A segment of the article by John P. Weiss struck a memory that's been rolling around in my mind for some time — like a rock in a tin can making noise. I hope he’ll forgive my borrowing such a long quote:
If we slow down and pay attention, there is grace all around us. It’s when you get a letter from a long-lost friend, out of the blue. Or a child hands you a flower. Or someone helps an elderly woman carry her groceries.
Rollins calls these moments of grace “the infinite call of the other.” And it’s up to us to respond to those calls and pay it forward.
It may be the lonely woman sitting across from you on the bus. Or the weary cashier in your local grocery store. If we are truly our brother’s keeper, then why not commit little acts of grace to lift their spirits?
I expect John practices what he preaches.
In 1990, after twenty or so years, Ilene and I reconnected — said more truthfully, she went out of her way to look me up. If you want the full story, you can find it in the blog, Free Spirit, a decent version of meeting cute. Twenty years and we hadn’t spoken a word, then she looks me up. If that doesn’t make a body sit up and listen, there’s not much else to say.
But this piece is just a memory fragment from the time we renewed our time together. In 1990, I was living in a dreary apartment complex known as Southern Towers that had seen better days, built not long after World War II which was quite apparent. Out on my own, separated from my wife — and stressed for being separated from my kids. I was living in a one bedroom apartment on the 13th floor in Alexandria on the outskirts of DC — overlooking I-395 feeling sorry for myself.
We’d been talking long distance (remember the bills?) for hours at a time. I had driven down to visit her on several occasions, met her daughter, mother, sister and niece.
One day while still at work, I got a call from Ilene saying she’d made the drive up from South Carolina and did I want to come home (ha!) and let her in? It’s about a nine hour drive from where she lived (still lives), and seems she’d driven it straight through, so she’d made it in less time than expected. However since she hadn’t even told me she was coming that weekend, it was totally unexpected. As the story in the blog says, ‘free spirit.’
But here’s what Weiss’s writing reminded me of: when I got off the elevator, she was sitting in the hall by my front door, smiling because I don’t remember when she wasn’t smiling.
“The lady next door asked if I wanted to wait inside her apartment. She said she didn’t know you. How many of your neighbors do you know?” in her sweet southern affection— no mistaking where she came from. Down the hall, you could already hear Telemundo TV broadcasts and smell at least one early Indian dinner being prepared.
Actually, the only person I knew in the entire building was the woman in the first floor management office, to whom I’d hand the rent check. She was a polished and proper middle-aged southern woman who seemed out of place in a building filled with immigrants. She had an apartment in the building — probably in lieu of a living wage.
New York City’s reputation for immigrants is well known, but Washington DC and its near suburbs run a close second. And back in 1990, Southern Towers was one of those landing spots in Washington where thirty or more native languages were spoken by cab drivers, bricklayers, maids and laborers from every corner of the world making their way in America — cheap rent will do that — and the same goes for the newly separated.
I probably responded to Ilene’s question with something like ‘well, these are temporary digs. I don’t plan staying too long,’ and her expression said, “So?”
“Well Bill, you really should get to know your neighbors,” saying it with such complete aplomb I couldn’t argue. She obviously knew everyone in her hometown, she knew everyone at work, stories about their families, boyfriends and so on — in a way I’d never taken the time to know.
It helps not to be a dour-faced man with an interior conversation always going on —it also helps if you’re cute as hell when you smile, but with her it went way deeper. Ilene had been like that since we’d met twenty years previously, open to the world. Not naive, she’d never been naive, just open.
You can see it in the photo. I could always find it in her eyes.
In recent years, especially now with everyone wearing face masks and hunkering down, worried, maybe lonely and distressed — I feel the need to talk to those I encounter walking the neighborhood, ones I know and ones I don’t recognize, I feel this obligation to say good morning, nice weather, how’re you doing? the trivial ways we talk to strangers when the real purpose is to tell them someone else knows they are alive.
And particularly the grocery store workers, UPS drivers, garbage collectors— I make sure to say thank you, sir, to the butcher and the fish monger. If I come on a dog running loose, I get him back to his family. If a dark faced Uber driver or deliveryman asks for directions… the roads can be confusing… I try to get them going again.
The Amazon driver whose truck broke down last winter in wet, freezing weather, and she was afraid they’d fire her for breaking the truck, so I asked if she needed to keep warm inside — I’d knock on neighbor’s door. Silly, accidental encounters.
When Layla the Husky and I meet someone we recognize, we stop and talk for real and she says hello with her own style of talking husky.
Ilene would approve. “For heavens sake, boy, of course!” And I thank John Weiss for the reminder.
It’s really the core of who we are as living creatures. Layla curls up at my feet because she wants to be connected, always. OK, she doesn’t like cats, but no one’s perfect.