I thought I would be smarting for days after my encounter with Charlie, but I was fine. I’ve pondered our exchange a lot, and mostly find myself grateful that our paths converged. I got many encouraging emails and comments about the story, and am grateful for that as well. You readers are a kind and generous bunch, that’s for sure.
I can still hear Charlie’s voice saying “what’s so damaged?” and “hundred bucks a pop.” Mostly I’ve been thinking about my delivery. It’s felt very awkward lately and I’ve worried that I am “losing my touch.” But I realize that some of what was true for me ten months ago (!!), when I started down this path, isn’t so true any longer. The harsh white pain of my mother’s death has faded into a far-reaching gray smudge. And I can honestly say that I’m not the cheapskate I used to be. I am changed. This changes everything.
I made a promise to give away a hundred hundreds this year, and I’m sticking to it. I’ve started thinking that this is a promise I’ve made not only to myself but also to my mother. Connecting with strangers and surprising them with a gift is still a glorious thing for me. I can almost feel little bits of my soul getting stitched together every time. Perhaps there is a better way to honor my mother than by becoming less broken than she was, but this is what I can do for now.
That’s how I came to have a folded up hundred in my pocket today as I rode the MAX downtown. It had started out cloudy but the sun was coming out by late afternoon. You could almost feel people getting giddy as the blue sky widened. I took care of my errands and stopped to listen to a kid making music on a collection of turned-over utility buckets.
The streets were swarming and people were moving fast. A woman came toward me, a lovely smile and open expression on her face. I checked my pocket as she got closer, then realized she was having an animated phone conversation.
I was near Pioneer Courthouse Square and about to head toward the bus stop. I caught sight of a man down the block and heard a little alarm go off in my doctor brain. The man was attached to an oxygen tank; he was leaning against the building and breathing hard.
Black braids hung below his waist. I stepped a bit closer and the man glanced at me. “Beautiful day,” he said. “Sure is,” I agreed. “How you doing?” “Oh, I’ll be okay in a minute,” he said. “I just came up that hill and I need to rest a minute.” He cocked his head toward the street, which indeed was on a slight incline I had never before noticed. He was indeed okay and I breathed a little sigh of relief.
“I love this city,” the man went on. “It’s just so beautiful here.” He told me he had moved to Portland from Southern Oregon a few months ago, mostly to be closer to his doctors. “They’re really working with me and I’m doing much better now.”
He pointed up the street, the same direction he had been heading. “I’m going up there. To buy a bus pass.” I followed his gaze. His destination seemed impossibly distant. “Hey,” I said. “I wonder if you can help me out with something.” He didn’t hesitate. “I might.”
I started telling him that I had made a promise to my mother and had a gift to pass along. “I’ll accept a prayer,” he said. “It’s a prayer, right?” I said no, it was different from a prayer. I held out the hundred.
“Oh, I’m not looking for money, ma’am,” he said. I told him I knew he hadn’t asked for it but that I would like him to have it. “You can put it to use, right?” He smiled and said yes. “Everyone could.”
Then he pulled out his phone to show me a picture of where his mother’s ashes are buried. He said he doesn’t have a car but a friend had driven him to Crater Lake, where they were going to bury her ashes. “I was expected to pass away in 2007,” he said. “They were going to bury me there with her. But I’m still here!” Instead of Crater Lake, they found a beautiful spot on the next mountain over and that’s where she is now. He couldn’t walk too far and felt it was a miracle that they had found the perfect spot where they did. “I’ll be there with her when my time comes,” he said.
A woman came over and asked if he was Nez Perce. “No, Klamath,” he said.
I tucked the hundred into a little bag that was tied to his oxygen tank. He gave me a hug and asked my name. “And what kind of work do you do?”
I told him I was a doctor and he had a lot more questions. I said I really enjoy talking to people and finding out what makes them tick.
He pulled his phone out again. “Here, look. This is what makes me tick. They named her Lexie, with an L, because of me.” He showed me a picture of his granddaughter, an infant just a few weeks old. He said his name was Lincoln. He said I could snap his photo. “Wait a sec, I’ll take the tube off. Just for you.” He smiled.
We were saying goodbye and he gave me another hug. “Maybe I’ll see you around these parts again. I’d like that,” he said. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
I said he already had.
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