This is a true story.
It was not my typical Monday morning as my car was filled with tubs of the high school's benefit auction invitations that were headed to the bulk mail unit of the downtown post office. My goal was to be there at 7 a.m. sharp.
I hate the bulk mail unit. My experiences with that place deserve a blog entry of their own. Perhaps another time. Suffice it to say that I never leave there feeling the 5'6" I was when I entered. Those bulk mail guys (and they are all guys) usually whittle away about five feet of it. That Monday I hoped to deal with them before I was fully awake.
I made it to the bulk mail unit by 7:20 a.m., dropped off the invitations, and left relatively unscathed with only one joke made at my expense, five incredulous "how could you not know that?" looks, and three condescending remarks. On that basis, this particular trip to the parallel universe of the bulk mail unit I considered to be a mild success.
Having once again negotiated the world of bulk mailing, I decided I deserved a congratulatory edible. But what, exactly? As I drove toward work, I pondered where I should purchase my reward. MacDonald's? Winchell's? Burger King? Where, oh where? I passed a number of viable alternatives, finally settling on a small, Vietnamese-run grocery store that, although I passed it almost daily, I had never frequented before.
It’s a corner grocery store just like any corner store in any big city run by any Vietnamese family. As I went in, I noticed an elderly, white gentleman, a day's growth of beard on his face, wearing rumpled blue slacks (the kind that appliance repairmen often wear) and tennis shoes. He was seated on a stool drinking coffee from a cardboard cup. The store’s owners had created a kind of three-sided corral for their pastry selections, and this old man was seated on a stool in the midst of it. How dare he sit there and separate me from the comfort I craved?! Not wanting to ask him to move, I maneuvered to the beverage cold case to get some juice, hoping that in the interim the old man would move. Sure enough, he did!
As he slowly made his way to the cashier, I crashed the space he had formerly occupied, choosing a couple of items sure to boost my blood sugar quickly and ease the pain of my bulk mail unit experience. Despite the difference in our ages and weights, the old man and I arrived at the counter at the same time.
"Where's the nearest Washington Mutual?" he asked the young Vietnamese woman at the register.
She looked puzzled.
"The nearest Washington Mutual?" he asked again, louder.
"Um ... I think ... I think ..." She looked out the front window of the store, cars flying by. "Um ..."
I had to get out of there with those snacks!
"It’s that way!" I practically shouted, pointing east. Both the old man and the cashier turned to me. "The closest one is that way," I said more quietly. The cashier nodded and murmured, "Yes, yes."
"How far?" asked the old man.
"Probably about 15 blocks," I said.
The old man thanked me and then thanked the young Vietnamese woman for letting him sit and rest while he had his coffee, and then left the store, dropping his cup and napkin in the trash as he went out. Finally! I quickly made my purchases and left, knowing that in a very few minutes I would be alone with my well-deserved treats.
As I was getting ready to put my key in the lock of the car door, I noticed the old man standing just around the corner of the store. Just standing. I did a quick assessment of him and seeing that I was slightly shorter but three times heavier and about 30 years younger, I thought, "What the heck? If he gets out of line, I believe I can take him."
"Sir," I called. "I’m going right by that Washington Mutual. Would you like a ride?"
"It’s not out of your way?" he asked.
"Not at all. I’m going right by there."
"That would be nice," he said as he moved toward my car.
I unlocked my car door and climbed in, reaching across the seat to unlock the passenger side. The old man pulled on the door, and it creaked and protested as it always does because it’s old and sticks. He slowly sat down in the passenger seat, pulling in first his left leg, then his right. I waited to start the car until he got settled and put on his seatbelt. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a five-dollar bill and extended it toward me.
"Here. For gas."
I waved it away. "No, you keep it. The Washington Mutual is right on my way to work. I’m going right by there."
He hesitated, then returned the money to his pocket. "Okay," he said. "I just didn’t want you to think I was a bum."
