Back in the early 1980's I was still fairly young and was only vaguely knowledgeable about the changes taking place in America. In those days the bulk of my energy went into finding my place in the work world and honing my skills as a writer. The work world was a frightening, frustrating and often humbling place for someone like me who had yet to discover my innate abilities and interests. You see, I was the proverbial "late bloomer," fumbling my way through territory wrought with snares and obstacles that I was truly unprepared. The reasons were many and much too personal to go into here, but let's just say I was operating under a severe handicap. The same could be said for my efforts at writing - I simply did not have enough life experience and wisdom to produce anything of substance or quality. I gave up on writing for well over a decade, and concentrated on just "getting a damned job like everyone else."
Between jobs for the umpteenth time, and still living under my dad's roof, I found any excuse to get out of the house for a good long walk. The nearby shopping center was my usual destination. Most of the time I window-shopped (hell, I was always broke), but sometimes there were little things needed at home that were easy to cart home on foot.
On this particular day I left the house when the sun was low in the west and the shadows were long upon the pavement. The air was cool and dry, the sky patchy with puffy white clouds against the fading blue. I remember the trees were full of blossoms; their scents delightful upon the light breeze.
The traffic was heavy at the intersection, the drone of engines drowning out the birdsong, the exhaust fumes temporarily overpowering the flowery blossom aromas as I waited for the light to change. This was suburbia with all its compromises. I reminisced about a distant summer spent in the country and wished I was there again. I wished a lot of things in those days. I hated everything about my life, and I hated myself even more. When the light finally changed and I stepped off the curb into the crosswalk, the thought crossed my mind that if some distracted driver ran me over and killed me right then and there, I would be perfectly okay with it.
There was an older gentleman standing outside the drugstore. He was wearing a small flat hat on his head, and he was dressed in a brown shirt and baggy brown pants. I noticed his footwear only because it seemed strange; brown corduroy bedroom slippers. He did not notice me as I came closer to him. He stared off across the parking lot, his sight firmly planted upon the eastern sky as if there was something important there that only he could see. And suddenly he dropped to his knees and folded forward into himself, laid his palms flat upon the cement.
Oh, my God! He's having a heart attack!
I rushed to him and knelt beside him, asked him if he needed help. He cocked his head sideways to me, slowly sat up. A smile illuminated his dark bearded face, and his deep brown eyes sparkled below his thick black eyebrows.
"I am praying."
Then it occurred to me he was one of many from the Middle East who were settling in America. The 1980's was the first wave of the great immigration from there. I was aware of it, but only as aware of it as I was vaguely aware of everything else going on in the world. I was ashamed of myself for not recognizing the man was praying, and mortified I had interrupted his prayer. I sputtered my apologies and asked him to forgive me.
He smiled at me again and said softly, compassionately, "No harm."
I left him to resume his visit with God, still kicking myself over my ignorance. I thought about our encounter the whole time I was in the drugstore. I longed to go back in time for a do-over, a do-over where I didn't invade his privacy. Dumb, dumb me! Typical!
To my surprise, he was waiting for me as I left the store. The moment our eyes locked, he reached out his hands to me, gave me a big grin full of warmth and sincerity. I accepted his hands in mine, apologized again. He told me he was touched that I cared enough to be concerned for him. He told me my action reminded him the world was still full of loving people. And then he tentatively hugged me and thanked me. His eyes - I will never forget this - were so full of love and joy. We talked for a little while, and then we parted.
I never learned his name; he never learned mine. We never saw each other again.
Yet, I will never forget him.... and I think perhaps he has never forgotten me. We shared but the briefest time together, but what a profound time it was for both of us.
I took my time walking home. Although we had parted in front of the drugstore, I felt as if he was walking beside me. And I felt he understood the tears that slid down my cheeks were tears of joy.