I was walking toward the 15 or less aisle at Safeway the other night. Just as I was about to slide into home, an older black gentleman got there before me with a cart full of groceries.
He turned to me and said, “Sir?”
Of course I’m thinking that he’s going to tell me to go ahead of him since I’ve only got a handbasket with a few things and he’s got a full cart.
He says, “Could you give me a ride home?”
“Could you give me a ride? My ride left me and I don’t have a way to get home. I paid him, too.”
My mind, of course, starts racing. I’m thinking of all of the reasons why I can’t give this stranger a ride. It’s late. I’m tired. I’m in a hurry, because I’m later than usual and Leika hasn’t been to the bathroom (I hope) for almost ten hours. I mean, I’m beat. The weather was horrible. Very cold and raining.
And out of my mouth comes, “Where do you live?”
Damn it, me.
He lived in the direction I was going. So I told him I was kind of in a hurry — as if that would do any good — and that I’d give him a ride.
He proceeded to talk to every single person in the vicinity. The cashiers, baggers, managers. It turns out he had worked there until aobut a year ago.
Someone asked him how his wife was doing and he said, “Oh, she passed.”
He tried a bunch of different gift cards before one worked and generally proceeded like many elderly people do at a grocery store check out counter. Like it’s a social outing. Time for conversation and catching up.
Someone asked what happened to his wife and he said, “She had a heart attack.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You two were together a long time, huh?”
“Twenty years. I cry every night.”
I paid for my things and he was still conversing with the ladies who worked there. From his conversation I learned his name and his family situation and all manner of other things. He had left two business cards next to the ATM/Credit Card interface so I picked them up and gave them to him.
We made our way to my car. The rain had picked up and it was cold, wet, windy and nasty. Every time I offered to do something, he’d say that he could do it. There were two young guys hanging out near the store exit and before I got into the car I turned to size them up. Just checking. If anyone’s going to fall into a Samaritan trap it’s me.
On the way to his place he gave me directions. He told me that he couldn’t know why God took his wife so early. That he was one of the ministers in his church but hadn’t been taking care of people like he should.
I didn’t know what to say to any of this. His general openness. I said, “Well, what can you do, y’know. You have to take some time for yourself. You can’t take care of other people if you can’t take care of yourself.”
He used to be in the military, the Navy. Didn’t like Virginia at first, but his wife was from here so he moved from DC after he got married. A forty year old friend of his died of a heart attack recently. His wife used to work at the Pentagon and on 9/11 five of his wife’s close friends were killed. Not just coworkers but the kind of friends where you get together and play cards or go out for a girls night out. Another, who had never missed a day had called in sick that morning. Her desk was right against the wall that had been hit. She couldn’t go back to work and had to get therapy.
We got to his house and he went in to get some help. Some relatives came out to get the bags. You don’t know how relieved I was to see that at least he wasn’t alone, that he didn’t live alone. He had said how hard this Christmas was going to be, the first Christmas without his wife.
I got into the car and before I took off he came back out of the house and offered me money. I refused, of course and told him that he should get a refund from his ride because they only did half the job.
In full disclosure, I have to admit that the whole time I was trying to make sure that this wasn’t some kind of scam or that I wasn’t going to be rolled somewhere along the way. I had flashbacks to that Flagstaff incident. My mind switches gears sometimes into survival mode. I start thinking in more bleak terms like, “If anything’s going to happen … do I leave the car running or not? Running. If for any reason I need to stagger away wounded I could make it to the car and gun it. For fight or flight.”
Don’t ask me why I think such things. Maybe too many movies and action adventure thriller books.
All of his conversation at the counter said otherwise, though. People knew him and lord knows he wasn’t keeping any secrets.
He was just a friendly, chatty oldster getting his groceries who needed a ride home. I thought about the recent election and all the politics. I thought of some of the news that day, the religious right and the in your face atheists. (I’ve got nothing against atheists, but what kind of person takes it upon themselves to wage a religious war? To kill god in a man?, to quote Yann Martel.) I thought about all of that in the context of this regular person going about his life. The folks in the twilight years of their lives.
I can’t remember which movie this is from where one of the characters says, “I’ve reached the point where life stops giving you things and starts taking them away.”
Like, this is Main St., USA. Getting along.
Good luck and godspeed.