"I can tell you’re not a bum," I said. And I could. Despite that fact that he was slightly disheveled, there was a dignity about the old man. He struck me as someone who had worked hard and lived simply, not needing or wanting much more than a comfortable home and a good supper at the end of each day.
We rode in silence as we pulled from the store’s parking lot onto the street that would take us to the Washington Mutual. The old man looked out the passenger window, watching the homes and businesses slide by. He sighed.
"You see, my wife died last Thursday."
"I’m so sorry," I exclaimed.
"The funeral was yesterday. I didn’t know it would be so hard. I cried like a baby. She was a good woman."
I looked over at him. Although his voice was strong, I could see his eyes were beginning to water.
"After she died, people told me, ‘You should go live with your son in Portland.’ So I thought about it and decided maybe I should. But, I heard my son and his wife talking last night. She was telling my son that I was going to mess up their ‘lifestyle.’ I guess I get up too early in the morning or somethin’." His voice trailed off and he was quiet again for a moment. "So this morning, I decided to go back home. To Albany. My son and her were asleep when I left. They don’t even know that I’m gone." He paused, then continued, resolute. "I’m going to the Washington Mutual to get some money out of my account. Then I’m going to the bus station and going home."
We rode a few more blocks in silence as I took in all that he had shared. "How long were you married?" I asked.
"We were married 58 years," he said, proudly. "She was 78 when she died. I’m 80. She was a good woman"
"That’s a long time to be together," I said.
"Yup. I can’t believe she’s gone. I can’t believe how much I cried at her funeral."
"Well, this is a big loss. You were together for so long. She was a big part of your life for lots of years."
"She was a good woman," he said again.
I spotted the Washington Mutual sign. "We’re almost there," I said. "Just a block and a half."
"I sure do appreciate this," he said. "I was going to try to walk down here, but I don’t know if I would have made it. The last two years, my wife was sick and I had to take care of her. I took real good care of her. But she was so sick. So I didn’t get out much to exercise like I used to do." He drew a breath. "She was so sick."
"Well, like I said, this was right on my way," I replied.
As we pulled into the Washington Mutual lot, I realized that it would be another half-hour until the bank opened. Slowing to a stop, I said, "Listen, this bank doesn’t open for another half-hour. But there’s another Washington Mutual on down the street. It’s in a Fred Meyer store. How ’bout I take you down to that one? Then you can get another cup of coffee or do some shopping while you wait for it to open or whatever. What do you think?"
He paused. "You know, that would be real nice."
I pulled through the lot and merged back into the eastbound traffic.
"Do you have any other children," I asked, "besides your son here in Portland?"
"Yup. Two girls, but they’re back in Florida. And I have a son in Lincoln City. He came over right after my wife died. But all he wanted was her stuff. I said ‘Take whatever you want.’ They were her things and they were things that made her happy. I didn’t really care about them so much. And without her there to enjoy them, it don’t seem like they matter at all anymore." He sighed. "She was a good woman."
"I know that she was," I said.
"I can’t believe how much I miss her."
"You were together a long time."
"She was so sick. Finally the doctors said there was no more that they could do. But I took real good care of her."
"I know that you did."
"She was a good woman."
"I can tell that you loved her very much."
We rode in silence the last few blocks to the Fred Meyer store and pulled in. I took him to the entrance closest to the bank.
"Well, here you go," I said.
"I sure do appreciate this," he replied.
Again, I waved it off. "No problem. Like I said, I was going this way."
"So, I’m going home," he said as he unbuckled his seat belt.
"I hope you have a safe trip."
He nodded and reached to unlock his door, pushed it open, and got out. He turned to push it close. As it often does, it made its awful creaking sound and didn’t want to budge. The old man looked worried.
"No problem," I smiled, "Just push it hard. It’s fine."
"Okay," he said. And then, "God bless you."
The old man gave the door one, two and then three progressively more forceful pushes until, with one final protest, it gave way and closed. The old man gave a wave, then turned and walked into the store.