You can sometimes feel the most alone when you are in a crowd.

In the waning days of summer, in mid September, I walked through a street festival in Chicago. It was warm and humid still. Winter seemed impossibly far away. And everyone was more concerned about the band on the stage, the arts and crafts being sold by vendors, and navigating around baby strollers and dogs on leashes.

There were so many people.

But in one corner, one bubble of emptiness, there was no one, except this one man sitting alone. With all that was stirring around me, he seemed impossibly lonely. I’m not sure if it was because of the way his frame slouched on the sidewalk, or the fact that he seemed disconnected into his smartphone. Maybe it was both.

How gaping lonely he seemed against the backdrop of street music, food simmering, merchants selling, people walking and talking, and children running.

He might as well have been somewhere completely different.

I almost went up to him to ask if he was OK. I wanted to make sense of him. Was he waiting for someone who had not yet arrived? Was he tired after spending a few hours at the fair, and was checking messages to find out where to meet friends for dinner?

Of course, I did not approach him. That social kindness seems old-fashioned somehow, belonging to a time and place other than our own; a gesture that is out of place in the now and here — forcing us to remain aloof, apart.

Instead, I walked past him, hoping to glean some clues. But the music was too loud, he too small in the concave space of his own world.

So, I had to be content to let him remain a mystery; a symbol of solitude.



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