Five People

I do not know their names. Our interactions were brief and distanced. And, I would not know them if we were ever to meet again. Yet, these five people have had an outsized impact on my life. Here they are in chronological order:

1

It’s the first day of first grade. I’m riding a big yellow school bus to Miami Heights Elementary. We pull into the circle drive. And, while were waiting to disembark, a tall man with a grey beard wearing grey sweats jogs by and gives those of us on the driver’s side of the bus a smiling wave. Of course, as kids, we all enthusiastically wave back. He greets us the same way the next day and the day after that. He greets us the same way every day of first grade and second grade and third and fourth and fifth grade. Every morning, no matter what, he jogged the circle driveway. Bad weather did not stop him. He showed up. The attempted assassination of Ronald Regan did not stop him. The next morning, he showed up. Adults don’t always show up. This adult did. His smile, his wave, his awkward tall-man-way of jogging by was a reassuring, patterned presence. I am sure he is gone now. But I strive to be his kind of adult.

2

“Do you think he’s cutting his grass?” my Mom would ask in anticipation. “I hope so” my older sister would answer. And, if he was, my Mom would slow down the Oldsmobile as we took the curve in front of his house. He lived on Bridgetown Road. His yard was immaculate. Whenever he cut his grass, he cut it shirtless. And, with his Tom Selleck mustache and hairy chest, he was the embodiment of mid-to-late-80s American masculinity. “That’s a man” my mom would say. “That’s a man” my sister would say. So, nowadays, when I’m cutting my grass, I sometimes think of him and think about taking my shirt off too. And, sometimes I do. Because that’s how a man cuts his grass.

3

I bring the customer’s keys into the waiting area. The waiting area is a sparse room with cold tiles, plastic chairs, poor lighting and Valvoline posters on the wall. Except for the plant in the container in the corner, the waiting area is devoid of life. We only have one customer. He’s a small man. Jewish. In his 50s. And, he’s sitting with his arms and legs folded around his body in such a way as if to take up less space than he’s not already taking. My co-worker comes in wiping grease and grime onto his Jiffy Lube jumpsuit. I hand him the keys and linger. It’s summer. It’s hot. And, the waiting area is air conditioned. “Your car’s ready, sir” my co-worker says. Our lone customer checks out. And, as he pushes open the door to leave, he turns his attention back to us, points at the plant in the corner and says “This plant is living thing. You have a responsibility to take care of it.” And, with that he leaves. My co-worker shrugs off the slightly severe admonishment with surprised laughter. I give my co-worker a I-want-to-fit-in-so-I’ll-smile smile. But I was moved. I had never seen another person go out of their way to defend the well-being of a plant. Not even a tree. His words cracked my armor that day. That crack led me back to gardening.

4

It’s 9/11. I’m ignoring the sidewalks and walking the streets. The birds, the bees, and the trees are going about their day, normal paced. I ask them “Do you not know what has happened in New York City?” I envy their predetermined patterned lives, their lives of instinct. A car comes down the street. I step to the side. It slows down, crawls by. I look at the driver. He looks at me. And, we hold each other’s gaze in mutual slow-motion grief. I’m white. He’s black. I’m in my 30s. He’s in his 60s. I need him. He needs me. And, for a few moments, until the B-pillar of his moving Buick broke our link, we helped each other carry our sorrow that day.

5

Dillon is only a few weeks old. Kyra’s holding him. And, I’m holding them as we gaze out over the Pacific Ocean from Yogananda’s cliff-side garden/retreat. We’re here to say goodbye. We’re heading back east. And, as we turn to leave, a multi-generational Indian family is walking up the palm-lined steps. We smile at them. They smile back. Their elderly patriarch pauses in his ascent, holds us in his eyes, and says “Have a good life.” It may not have been his intent; but he confirmed our decision that day. He let us know that going back, coming home, raising the new life we were holding in a place with humidity, all four seasons, deciduous trees, thunderstorms with lightning and the smell of decomposing fallen leaves was right. And, it was.

Five people. Five stories. Five reminders that we matter. All of us. Even when we don’t think we do.

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Thanks. — shawn

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Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash

the blue collar professor

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Shawn Humphrey

Shawn Humphrey

the blue collar professor

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