a true story from Gut Check: Random Snapshots of Humankind, a story collection of mine.
I remember $13 Stella was playing that day as I struggled to write. Music wiggled into conscious space and effortlessly distracted me, as always – another playlist with simple chords, this one morphing to the complex fingerstyle guitar of Mason Williams tunes – Sunflower, Train Ride in G, Long Time Blues, Le Chanson de Claudine, Classical Gas and I’ve Heard That Tear-Stained Monologue You Do There By the Door Before. I was snared, caught up in the tunes, fingering chords in my head like a drunk in a bar, three sheets in the wind, imagining himself Clapton or Emmanuel.
Music – that irresistible side door, a vortex that pulls … and transports to jaunts down winding back roads, alone, in an intimate conversation with another, or in great company in a symphony concert. Time escapes unnoticed, like a cat burglar. But I’ve run ahead, … or backward.
* * *
That day, I arrived on the 271 from Seattle shortly after 6:00 a.m. in a cold, pre-dawn, blowing rain that typifies the wet side of Washington State in February – or most of the year. The day’s forecast for intermittent snow and ice loomed in the back of my mind. Way too early for sensible folks to be out and about, it felt. But I had decided the night before to go, no matter what, because I had to finish an appellate brief due in just over a week, had left all my research at the office in preparation for a no-clients day of editing and rewriting, and hoped to do some fun creative writing in the window of time between my arrival and walking the last block to the office in Skyline Towers in time to open at 8 a.m.
The slow ride across the lake on the floating bridge respun the gauzy web of sleep that had been interrupted by my early alarm, and by the time the 271 pulled into Bay 5 of the Transit Center that stretches between 108th and 110th Streets and sits conveniently across from Starbucks in Bellevue’s commercial district, my mind had begun to lose resolve, thanks to the forecast and the bus driver’s parallel stop in Bay 5 with the exit door positioned inches away from a gushing downspout that splattered a sheet of rain into the exit. Six a.m. on such a nasty morning is no time to mess with paying passengers, but no matter the protests from us, the driver seemed virtually delighted as he stared back at us in the rearview mirror and mutely refused to adjust position.
Ducking, I jumped through the spout with as little exposure as possible and dashed fifty yards through shallow puddles crossing the street to Starbucks, my attaché slamming from its shoulder strap into my side with every stride. The wind almost unhinged my shoulder and the door as I pulled it open and lunged inside, where I stamped on the weather mat and shook like a half-drowned Labrador, then stepped to the counter to order. A line quickly grew. “Doppio espresso macchiato and bacon-gouda-and-egg sandwich,” I said, already visually choosing my seat in the back of the store when my hot drink and sandwich arrived with a nice smile and ‘thank you.’
I set my cup and sandwich bag on the small table between two comfortable leather chairs, then doffed my trench coat and hat and settled in to write with pad and pen. But loud chatter was intensifying as more coffee addicts arrived – another damned distraction. Nibbling at my breakfast and gulping my macchiato, I watched the last stragglers alight from the first surge of Friday buses and set course for offices or Starbucks in this city beehive of commerce, noting that most of them seemed calmer than I was feeling. But their calmness was not to be lost on me, I reminded myself as I picked up my pen and began to write – just what, I can’t remember.
As the familiar, folksy opening lines of $13 Stella began to play from the sound system, I looked up with a smile, as if to an old friend. Hadn’t heard that song in a coon’s age, and it brought comfort and warmth to me like a familiar old favorite flannel shirt, raveled around the collar and cuffs, but welcoming me with warmth as if from a crackling oak fire.
In that same upward glance, my eye was drawn to a commotion at the entry that snapped me back to reality. A man lurched through the doorway from the rain and bluster outside – alone, no buses in sight, so he must have walked a distance. He was all out of sync with a shambling, jerky walk that contradicted the flow of rain, wind, and the music. His upper body couldn’t seem to decide whether it really wanted to be associated with his legs. His head, tipped at a 45 to the right from his hump-shouldered torso, bled streams of water off his short-cropped hair and down his neck and face. His thick eyeglasses were fogged and rain-splattered, the shell of his off-white parka ran in rivulets where it hadn’t already soaked through, and his splayed legs trembled like a newborn calf standing for the first time. Yet he had no cane or other support.
