Day #2 of 100 hundreds. Back home in Portland, enjoying a few more days of vacation before heading back to work on Monday.
Some days you just know you’d better pay attention, like there are lessons to be learned around every corner. It started when I was at the gym this morning. A woman got on the machine next to me and started fussing with her iPod. “Oh, my God!” she exclaimed. I glanced over at her but she didn’t make eye contact. “Shit! Oh, my God!” There was real distress in her voice and I snuck another look, checking to make sure it was in fact an iPod. How can you get such bad news from an iPod? It’s not like you can read a tragic headline or email.Â “Shit!” she repeated a few more times.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” she sighed. “It’s just that I downloaded a podcast of the audio tour at the Picasso exhibit and now I can’t seem to find it!” Wow, I thought. Really?? “It’ll probably be fine,” I assured her. “I do that kind of thing all the time, think I’ve lost something and it’s usually right in front of my face.” I felt mildly embarrassed for her, as well as for myself and all the times I’ve gotten WAY too upset about stuff that really doesn’t matter. Which, when it comes right down to it, is pretty much everything.
After the gym I stopped at the store and was chatting with the cashier. I asked how 2011 was treating her so far and she said,”Good. I’m not complaining. If something’s not working, either fix it or let it go. I learned that a long time ago.” That’s a good one.
More errands took me to the library and the dry cleaner, and I decided to peek in at the antiques mall across the street on NE 42nd. You can rent a booth, put a bunch of stuff in it and hope someone sees something they want to buy. These places are kind of creepy and fascinating to me, like sneaking a look into a old aunt’s closet.
Upstairs there’s an upholstery shop, coffee shop/tavern and hairdresser, along with a post office where you can pay your utility bills as well as do the usual post office-y kind of things. The whole setup feels like it’s out of a different era, and the clientele fit right in. I thought about getting a cup of coffee at Aunt Tillie’s but decided against it. As I was heading out, I saw a man standing outside reading a sign posted on the door. He was in his 60’s and hadn’t shaved for a few days.Â He stood there for a long time, then came in and made his way toward the counter of the post office. He walked slowly, like it hurt.
I turned around and followed the guy, watching as he stepped up to the counter and spoke quietly with the woman working there. “You want to pay the whole thing?” I heard her ask. He said he did. “It’s two forty one.” He had his wallet out and I saw that it was thick with bills. He took out a few twenties, then a bunch of smaller bills. It took a while. A couple of people got in line behind him; one guy shuffled impatiently from foot to foot.
The man had a mournful gentleness about him that intrigued me. I watched as he walked haltingly over to the coffee shop and placed an order at the counter. He bought two Lotto tickets and stuffed a few singles into the tip jar.
I bought a cup of coffee and watched as he went over to the machine to check his tickets. I stepped closer. “Any luck today?” He almost looked at me but not quite. “I won four dollars,” he said. “Well, that’s something!” I said, but it didn’t feel like much.
When he sat down to wait for his food I sidled up next to him and asked if I could talk with him for a minute. “Oh, sure,” he answered. Even though I’ve done this a few dozen times by now, I still am never quite sure what I’m going to say. I told him my mom had died recently and I wanted to give him something in her honor. “Actually,” he said, speaking as hesitantly as he walked, “My mother died recently too. It’s just been a couple of months.”
I sat down with my coffee and asked his name. “Steve”, he said, then he started to talk. His mother had lived with him for the past ten years and, even though she was 87, her death came as a great shock. “Actually, I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “I figure I’ll live another ten years or so, and I don’t know how I’ll get by without her. We were really close.”
I had a flash of the man he might have been a year ago, when his mother was still alive and all was right with the world. Would she even recognize this stooped elderly fellow, resigned to a grim and lonely existence for the rest of his days? I told him I was sure his mom would want him to be happy and that I hoped he would accept my gift. I held out the C-note.
“Oh, I couldn’t take that. I don’t need that,” he said. “Well, if you don’t need it, maybe you know someone who does.” I held it out toward him a little fartherÂ and he took it. “That’s very nice of you, very nice,” he said. “I think I’ll donate it to the food bank at the church. They need a lot of groceries for people.”
As Steve started telling me what a giving and charitable woman his mother was he brightened a bit. She loved her work as a house mother for a number of fraternities at the University, and always told Steve he had 1000 brothers. He told me that Christmas alone was really hard, but he did something he thought would mean a lot to his mom. She loved dolls of all kinds, especially Barbie. He bought a whole lot of dolls and other toys and brought them to his church to be given out. “I decided I’m going to make something of what’s left of my life, something that would make her proud.”
The waitress brought Steve’s food over in a paper bag, the top rolled down like a school lunch. “Here you go!” she said cheerfully. He looked at the bag sadly, and shook his head a little. “This week’s actually her birthday,” he said.
I imagined him eating his sack lunch alone. “That’s gonna be tough,” I offered. “I’ll keep you both in my prayers.” Sometimes I sure surprise myself, but that’s exactly what I meant.
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