03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Veterans Day: Dusty, Faded Surprise

What the...I told the passenger's side rear view mirror of my car when I saw what it showed.

I'd just found the only legal parking place on Moorpark near Van Nuys in Sherman Oaks. All I had to do was parallel park fast and maybe I'd make my meeting on time.

Car all lined up, in reverse and ready to roll, I glanced at that rear view mirror and saw a man in a wheelchair with his back to me, rolling leisurely into my parking space. When he stopped, he turned his chair a bit and I could see his profile.

He had straight, messed up gray hair like a 60-year-old Dennis the Menace. He wore a dusty, faded army jacket. He had no legs.

He looked briefly in my direction, then turned away. I waited with my turn signal on, but he didn't budge.

I put the car in park, got out and, managing to be somewhat courteous, said, "Excuse me. Sorry to ask you to do this, but I've got to get to a meeting and there's no other legal space around. I don't want to hurt you, so I'd appreciate your moving back."

I got in my car. Nothing. I switched into reverse. When he saw I was serious, he grumbled something I was probably better off not hearing, but he finally steered slowly into the red zone behind the space.

I parked and got out and we looked at each other. His eyes were glazed-over blue and he stared through me. His face was simultaneously wrinkled and blank.

"Don't forget to feed the meter," he taunted. Surprised, I heard myself reply in that same tone, "Thanks."

Walking away, my first reaction was amazement at how present and lucid he was despite his appearance. Then I felt ashamed.

The guy was unpleasant but not threatening, and he was obviously in bad shape. I hadn't been mean, but I hadn't been especially gracious either. Then I went to my meeting and stopped thinking about him.

An hour and a half or so later, I returned to find him still there. Somehow he'd maneuvered his wheelchair up the curb to the sidewalk right above my car. "Hi," I called as neutrally as possible, and he replied "Hi," civilly.

I unlocked the driver's door, then felt compelled to say, "I don't want to insult you, but could you use some money?" He stared at me without expression. I opened the door, and heard him say, "Okay."

I pulled out a few dollars, walked over and gave them to him, walked back, opened my door again and looked at him. He said, "It's just so hard..." and I nodded. He continued, "to move."

It took a second to absorb that. I said, "I understand," as if I possibly could. Not knowing what else to do or say, I kind of smiled, got in my car and drove away.

I've never seen him again, though I've spent the past five years parking my car and walking that same block.

If we did see each other he probably wouldn't remember me. Anyway, all I could offer would be to help get him VA services, probably a long shot these days. Maybe he wouldn't even want my help.

But I remember him-- every time a street person asks for money (I always give), when a man holds up a cardboard sign reading something like "Viet Nam vet. Will work for food," when news stories cover veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, struggling to cope with crippling injuries and PTSD.

I remember him when I see soldiers honored, especially on Veterans Day. Wish I could do more. Wish he knew.