An encounter in the grocery parking lot changes Greg White’s resolutions for this and every year.
I started off the New Year with my usual refusal to make resolutions, based on the fact that they are broken quickly. I’d rather do all the stuff I should be doing, all throughout the year.
I try not to listen to it, but a list rants in the back of my mind: eat less fat, manage stress with breath, read more than I write, learn another language, etc. I’m blessed with an amazing partner, terrific health, and I don’t want for anything. I sound like an asshole, someone you’d crucify and not want to resurrect. My list begins to shift from Put my iPhone down, Save more money, Stop watching network news, into one nagging thought that keeps popping up like a clown I want to pound down with a sledgehammer—be kinder.
Last summer, I started smiling at all homeless people I encountered, silently wishing I could buy them all a home where they would be safe from whatever made them so desperate, instead of just ignoring them. Everyone is just another version of me.
As I walked out of a grocery store recently, I saw an old man standing there. I practiced my new benevolence and bestowed a smile upon him as I passed. If I owned a tall, bedazzled gold hat, he’d have thought he’d had a papal blessing.
Did you drive here? I kept walking, hoping that he was talking to someone else. But I turned my head around, towards him.
Yes, I said, sounding more like, Duh.
Can you give me a ride home? he asked.
There wasn’t time to think of another answer. I’d be glad to. Wait here, I’ll bring my car to the curb—be right back.
B-r-b, he called after me. I could hear him smiling as he said it, which made me smile. Being made to smile, to me, is like a mini orgasm. I savor the sincere rush as it courses up my body and causes that oh-so-good, lip-curling reaction.
As I drove my car to the front, I realized I had no idea how far away he lived, and hoped I hadn’t done something stupid. Why didn’t I just give him money for a taxi? This is exactly why I stopped making charitable contributions when I was in a good mood.
I parked in front of the store, and jumped out to help him in my SUV. A store cashier was helping him walk around my car. Thanks for taking Frank home. Take good care of him; he’s special. We try to do it on our breaks but no one can right now, she said as she handed me his two bags. I took Frank’s strange groceries and held them out and away from my body like I was holding my mother’s purse while she tried on a dress.
Be careful, don’t break the eggs. My old lady will kill me if I bring back broken eggs. I quickly looked in the bag to make sure they were intact. He’d only bought half a dozen. I loved his optimism, but suddenly felt sorry for Frank, imagining him the victim of elder abuse at the hands of his old haggy wife, beating him with a spoon and withholding sex privileges.
I won’t break your eggs, I hopefully assured him.
He settled in the car, and I figured he was hard of hearing so I reached over and fastened his seat belt to stop my car’s safety beeping. He swatted my hand with his old, veiny, knobby-knuckled hand. I thought, My hand will look like that one day. He had taped a little card with his address on the shaft of his cane. He saw me see it, and moved the cane between his legs, defensively explaining, In case I get lost, or lucky. He looked out the window. Sometimes I get confused, he admitted with humble regret.
He told me he lived very close, but I didn’t care—this was fun. He instructed me to turn right, and then left at the first light. He had a faded tattoo of an anchor and some words blurred by time and wrinkles on his forearm. Frank’s tattoo was old school, the kind done in New Jersey before the artist wore rubber gloves and checked that you were sober.
I asked him if he’d been in the Navy. He had, and in the five-minute, well-directed drive to his house, he boasted that he had lied about his age to enlist at sixteen and served in WWII. He was proud that he kept up his deceit for an entire year. He made it all the way to Italy, where he saw sights he never dreamed of, war action and he got to talk to older, beautifully exotic girls. When he told me of the girls, his hands made the universally understood va-va-va-voom outline in the air of a curvy, busty woman. He laughed and slapped my dashboard when he reached her perfect, invisible ass. He wanted a career in the Navy, but he got busted by an asshole of a Commanding Officer, and was sent home because of his age and the fact that he didn’t weigh enough. I was like a toothpick. I hadn’t met my wife yet.
I loved this guy! But I didn’t tell Frank that I had been sneaked in the Marine Corps by taping a lead weight to my crotch, because as great as that story is, I knew my time with Frank was precious and limited. I thanked him for his service.
I took the left turn at the light, signaling at Frank’s insistent request. He didn’t lose the spot in his story, and laughed about his fellow shipmates who made him sleep in a net hammock, sometimes outside on the deck, since he was the smallest. After he got kicked out of the Navy and sent home, Frank spent the next year eating, and re-enlisted on his actual eighteenth birthday. He went back to that same ship, and held his head high as he peeled endless piles of potatoes he never ate and washed pots taller than he was. Jesus Christ, he was at Normandy!
We pulled into his retirement community, and I wanted to keep talking with him, to find out what he’d done for each of the seventy years since WWII. I wanted to hear his politics and his impressions of technological development. But he did the shopping for several older people in his building, and they get grumpy if he keeps them waiting for their cottage cheese and bread. That’s all he had in the grocery bags besides the precious, coddled eggs.
I asked him how he usually got to the store. He told me he just stands on a corner, waves his cane and someone always stops, sometimes even a familiar person.
As I drove away, I regretted not giving him my number. I’d love to give him a ride anytime, and his any of his old, grouchy friends. We could be like a little Cocoon Platoon and I could herd them through the grocery store aisles. I could unhook oxygen tubes caught on the deli case, and reach for stuff on high shelves. They could shop with whatever reckless abandon their fixed income allowed, and I’d get some great recipes and probably some weird, non-applicable lectures.
Frank seemed happy, and now I know what I want for not just this New Year but also every moment. Live in the moment, goes on my list.
I used to write television. Network execs and producers get excited about new college graduates and staff their shows with twenty-somethings. I don’t understand this practice—sure, maybe Stanford teaches great story structure, the way to smash cut to a chase scene, maybe how to cram eight jokes per page and blow every scene on the star of the sitcom, but it makes more sense to me to hire writers who have actually lived, and can easily pull great, colorful, true-life stories out of their pockets, along with a useful Kleenex.
There’s a novel and a movie in one year of Frank’s life. I bet if I took his groceries upstairs his old lady wouldn’t be as mean as he makes her sound, and that if I shut up for five minutes I’d have my next writing project.
I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in Love. You can replace the word Love wherever you see God written. So I replaced want with need in the following list of desires for this and every year: I need to look people in the eye, I need to listen, and I need to stop text conversations by sending, Can I call you?
I want more time with Frank.
Image credit: archangel 12/Flickr