There is one good, middle aged man in my neighborhood who was born with a certain degree of disability due to which he has numerous health problems. I didn’t even know he existed, nor that he lived just several hundred meters away from me, because only in the block of adjacent buildings where I stay there are more or less 1,000 souls, not to mention that this whole area of the town with these same buildings consists of 13-14 such identical blocks. In reality, we are one entire little town by itself, condensed in not that much vast land area, there are so many people living literally ones on the top of others packed in apartments with mostly insufficient number of square meters yet you rarely know the person living next door, not to mention somebody from a different floor or in a different building within the same block. It wasn’t like that in the past, not even in that not very distant past when we moved in here a bit more than 30 years ago. People cared more about other people and life wasn’t so much about material possession and personal vanity as it is now, I sincerely and dearly miss that country called Yugoslavia I was born in. If I were still living in Yugoslavia (and I’m not, even though I haven’t moved an inch away in these last nearly 4 decades), the man from the beginning of this story would be in much better shape today. He would have completely free health care, some personal income due to his very legitimate disability issues, access to daily meals for people with income problems. He would have some dignity in this life and more people on the block would know he existed and offered some help, because social services would work on his integration in the community.
In his twenties, he used to live in Yugoslavia as well, and his father’s company helped him the best they could by letting him work in the company’s kitchen for their workers. He carried things around and peeled some vegetables, he had some little income and full insurance – those were the best days in his little unfortunate life, days before the world slowly but definitely started tumbling down on him.
Yugoslavia got torn up in pieces, swallowed by its own inhabitants who turned against each others, failing to understand that the consequences of these actions would harm only themselves and no one else. His dad’s company first suffered the beginning of a bad economical crisis. Then his dad passed away, failing to buy off their living space from the state in the midst of that crazy stellar inflation, as we all did and thus literally saved ourselves. His dad’s company eventually had to be restructured in the process of privatization, obligatory in the transition towards capitalism, but nothing prevented bankruptcy from happening. He lost his little job and remained with his mom who inherited his dad’s retirement money, as she didn’t have any income of her own. Life went on while his mom could take care of their lives in every possible sense, but in the end she passed away too several years ago. And this is when life stopped. He remained completely alone, lost, in Serbia now, with no means to live this life and expired ID, hidden among us with no electricity, with unpaid bills and no food for days in a row. He can do some things, but he needs to be told exactly what to do and he has to be partially supervised, which makes it almost impossible for him to find some kind of stable work position in this country. I found about him for the first time when an old lady involved in an organization for saving stray dogs moved in with him to help him out in exchange for the accommodation for her and the dogs she took care of. Things got better for a while, bills got payed again, there was some food on the table every day… but the lady’s age is such that she progressively needed more and more help for herself, and somewhere by the time my dad declined she left the man’s place as it seems for good. Dogs were took over by the organization, the lady was accepted by some relatives and he is alone again, growing older himself and becoming more and more helpless as time goes by. My mom helps him with food as always in these last years as much as she can, but life has hanged for us as well. I remember that in the middle of my worst panic ridden despair when I didn’t go anywhere, I secretly and deeply feared that I would end up like him and it scared me to death. Those fears returned all right with income problems and the shock my dad’s passing away caused in my little life.
I saw him today. I turned round the corner as he was emptying some huge bag of high class garbage into a container, obviously a chore he was asked to do for someone in exchange for an equivalent of a dollar or two, or a sandwich for that day. It was a sad contrast to see him, a man in a clearly very neglected state and torn clothes, throwing away very expensive waste items. My heart sank as I said hello to him, he wouldn’t notice me otherwise as his vision deteriorates heavily as well. He knows about my dad from my mom, so he asked how we were doing. We were standing in front of that container, the sky was heavy and black as the depths of my soul, and this person who’s lived genuine hardships asked me if I was coping, when the right question would be if and how he is coping. I said I was managing, somehow. He looked firmly at me and smiled, saying: “Hey, hang in there. You have to. Got it? HANG IN THERE.” Then he waved goodbye and wandered away as I stood in disbelief. Honestly speaking, what does he have to hope for in this world? He is doomed to soon lose even the bed he’s sleeping in when bills accumulate again, this time to the point of no return. He would have all the right to totally give up. This person who has sometimes hard time getting simple things wanted to make sure I got it that I had to hang in there. Ashamed, sad, amazed, humbled, shaken… that’s how I felt returning to my realistically really modest home, I have no idea how it feels to be wealthy or even just well off. I looked around me and thought… what would he give to exchange places with me and have my life, with all its hardships? Probably everything. It would be for him as if somebody had taken stars of the sky and spread them in front of his feet. Or it would equal touching that distant sky above us. He would be extremely happy. And I’m so miserable.
How is it possible for people to differ so much in the same circumstances? No matter what, if somebody like him tells you to hang in there, then you really have to do it. Such messages can’t be ignored.