December 2006. This time of year brings me back to this episode, although I don't know why. It wasn't the most significant interaction I've had in the last decade, but something about the season calls it to mind, perhaps because this can be a lonely time where if you bump into someone in a public place such as a coffeehouse, they'll finally see their opportunity to share what's on their mind with someone else.
"This music reminds me of those old western shows." That's how the conversation--if you could truly call it that--began.
I'd just come from calling hours to show support for a parishioner. Her 19-year-old great-granddaughter--working two jobs to pay for a car, aspirations of finishing school to be a hairdresser, her whole freaking life ahead of her--gone just before Christmas in a car accident. As I expected, the line wove all through the funeral home, mostly made up of the shocked and sullen faces of kids barely out of high school. The family knows me...I'd presided over the death of another relative the year before.
They hadn't called me for this one, though the girl's older brother mistook me for the officiant. That signaled familiarity, memory. We remember stuff like that: who gives the eulogy at your loved ones' funerals. Very clearly I remember the youngish weird priest who oversaw a close college friend's funeral. I remember how he sat and joked and laughed so annoyingly loud during calling hours and I remember the long-winded clumsiness of the service itself. You want that moment to be good, and you remember when it is...and you remember when it sucked. The girl's father greeted me, seeming to remember very well. I'd contributed to this family's story, as tragic a piece as it had been.
Afterwards I dropped past one of my favorite coffeehouses to get something for the trip home. My desired drink, a caramel macchiato, was listed as The Other Macchiato. I didn't think to ask what it was "other" to, but the girl behind the counter laughed at what must have been quite a confused look on my face. While I waited, a classic western song began playing, one of those you recognize instantly from any number of scenes where two cowboys are poking along on their horses reminiscing about their favorite cattle drive or whatever. An older gentleman, heavyset, tousled grey hair just barely touching his shoulders who'd been sitting at the counter, remarked, "This music reminds me of those old western shows."
"It's like when you hear Stravinsky..." And he was off. We moved from music you hear in movies to the story of this disturbed teenager who would lock herself in her room when she was mad and pretended that the parents killed in Nightmare on Elm Street were her own to make herself feel better. I heard about a couple occasions when he stood up to bigger guys than himself because they'd needed someone to put them in their place. He told me about the rise in neo-Nazi propaganda in America. By this time, half my coffee was gone. The girl behind the counter butted in at one point: "You do this to people every time you come in here! All he wanted was to get his drink and leave!" It was a good-natured rib, but she did try to come to my rescue.
I stepped away from the counter, beginning a polite and graceful exit. He stood from his stool, put on his jacket, and talked me all the way out the door. I stood at my car with the door open for another five minutes while he pontificated about how careful and restrained you have to be when you know martial arts. Finally, I said, "Well, you have a good night." He responded, "And you too. Thanks for your patience."
Thanks for your patience.
Somewhere in there is the acknowledgement that he'd just talked my ear off for a good 20 minutes. Somewhere in there is the acknowledgement that he'd altered my evening's plans, scant though they were. And somewhere in there is genuine gratitude that I'd allowed him to do it. He'd thanked me, after all, for stopping to listen; for hearing one story after another that he'd obviously been itching to tell.
I'd just come from a place where people had been sharing stories and crying on each others' shoulders and lingering with the girl's mother next to the casket with a long winding line of people anxious to do the same. People had to give their time for others, sacrifice their own desires so that others could do what they needed to do and say what they needed to say.
And we, who are so quick to want to get up and go nowhere. I had no plans the rest of the night...I just didn't want to listen to him. I listen to people all week. Just let me get my coffee and go. That's actually a fascinating story. It really is. But please don't tell me another one. And what could I say? I didn't have anything to contribute to his knowledge of firearms or his history of near-brawls in bars aside from a "Hm" or "Wow" when I could get in a word. And he'd known all that, I think. In my mind, I'd gone from the sublime to the absurd as far as the need (or felt need) to talk and to be heard. He probably felt differently.
And maybe he really did need to say everything he'd said. Maybe I was the one person for that week or that month who had stopped long enough to listen to him. I have no way of knowing that.
Anyway, thanks for your patience. That's how it ended. That's how this entry will end, too.