Pausing on the weather mat for just a few seconds, he fumbled with his bulky over-the-shoulder bag, then looked up and shouted toward the baristas, “Gooood MOH-neen!” followed by a gaping smile that revealed oversized, crooked teeth bookended by a string of spittle between upper and lower lips on each side.
Folks in that part of the country are typically more than a bit reserved, especially at this early hour, but the baristas surprised me when all three chorused in unison, “Hi, George!” One cheerily followed with “We’ve got your venti Pike’s Place ready with a dollop of heavy cream! And your warm Michigan cherry oat bar!” A few of the earlier customers looked up, then went back to their conversations.
George grinned from ear to ear, shuffled and lurched over to the counter to accept and pay, then turned back to a table for the disabled near the doorway. He slowly worked his way into the chair with his back to me as I began to write about this scene — as if magically inspired. $13 Stella’s spell was broken.
Head down, buried in my writing, I wrote in a burst of speed, oblivious to the fact that in a few minutes the Starbucks store virtually emptied of customers headed toward the door to their day jobs. Then the sudden quiet screamed, and as I looked up, I saw that George and I were the only patrons left. At that same instant, he spun in his chair to face me, looked over his glasses with head cocked to the right, and shouted, “Aw you DWAH-WEEN ME?” I was confronted with an almost-harsh reality, as if accused of grand theft.
Words ducked and covered in my brain, a feeling of guilt surged and my mind raced with how to answer him, knowing at the same time that I was guilty of no wrong … yet. I also knew I could carefully – and honestly — answer “no.” But that felt at once untruthful … because I WAS sketching him … in words. Depicting what I’d seen from the moment he came in the door like a half-drowned puppy — awkward and clumsy in his affliction, yet comfortable with himself and warm surroundings … at least, comfortable enough to endure the risks as odd man out. In my own moment of awkwardness, I opted for truth.
“No,” I said. “but I am writing about you.” And as I arose and walked toward his table, I asked, “May I join you?” with no idea what to say next, if he approved.
After looking at me, pokerfaced, for several awkward seconds, he broke his silence with that clumsy smile, struggled to stand, and reached a large, gnarled hand toward me. I took it in mine, locked eyes with him. “George, good to meet you. I’m Michael.” We sat down at his table and he slurped at his venti coffee, some of which had already made its way down the front of his wet parka. He was not spit-shined and clean-shaven, but he was clearly not a derelict with no internal pride.
“What brings you here so early on this nasty morning?” I asked.
George looked up at me, straight into my eyes with another awkward pause, then said proudly in his staccato manner, “I haf-ta go-ta wuhk.”
“Where do you work?” I followed.
“At thuh downtown Post Office in Seattle,” he said. Seattle sounded like “See-ATT-ull” in disjointed slow motion. But he picked up speed and rolled out his life story concisely despite the staccato. “I come heah to catch thuh bus to See-ATT-ull. My pawents kicked me out uh thuh house buhcuz they said I need tuh learn tuh live on my own. I been livin’ by myself for four yeahs, and I been at thuh Post Office in Seattle for twelve yeahs. I live alone, I walk heah to catch thuh bus to go tuh wuhk five days a week an’ I see my pawents once a week. They are vewy old. My fahver is an engineah, my muhver is an Engwish pwofessa, and they bofe taught at UW all my life. But they ah wetired now. I don’t have any uhver famly.”
I was humbled … gulping back tears … while being overcome with admiration for this courageous man. In internal conflict, I shouted and argued vehemently with his parents, but was forced to acknowledge to myself that they must be brave and insightful people who had instilled him, their son, with personal pride and courage, who had gifted him with the determination to take charge of his own life, to live in the freedom and independence available, even in his limited body, to walk out his journey as an overcomer, not a victim.
What sixth sense deep in George gave him the inkling that I, from thirty feet across a room in a coffee shop, was thinking and writing about him? I wasn’t staring. What made him turn and confront me, a total stranger, with such a bold and simple question that commanded an answer? I did not ask.
There’s that music again.
Steppin’ right along
Like it ain’t nothin, baby
Sump’n jumps up and just blows your mind
Sump’n come along
To make you stronger, baby
But you know it got to take some time
‘Would it be wise or weak?’
You wonder, baby
Goodbye to reason, hello rhyme
Somethin’ some time, come along and blow yo mind
~ lyrics to Steppin Right Along by Bill Withers
Carpe diem. Vita brevis!
© Feb. 13, 2018, by Michael E. Stubblefield. All rights reserved.