Old Men Selling Socks

on the disgusting privilege we thrive in & the invisible people

There’s an old man who sells socks at the night market a few blocks away from the high rise I work at. He has sat there, under the same building, the same socks in shades of white and gray and black spread out in front of him for as long as I can remember. I recall thirteen year old me peering from where I was sandwiched between my aunt and my mom, holding a lamb skewer in one hand and marveling at how his wrinkles folded over his gaunt figure in a gross fascination.

I am in college now and he still sits under the same building in the same browning wife beater and rubber flip-flops. When I was thirteen I observed him in the way children gawk at the old — scientifically, wondering how a person’s skin becomes too large for his shrinking body and how the spots of brown form on his hands. When you are thirteen aging means turning sixteen and getting your license. Now I am eighteen and I know what the word hospice means and how exactly an undertaker lowers a coffin into the ground. When I am eighteen I see the old man’s layers of wrinkled skin mottled by decades of the sweltering Taipei sun, the sunken eyes that watch the white tourists admiring overpriced egg custard desserts and the shrieking girls buying dinner together after work. None of them need the socks he sells — socks in all sizes made of the same generic polyester in the same monochrome shades of white and gray and black.

I don’t need the socks he sells. I walk quickly past the building he sits under whenever I frequent the night market. It is easier to forget he sits there when I visit the night market with friends from the states, to drown myself in the bright fluorescent lighting of the food stalls and arcades. But there is vulnerability in walking alone: I see the mother chasing her screaming toddler, the girl who sells jewelry trying to rip off some tourists who don’t know better, the young man folding peanut and ice cream into thin translucent rolls. I see the couple feeding each other pieces of cotton candy and I see the old man selling socks, sweat dripping off his permanently hunched back in the unforgiving heat, looking at the throngs of people that move fluidly past him and his white and gray and black socks.

I earn 150 US dollars from my internship this summer, a position that was secured for me through a family friend. When my friends joke at what they think is a measly amount compared to how long I sit in a white cubicle, I laugh along, although for the amount of work I am doing I should be paid nothing. I sit in my white cubicle and think about what 150 US dollars can buy me in Taipei — a few afternoons in the cute and overpriced cafes in the shopping district, the discontinued Levi 800s I saw in the vintage store downtown. When I am overseas I am playing with paper money that comes in blue and red, lifted out of my daddy’s bank account and deposited in my expensive wallet, a luxury gifted to me by a distant relative I’ve probably seen twice in my life.

Tonight I am walking alone. The bourgeois glamour of the brightly lit food stalls, the thick aroma of fried squid — it no longer feels like the motherland I romanticize Taiwan to be. The tacky fluorescent lighting illuminates all the people I want to forget: the disabled man who sells Doublemint for fifty cents a pack, the scruffy woman holding her child behind an empty red basket, the old man selling socks under the shadows of a building.

For the first time since I was thirteen I see a young man around my age pause before the old man selling socks. He picks up a few pairs, five for three US dollars, without checking the size or color. I move almost mechanically — I pretend to peruse the socks that all look the same before handing five pairs to the old man. His hands shake with age as he takes my pink bill and puts it in the plastic money container next to him. I am handed a plastic bag full of socks I have no use for.

It is then that I realize that my watch reads 10:12 PM and there are two pink bills sitting in the clear plastic. The night market has been in full swing for over four hours and he has earned six US dollars. Six goddamn US dollars that can’t even pay for half of a fucking Panini from my favorite sandwich café in the shopping district. I am eighteen and I see a man shriveled and weathered from time, an old man in his nineties who still carries the same socks on his permanently hunched back to sell at the same night market every night in the same relentless heat. I am eighteen and I wonder where the sons and daughters of this old man are, if they are watching his ghosts in the forgotten corners of their homes. The old man selling socks is resigned to the stool he sits upon under the building that casts shadows darker than the night. I wonder who he was before he became the Old Man Selling Socks. I cannot bring myself to look at his face. I know I will see tired eyes that remind me of my mother’s.

The socks lying before him blur into ugly grays until they are nothing but a writhing monochrome mass of cheap polyester fabric and plastic price tags. An acquaintance wore the same shade of black when I spent a brief afternoon with him in the city.

“This isn’t just any black shirt — it’s Alexander Wang,” he had said. “Got it for a hundred.” He laughed and called me “sheltered” when I told him I preferred spending the night in than going to the bars and drinking until I forget my last name. I wonder now if he’s getting wasted and posting blurry black pictures from nights he can’t remember. I will take my paycheck from an internship I didn’t earn and spend it on fashionable white and gray and black shirts and caps I’ll find childish by the time I graduate. I will look around me and see people wearing clothes the same fucking color as the socks nobody needs.

The bag of socks in my hand is indescribably heavy as I walk home tonight. Within the plastic holds all the people I do not want to remember and the Old Men Selling Socks I have ever walked past in a stifling haze of privilege and shame. The Old Men Selling Socks follow me back to America, where they wear dull gray uniforms as they mop the shiny floors of Silicon Valley startups and shovel snow in secondhand boots through the indefinite Syracuse winter. They carry invisible weights on their shoulders, moving rocks up hills they can barely see the top of, only to wake up every morning and start over. The Old Man Selling Socks will carry gray socks on his back tomorrow and my acquaintance will slip on expensive gray sneakers and call strangers bitches before buying drinks for them behind his girlfriend’s back. I will see a viscous sea of white and black and gray figures that look almost human under gaudy fluorescent lights and I will see the same tired eyes I once saw in the suffocating heat of Taipei.

There are Old Men Selling Socks all around us — let us not forget that they exist.