Empathy, Part Infinity

Fog blows in over Pleasure Point bringing a chill to an otherwise warm, spring afternoon. Coasting up on my bike to the liquor store with blank windows, this will be the last stop of my day and I am not in the mood to talk with anyone. This isn’t news, really; people bother me, but I know how to handle spontaneous conversation.

Dave Wood seems to know me, but we have never met. His breath smells of vodka, which has affected his speech, and he seems to have begun the conversation well before I arrived. His tense smile reveals two missing teeth.

“Look at all that hair on your face. Some people lose hair when they get older – what are you, 80?” He removes his baseball cap to expose a full head of unwashed and uncut grey and blond hair.

As I unpack my messenger bag to work, I sense Dave needs to be acknowledged in the way he wishes – my smile and minimal eye-contact while I work are not sufficient.

“I’m 52, but I’ve seen some things,” I replied calmly. “Raising kids will do that to ya. And I think the beard is just my hair migrating from the top to the bottom of my face.”

Dave is not amused. My history is closely guarded and I will share only with those whom I trust. I don’t know Dave’s backstory, but I was about to find out.

“My 16 year-old son doesn’t talk to me. Well, I can’t find him. I don’t know where he is.”

He goes on with a stream of consciousness, becoming louder and slurring his speech further.

“I used to be a professional fertografer, man. Then I was riding a bike this one day, up to Sand Point, ya know? I wasn’t wearing a helmet and now I have this detached retina. Do they pay you to tape this paper to windows? You think I could get a job there? I can’t ride bikes anymore though.”

He claims an expired poster I had removed from a window while regaling me with his story and happens to be carrying a brand new black Sharpie, which surprised me. I gave him my first name and showed him the patch on my bag with my company’s contact information, which he wrote down, misspelling every word, including my name.

Dave becomes increasingly agitated when foot traffic from the liquor store flows around him as he is standing directly in the path to the store’s entrance. I gently guide him to one side of the entrance to avoid people, who walk by with an obvious effort to not look at us.

After talking about West Side vs. East Side homeless politics, and my overlooking his tangent about women’s grooming habits (I don’t know where some of this came from – I mostly listened), his face relaxed and his eyes became soft, like he was going to cry.

“Thank you for talking with me, Rob. No one gives me the time of day if I ask. I will remember you.”

Dave doesn’t need to know what time it is. Dave needs to know someone cares, even if they can’t help.

—-

Every day I ride my bike for work in this town, I encounter homeless people. I don’t know for certain if they choose to be on the streets or if they are trying hard to become active participants in society. No one can know for sure without an evaluation. Being around people, strangers in public, makes me anxious, but I have to do it sometimes. One of the things I am good at is feeling a person’s pain even if I don’t know the origin, and making them feel a little more comfortable, which is contrary to my own anxiety.

This post was inspired by a teacher I follow on Instagram. Kindness is not just absence of malice, it must be active and one must be aware of their surroundings to make it count for all it’s worth.

Everyone has a backstory. Know this before you say one word to a stranger.

Twenty Minutes Fast

A young girl stands in the doorway pressing the screen on her mobile phone, oblivious to my need to enter the building. I am not in a hurry. Her jeans may be a size too small, her shirt may be an undergarment. Had I not known how to read a calendar, this could have been 1984. I ask politely if I may pass and she smiles and steps to the side but does not break eye contact with her phone.

The only television in the place features a baseball game. The clerk behind the counter is the owner of the deli, efficiently taking orders with a smile as the group of hungry high schoolers begins to filter to booths and tables.

As I unpack my messenger bag and get to work, I can feel eyes on me while I quietly remove old content from the store window and replace it with current, upcoming events. Who is the white-bearded man, older than any of their parents? He’s too young to be retired, but too old to be putting up posters for music festivals in local storefronts.

Thirty-four years ago I roamed the same halls these students walked to get here – the deli is right next door to the high school from where I graduated. I feel these students watching me and immediately think of The Breakfast Club, when Carl the jancarlitor enters the library. You all know the scene.

These kids have no idea who I am or where I have been, or that I am from here but in a different time.

Just a short couple of years ago I was making six times as much money in the IT industry, working in a cubicle Monday through Friday. This felt…normal for a man my age. This is what we do before we retire and play golf or watch Murder She Wrote at 1:00 in the afternoon while we wait to die. Riding a bicycle to deliver parcels and post playbills is not where I saw myself at 17.

Or 47 for that matter.

An urge to stand up and gather the attention of these young minds was overwhelming, but I did not. These children, discussing weekend exploits at parties, video games, music, and sports didn’t seem to have a notion of what happens outside the walls of adolescence. I remembered being that young and thinking the world will take care of me, from my first job to my last. From my wedding to my retirement.

I was unprepared.

The message would have been to begin planning for your future immediately, because the world changes faster than a clock can tick, especially in this modern era. If you’re not careful, before you blink you will be 30 years old and a young parent without a career, scraping by doing what you are good at to put food on the table. All of your money will be spent supporting a family rather than saving, and before you know it you are 50 with a meager nest egg and a need to work for the rest of your life just to survive.

Truth be told, no one cares that much about who I am or what I do. They were probably looking at the big white beard and thinking this is what I do in retirement for fun. Regardless, I felt like Carl the janitor, doing a simple job and brimming with ample amounts of wisdom.

