Last Thursday came rolling in like the Pacific Ocean, gently and with purpose. By 6:30 AM, the yawning sun lit the rooftops on my block with a soft glow as alluring as candlelight. As I stared out the open window of the attic, I inhaled the fertile air reeking of spring. Already, red flowers blanketed the bush in my front yard. I sensed it would be a great day, but I had no idea what blessing lay in store.
I was off that day and decided to celebrate my good fortune weather-wise with a leisurely drive through Rock Creek Park. I got dressed, fixed a bowl of Raisin Bran, read the paper, and then headed for my car around 9:30. One of my favorite routes is to take the Parkway from uptown all the way down to the monuments. I often stop just before the zoo exit to listen to the water gurgling over heavy boulders. Thursday was no exception, and I spent a good half hour just keeping time with the music of the rocks.
Back in my car, after passing under the comforting eaves of the Watergate, I moved to my right and then edged towards the street adjacent to the Dr. King Memorial. I secured a great parking spot just diagonal to Dr. King’s statue, rolled down my window, and listened to vintage soul music and my twisting thoughts.
The enormous white rocks framing the memorial’s entrance sparkled in the sunlight, and the Tidal Basin just beyond appeared lazily lost in its own business, were it not for the fat, white cherry blossoms framing the portrait with majesty. Each time I visit, the look on Dr. King’s face changes. I like the imposing statue facing the Lincoln Memorial, but cannot decide what Dr. King seems to be thinking. At times, his folded arms and stern face suggest anger and disappointment; other times I see only conviction and strength. On Thursday, the unusually warm day gave his countenance an aura of serenity, and that idea pleased me.
I took Georgia Avenue for the ride back home, stopping at Howard University for a stroll. Whenever I walk the grounds, I imagine the young, optimistic girl my mother was in the faces of the co-eds streaming in and out of class. I think of my in-laws holding hands along the campus green. All attended Howard. I make a note to take my students on a tour of the campus one day. I want them to taste what knowledge yields.
Back on the road and nearing my home, I veered into my neighborhood CVS parking lot for a quick purchase. As I entered the store, I noticed an elderly man leaning against the side of the gaudy, brick building. His hands tightly squeezed the red handles of an empty shopping cart. He seemed lost. I preceded into the store and bought the chocolate-topped butter cookies I craved. Upon exiting, I turned to where the man had been standing. He was still there, a lonely figure in grey pants with a deep ironed crease and a blue stripped shirt rolled at the sleeves.
His arms were thin, and he leaned against that shopping cart as though his very life demanded it. He felt my stare and turned his head towards me. “Are you OK?” I asked in as casual tone as I could manufacture. I remembered news stories about Alzheimer victims losing their way home and wondered if he would be lucid.
“Are you going to Northwest?” he asked in a voice stronger than I expected. I placed his age at around eighty.
“We are in Northwest,” I said. “Do you know where you are going?”
“I have been standing here for two hours waiting for a cab,” he said. “I took one here to get my medicine, but he wouldn’t wait for me.” Then he looked into my eyes, paused for a moment, and asked, “Will you take me home?”
“Do you know your address?”
“Yes,” he said and then told me. I was not exactly sure where the street was, and neither was he. He remembered something about North Capital–it is the way my daughter goes, he said–and I imagined I could find my bearings from that.
He had a hard time walking over to my car, parked not fifteen feet away. When he reached the curb, he slumped his head down on my hood and gathered his resolve before lowering his leg slowly down onto the ground. He wore expensive-looking loafers and no socks. I held the car door open and pushed the passenger seat back as far as it would go. He still struggled getting into the seat, slowly lifting his left leg up and over the door jamb with both hands cupped under his knee. I had seen my own mother make that same move too many times.
“The cab came that way,” he pointed, and off we went. I asked him why he had ventured out. Did the weather speak to him also? He volunteered that he battled late stage prostate cancer, and the need for medicine brought him to the pharmacy that day. “I can’t walk much anymore,” he said. “The cancer makes your bones brittle. My right leg is still pretty good; I got a hip replacement back in ’91. But the left is getting so weak.”
As I made a lucky guess down a side street not far from his daughter’s home, I asked him, “Why didn’t your daughter just pick up the medicine for you?”
He hesitated before answering, “Every time I ask her to do something, she just gets upset. So I do it myself.”
As we turned onto a street I had never driven down before, and he began to recognize where he was, I saw him reach into his pocket and pull out some crisp dollars from his pants pocket. “What are you doing” I asked. “I don’t want any money from you, and I will not accept it.” It turned out his daughter only lived about twenty blocks from the store.
“This isn’t money,” he said. “It’s appreciation. You didn’t have to do this. It’s just appreciation.”
“Thanks, but don’t. I insist you keep your money. I was happy to help,” I said. And I was. As I drove away after letting the man out at a neighbor’s driveway which had no curb, I felt good about what I had done with my Thursday. I helped somebody just because he needed it. It made me remember all the little things people do for others, not headline worthy, but valuable in the way human beings too often forget–including me.
For all the difficulties and miscommunications we face, there is always an opportunity to find in another person a better part of self. Then I realized that the look on Dr. King’s face is the look of hope and generosity–and the underlying frown simply comes from the weight and courage it sometimes requires simply to give a damn.
Granting that man a ride did more for me than for him. Maybe it gave me a chance to right some wrongs. I think part of me became a teacher because I am convinced that we–like firefighters–get a partial pass to Heaven’s gate.
That was why not taking the money was so important to me. My mother never drove, and she was always doling out “gas money” to neighbors for a lift up the hill. As I child, I vowed to never, ever ask anyone to pay me for taking someone where I was headed anyway.
That evening, I phoned each of my daughters and told them about the man. I shared with them my renewed understanding that giving is a gift, and I made them vow to never leave me standing for two hours waiting for a cab to go twenty blocks.
“You know, Dad,” my youngest said after laughing. “There probably is a serious back story to all that. No telling what he put her through growing up.”
We both chuckled, but I secured the promise anyway. Later that night, while readjusting the passenger seat, I found four folded dollars neatly tucked under the floor mat. I guess the last laugh was on me.