Got to chat with my oldest sister yesterday morning … something we’ve been making more time for on our Saturdays the past few months. We’re not religious about it, but it’s something I think we’ve both grown to appreciate a lot (I know I have). We catch up on each other’s worlds and weeks, compare notes on what we’re both reading or watching, recent updates on our other siblings, our occasional health dust-ups, our erratic sleep habits, etc. Yesterday she mentioned looking into a volunteer program (she’s done a ton of volunteering over the past several years) that visits with veterans, just to listen and chat, and, if they’re up for it, to have them share their stories. I told her she’d be perfect for that program. She’s a veteran herself, having joined the marines out of high school, which to this day makes me so proud and in awe of her. And she’s always had a heart for spending time with older people. This past week she visited with the mom of one of her oldest friends to help with eye drops for cataracts. As has become part of our conversational ritual, I had a smile on my face by the time we said our good byes and I Love Yous.
I was running errands when she called me, and as we wrapped our conversation I pulled into a parking spot outside the tiny little coffee shop off North Main Street. I’ve been dropping in Saturday mornings for a here’s-to-the-weekend espresso, and the accompanying smile and kind word from whoever’s working behind the counter. When I walked in, an older gentleman with a Hemmingway beard was warming himself by the fire with a tall to-go cup of coffee. A shopping cart with his belongs sat next to him. After placing my order I sat down at the table across from where he was, taking the chair near the wall, putting the table and its other chair between us.
He let me know I could move his cart if it was in my way.
“Totally fine,” I said.
“I refer to it as my portable RV,” he said, with a soft laugh.
After a couple seconds, he added, “Sometimes in life it’s important to know how to improvise,” and, after a few more seconds, “One thing I’ve always believed is that you never stop learning, no matter how old you get.”
For the record I am awkward and awful at small talk in all its forms, and generally avoid it at all costs. So much so that in my prior visits to the coffee shop I’ve carried a book with me to fill the few minutes it takes for the barista to make my to go order. Yet ….
It’s a good morning to be in front of a fire, I said, and, without giving myself a second to think twice about it, stood up and walked ’round the table to claim its other chair, removing the barrier between us. Making small talk, I asked him how he liked his coffee, and he said black, adding that that is THE ONLY way to drink good coffee. I concurred, but mentioned that my wife would disagree with the both us. He asked me if I had any kids, and I shared the ages of my son and daughter. He had two daughters, one 42 and one 19. I did the math in my head.
Me: That’s a big gap.
He: That’s, um, a long story.
Me: They live around here?
He: They live down south, near Donald and Mickey.
He said he’d lived in Florida for a while. Had lived a lot of places.
I asked him if he’d seen any snow flurries yet, which the forecast had called for. He said he’d encountered some big flakes about 3:30-4 in the morning. As I imagined him and his cart in our dark downtown streets, I dipped my eyes back down to my coffee.
But before I gave myself the chance to think twice, I asked if he had a favorite place among all the places he lived. He mentioned small towns I’d never heard of. In addition to his having spent a lot of time down south, I learned he’d gone to school in Connecticut and New Jersey, driven limos for a living in Jersey and New York, where he met some, um, characters … worked here and there up north … and, along the way, had experienced both grace and violence at the hands of law enforcement … the latter resulting in a broken back, and a long scar from the ensuing back surgery. “I refer to (the long scar) as where the batteries go,” and, again, offered his soft laugh. “I always try to look for the positive in life where I can.”
But he was born here, grew up in Laboratory, worked here, too, mentioning the local high school where my daughter goes.
Life’s a rollercoaster, he said, making up and down motions with his coffee-free hand.
We made small talk for a few more minutes, until he’d finished his tall cup. Then he stood up, and wrapped himself up for the cold awaiting him outside. Told me it was good talking.
Before I gave myself the chance to think twice, the words stumbled out of my mouth.
My name’s Pete, I said.
What is it? He asked, wanting to make sure he’d heard it right.
Pete, I repeated.
Don, he said, and extended me his hand.
Nice to meet you, Don, as I accepted it.
Nice to meet you, Pete.
He then walked over to his cart, and did a most remarkable thing. Turning back to the counter, he yelled a thank you for the coffee. Standing beside the cart containing all his belongings, he was nothing more or less than himself, and in full possession of all the experiences, stories and dignity that came with that.
He then turned his back to the door, backed himself and his portable RV outside, and with both hands tight on the bar, began walking against the cold towards Main Street in his home town, looking for the next climb of his roller coaster.
So, aside from the kind person behind the counter, I’m not sure I had ever previously spoken a single word to anyone else in the now handful of times I’ve visited the tiny coffee shop.
Had not Don let me know I could move his shopping cart if it was in my way, I’m not so sure I would have broken my streak yesterday. He went out of his way to put me at ease. Though he carried all of his belongings, and all the stories and scars of what sounded like a full life fully lived, he opened the door for our conversation just as easily as the one he backed his cart through when it was time for him to keep moving.
I’m also not sure I would’ve broken my streak had not my sister inspired me with her heart for sharing company with older folk before I walked in for my Saturday morning coffee.
Hell, I’m also not sure I would’ve broken my streak had not John Prine’s Hello in There brought me to tears the night before as I climbed into my warm bed … on the same cold night through which Don pushed his edited earthly belongings.
So on what was National Kindness day, I just wanted to say thank you to all of ‘em.
To the people who work behind the counter.
To my big sister Kim.
To the late John Prine.
For keeping me such good company in their kindness.
I look forward to getting to know each of them just a little bit better.