I did some math. He must’ve been about 80, 85 years old, which means he must’ve been born between ’35 and ’40. That makes him too young for World War II, and fifteen years old at the start of the Korean war. They didn’t ship 15-year-olds to war, did they? The next closest war was Vietnam, and that went on for 20 years, so he could’ve deployed anywhere between his 15th and 35th year.
I decided, then, that he must’ve been between 15 and 35 years old when he lost his legs. Probably in his early twenties.
Meanwhile, it’s the summer after my freshman year of college, I’m 18, and I spend my time driving for DoorDash. I leave my house at around 4 p.m., wait for my phone to give me an order, and then do its bidding. I drive to sushi places, pizza parlors, burger joints, ice cream salons, taquerias, Chipotle, Thai restaurants, noodle shops, and, occasionally, McDonald’s. I park, unplug my phone from the aux cord, head in, and ask for any take-out orders. I see couples on dates, men eating alone, high-schoolers socializing. I hear the rustle of silverware over the loud hum of voices, and, if I’m lucky, I get to see what’s going on in the kitchen.
The cooks are playing insouciantly with fire, clanging stainless steel pans on the gas ranges, flipping sautéed dishes in the air with reckless abandon. God, they make it look easy. Then, the host will come out with a plastic bag tied up with a knot on top, and I leave the cacophony of life for the confines of my 2011 Honda Fit, a small red car that should look cooler than it ever does. I turn the engine on, put on “Your Cover’s Blown” by Belle and Sebastian, and make my way to someone’s home.
They might live in the hills, or they might live by the highway, but they get their food delivered to them by a dejected college student all the same. Regardless, I dash to the door, knock, and hand the person their food. DoorDash, the great equalizer. I came to learn that the name that appears on the app is practically meaningless. Curmudgeonry, misanthropy, bonhomie, and vivacity know no names.
I repeat that sequence some ten or fifteen times. Drive, enter, wait, leave, drive, knock, smile, leave, drive, and so on. Sometimes someone is visibly drunk, or abnormally nice, and it stays with me for the next delivery or two. At this point, with nothing clear in the future, I graciously accept an iota of kindness wherever I can find it, like a dog scavenging for a lost treat. Somewhere between an overlong time behind the wheel directly related to a singalong session in the haven of my Honda, I decide to go home, where I heat up some leftovers, and after having spent so little time with so many people, I sink into the couch and let the day wash over me. It’s not a bad life. It feeds something in me, my curiosity, my extroversion, my restlessness. But, I’m still hungry.
One evening, I take an order from Curry Up Now, a local chain offering decent Indian street food (on an admittedly flawed scale, if Trader Joe’s frozen Tikka masala is a one, which is underrating it, and Zareen’s is a ten, Curry Up Now is about a six) sometimes in the form of gimmicky mashups like naan pizza. I pick up the order without a hitch, but when I see I have to deliver it to Louis at the local Veterans Affairs, my heart sinks a bit. It’s far, and the food won’t be as fresh when I get there, so I feel disappointed at the faceless Louis on my phone for even ordering something for himself so inconvenient to begin with.
I make my way over and get lost. I pride myself on having a decent sense of direction, but the VA and its 40 parking lots constitute some sort of perverted labyrinth, where buildings have numbers but aren’t numbered, and there’s nothing to distinguish them. I’m supposed to go to X but I have no idea how to get there. I call Louis through the app, but he won’t pick up. I send texts and texts, and I get radio silence. Am I getting left on read by someone I’m delivering food to? So, I sit in the parking lot, alone and hungry, calling DoorDash service to find the quickest way to eat this meal without repercussions. They tell me to wait 30 minutes, and if I hear nothing after that, the meal is mine. I put on a podcast and let the countdown begin.
The food, now certainly cold, is filling my car with the aroma of saag paneer, garlic naan, and samosas. Just as the timer is going to run out, and I can treat myself to a Dionysian feast inside the prison that is my 2011 Honda Fit, I get a text from Louis. It’s frantic and apologetic and quickly guides me to his location. It was surprisingly easy to find.
I enter the sterile hall whose walls are decorated with war memorabilia and find myself among seniors, nurses and administrators. And right there is Louis, who sees my bag, calls my name, and makes his way over in his wheelchair. Louis is old, Black, and has no legs. He is probably hungry too, yet he still treats the petulant child who was about to eat his saag paneer with kindness.
“Is it good?” He asks me. “I haven’t tried this place yet.”
“It’s one of my favorites,” I tell him.
Cover photo courtesy of Stephen Lam at Reuters