he would try to talk to me about them.

His intentions were unclear at first. He would point to his eye and then gesture to the girls, then tilt his head back and his chin out to the room. There was a sentence in there somewhere, if only I could decrypt it. This continued on and off for a while as he struggled to communicate and no one could figure out what he was on about, and we all started wondering if his intentions weren’t altogether inappropriate.

Finally he brought out a pad and pencil and tried to write them a message, but when he showed it to them, they mostly looked on in wonder and shrugged him off. Curious, I tried to inquire with them as well – what was the old man on about? But they shrugged me off too – either the message wasn’t worth translating or was incomprehensible. Maybe both.

The old man didn’t appear to know sign language. His writing was almost illegible. I wondered to myself how long he’d been without a voice. I took a photo of his message with my phone and set about trying to understand it.


After playing with the spacing of the letters a bit, Google Translate spit back, “you go girl has stepped skirt.

At which point I decided I didn’t have the energy to pursue the question, despite feeling mildly entertained by the whole thing and having nothing much better to do while I waited.

But the old man grew increasingly agitated, and that’s when I noticed the young man. He was tall and good looking, dressed in long, tight denim shorts, a muscle shirt and sandals. He was clean and well coiffed, and he had no bags. He also seemed to be quite interested in the gaggle of pretty girls, who were probably a couple years younger than he was.

As I was sizing him up, another young man, decidely not as well dressed or clean or coiffed, but of similar age, came in panhandling. I said, “Lo siento,” and he moved on without a fuss. The old man was clearly not happy and things started making sense. The old man didn’t like these young men. He didn’t trust them and he was worried for the young girls. Pointing at his eye I heard him say, “Keep an eye on these guys, they’re up to no good.”

I was relieved because I really liked the idea of the old man as gentle protector much better than that of old perv.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity and the girls were calling to the old man, telling him he was up. He seemed confused, but he gathered his suitcase with wheels that he didn’t use, and went in search of the ticket counter supposedly calling his number.

I was confused. I was also running a fever. I looked at the board. Otras días had just passed 340, and hoy was in the 500s. Wait, what? The old man was back again, it hadn’t been his turn. The girls were asking him where his ticket was – he showed them the one I had given him. “No, your other ticket,” they asked. He motioned that he didn’t have it anymore, he had thrown it away.

My heart sank. I realized in that moment the mistake I had made, one that I couldn’t fix. I asked him again, “Are you leaving today or tomorrow?” He was leaving that same day. My ticket was of no use to him, and he had thrown away his original ticket, the number for which was now up.

I felt awful. And I had to explain myself…somehow. It was one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had, and not because I didn’t speak the language or because the person I was trying to speak with couldn’t speak at all, but because with the best possible intentions I had utterly failed this human being.

In a strange twist of fate, the protected became the protectors, and in a new flurry of activity of which only groups of young girls are capable, they fluttered off with the old man taking him under their wing and to the ticket counter where their numbers were all coming up. He gave me a stern look as he was brisked away, a look that I took to say, “Damn you, but it’s okay.”

The girls were gone, the old man was gone, the panhandler was long gone, and the wolf in young man’s clothing eventually disappeared out into the corridor not to be seen again. I popped a throat lozenge and savored it until my number came up.

The irony when I got to the ticket counter and heard the word, “No,” was almost too great to bear. The man behind the counter was shaking his head and time slowed to a standstill as it sank in that I had waited—subconsciously knowingly—in the wrong place this whole time. This was the national ticket office. Larga distancia only meant that it was for trains leaving the city, but within Spain. International travel was somewhere else. I of course knew where that somewhere else was…

A minute out into the corridor, I quickly turned back around and went to find the Chinese girls to tell them the news. I had already wronged one person that day…

The happy ending to this story is that the wait in the international ticket office was very short and I was soon after in a taxi to the hotel, all set with train tickets for the next day. Do I believe in fate and karma? I most certainly do, though I will never pretend to understand either, nor want to.