Yeah, my existential crises are pretty tame and yeah, my kids are probably pretty tired of it

Rapture

Ninety-nine percent of the time my writing is about love or melancholy or a feeling of some sort. Rarely do words fall out attached to a name. Lately I can be found at the bottom of a barrel scraping up words to begin a sentence. A conjunction, anything to tease out the feeling inside.

One time a girl inspired so much writing I couldn’t stop. Pulling over to the side of a road to document a poem on the way to work, waking in the middle of the night to save a thought before being consumed in a dream, exiting the shower to write down a seed of an idea before it fleeted.

And then I was alone. The words stayed for a while, but rather than tapering and fading, one morning I awoke to silence. She was gone.

If ever again a woman inspires such rapture within me, I will need my hands on her body, her lips on mine, my fingers wrapped in her hair and my name on her breath. She must be that close.

It’s Not As Bad As It Sounds

Fascinating. Intriguing. Mysterious.

Just a few of the things I have been called by people who read me or speak with me privately. Of course I am flattered because they took the time to say it; compliments dressed in reality in a virtual world.

My life is pretty simple and I like it like that. The only effort put forth is to be as real and as honest as I possibly can. This is why rejection hurts so much; there is nothing else on which to blame a departure when I am not hiding behind pretense.

The last rejection nearly killed me. I used to joke about dying inside, but now I’m actually standing over my own grave. She was special, an unknowing muse responsible for all of my smiles in nearly a decade. Concentrated, saturated emotion soaked up from the cracks of a dying heart. Frankly I was surprised to even hear her voice once, to see her, to exist in her world. I have said on a couple of occasions girls like her don’t talk with boys like me. That used to be all about confidence and self-esteem, but now it’s more about time and water flowing under bridges.

Time has always been my problem, be it in years apart or stations in life or duration of time spent together. Out loud, the conversation sounds like a pity party, but on paper it makes a little more sense.

Or a little less sense because how can this much…nothing happen to one person?

The look on the bright side crowd will tell me I had this small collection of really good moments, but my interest is thus far in volume. When I am able to more consistently collect good moments, perhaps then I will believe a little bit in fate and her plan.

Right now I visit my own grave each morning and go about my day so when night comes I can sleep and spend a little time dreaming anew before the daily mourning for dreams I once had.

History

This piece was written well over a year ago and is about a date I never had as a boy, and as a man, felt like fate’s apology for a rough adulthood.

—-

A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile…

The 1972 Monte Carlo pulled out of the driveway at Arbor Lane, with Don McLean singing rock n’ roll gospel over the radio. This vignette summed up my history to age seven as we left Chicago, headed for California. My family was leaving everything I had known to this point, with me largely unaware of why we were fleeing suburbia.

Until then, Lisa Sartore was the only woman in my life, and let’s be honest, she was quite a woman.

Ok, she was a girl, and I was a boy, and we liked each other.

We commuted to and from work together and talked about our day on the way.

Ok, we walked to kindergarten holding hands, and I kept her safe by always walking on the traffic side of her like we were driving while we discussed the finer points of arithmetic and spelling.


After the move I changed schools every two years, with the exception of grades four through six. This afforded little time to form friendships or God forbid, fall in love at any point in my childhood. When we’re young, time isn’t really a concern when it comes to matters of the heart. Like the Cubs, there’s always next year. (note: the Cubs have since won the World Series and I don’t know what’s real anymore)

The cost of such neglect is that no history was formed. No pain was endured. No lessons were learned. Everything I look back on is fresh, like new fallen snow where angels should be.

Part of what has always caused me pause about high school reunions is that, having moved around so much, there wasn’t much time to leave an impression, and those who left an impression on me would likely not remember me. There’s a big gap in history there, and as I’ve often maintained about the past, time is the one asset we cannot reclaim.

Without detracting from who I have become since the days of holiday dances, pep rallies, football games, and passing a girl in the hallways between classes, that lack of shared history with anyone leaves a vacuum. Returning to a place where nothing moves and nothing changes is the same every time, even if the motivation for the visit is not. We all have a history, but some of us return alone because no one else knows about it.


It had been months in the making. First, a comment regarding The Smiths. Then, a volley about kitschy socks and a tattoo, followed by more conversation in private about, of all things, histories. What had happened in thirty years? Who are you now? Who were you then? How did we get here?

Again, who were you?

Much of me had expected something like this to happen someday, and that same part of me also wondered exactly how real this could possibly be. We never shared a class. We never spoke directly. I’m pretty sure I was that guy from the City who had returned to the Valley (eight years gone) to go largely unnoticed.

She remembered me, well, because she is extremely sharp, and because on the Yearbook team you have to know everyone. I remembered her, because she was the girl I was going to ask to Prom all those years ago, but she was seeing another boy at the time (as she reminded me).

On the day of the date, I did nothing different. There were no nerves. It was easy being myself because who I had become was good, and I trusted the process. Climbing into the car, I set out on the road toward a history that never existed; nothing but a memory on which to base a possibility.

The old highway to the City was dark, and uncluttered by the residue of Friday night traffic. Without history to guide me, I was driving toward Destination: Uncertain, and I could not wait to be there to see it.

Working without a shared history is walking a tightrope without a net. There’s no safety there, but sitting and watching is not an option. I press on, risking grievous injury to my soul because this is who I have become, and this guy needs some history.

Hold On

The most beautiful impossibilities are the heaviest to hold and their sharp edges cut already bleeding hands trying desperately to hold on long enough to find some reality within. The alternative is keeping my grasp empty, but dreams do not form well in a vacuum.