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FEEL-GOOD ENCOUNTERS WITH STRANGERS
Feel-good Encounters with Strangers
The Good People of Budapest
In the past two days, I have encountered many people who have been very helpful and very gracious to me and my wife—particularly in giving directions to us. Two days ago, when I was unsuccessfully trying to find the Liszt Music Academy, four people took the time to give me directions. One store owner came out of his shop, pleasantly told me to go right at the intersection that I had just passed by, and wished me well. It wasn’t his fault that I twice overran the Franz Liszt Square after I tripped and tumbled over some trolley tracks.
When I realized that I was lost, I approached a young lady walking her dog. She stopped her routine, explained with lots of gestures and details where she thought the Academy was located. I figured that now I at least would get close to my destination. But I still needed more confirmation, so I attempted to get more specific directions from a salesclerk who was sweeping the street. She wasn’t too sure where the long-sought after Academy was, but she enlisted herself in my cause. She stopped a few people walking by and asked them (in Hungarian) if they knew where the building was. What a sweet thing to do! No one responded until one man who spoke fluent English not only pointed to my destination but also walked me to the appointed intersection. Another extremely gracious gesture!
Thanks to the kindness of strangers, I finally got squared away as I located the Academy along Franz Liszt Square.
Avraham and Schlomo
As my wife and I were almost done with our tour of the Prague Jerusalem/Jubilee Synagogue, a few ultra-orthodox Jews from Israel came in. One of the men began quietly chanting Hebrew prayers at the bema. He had a very pleasant voice. When he was done, he went up to the balcony and began singing more passionately. In fact, he sounded like a full-fledged cantor. He stopped for a moment while his wife took some pictures of him; then he resumed with equal fervor, occasionally pausing for a photo op or perhaps a video clip.
My wife encouraged me to ask him if he knew the renowned cantor from the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, Chaim Adler, whom we had religiously heard at Friday night services when we stayed in Jerusalem last year. The man, who it turned out didn’t understand any English, vigorously nodded. Then he started speaking to me in Hebrew. I caught only a word or two, but I wasn’t dismayed at all. I was honored that after I interrupted his chanting, he desired to converse with me. Curious about his wondrous talent, I repeated the Hebrew word for cantor, and pointed at him. He shook his head but seemed pleased that I thought that he could be a chazan. As he began singing once more, I stood next to him. I felt rooted in my heritage being so close to this man that I would not budge until he finished his sublime chanting. Just as he started to leave the balcony, he touched his heart and said “Ani Avraham”—I am Abraham. I replied, “Ani Schlomo.” He responded with a gleam in his eye, “Melech”—for King Solomon, my namesake. I vigorously nodded. That was the end of our encounter.
Abraham was such an inspiration that after his group departed and the synagogue was empty, I walked downstairs, faced the Ark, and without thinking, sang in a booming voice the Schema, translated as “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; praised by His name forever and ever.” What a rush! My spirit was soaring, thanks to Abraham.
An Old Israeli Lady Comes to the Rescue
Later that night, while my wife and I were trying to locate an address near a landmark called the Solomon, I asked an elderly lady for help. At first, it was futile. Repeatedly but respectfully, I said the word Solomon. Even though she didn’t understand what I meant and was getting as flustered as I was, she hardly gave up. Without warning, she shouted out Solomon to someone at a nearby house and to anyone else in the vicinity. They all were stumped. All of a sudden, I switched gears. I said “Schlomo.” The woman then asked, “Melech (King) Schlomo?” As I nodded, she got real animated. Waving her hands, she pointed up the street and almost in a frenzy shouted out “Schlomo, Schlomo!” I graciously thanked her (she didn’t demand any money for her trouble) and within a few steps, my wife and I approached the Hotel Solomon—thanks to my namesake and the kindness of a stranger.
An Unexpected Delight at the Jewish Museum
In Vienna during the last two days, my wife and I extensively browsed through the Jewish Museum. From witnessing up close heaps of archeological remains to watching televised personal testimonies, we got an invaluable crash course on the history of the Jews in Vienna from medieval to modern times.
On a personal level, the super accommodating greeter was a gem. Sensing that we were having a hard time getting oriented, she left her post more than once to escort us to the WC, to the area where we could secure our bags, and to the elevator. When she heard that none of the staff could locate a brochure for us—the woman at the information counter told us that it was out of stock, as did another employee—the greeter somehow found a copy and made sure that we got it. What a gem she was!
The Welcoming Viennese
So far during our first week in Vienna, anyone whom my wife and I have asked for information has been very gracious. Yesterday was a good example. As we were trying to find the Votive Church near the University of Vienna, we by chance saw a massive l-shaped turreted orange-brick structure. It was eye-popping and mind boggling. This magnificent fortress was not listed in our guidebook, nor did it have any inscription on it.
Hoping to find someone who could identify the building, I noticed behind me a young woman walking her dog at the edge of a park. After I caught her attention, she told me—in slightly accented, fluent English—that what we had seen was once that imperial barracks for Austrian soldiers in the 19th century and was now a police headquarters. Without any prompting from me, she then further elaborated on its history. Throughout her explanation, she was warmly smiling, eager to be of help.
When she had finished, I turned around. My wife was no longer there. I wasn’t worried: indefatigably curious, she frequently meanders when I am not holding her hand or walking beside her. The woman was not as nonchalant as I was. She wouldn’t leave me until my wife returned. Such endearing solicitude in a foreign city! In a few moments, my wife appeared from around the corner and waved to me. The woman was relieved that my wife and I were reunited. I thanked her for her genuine concern and for earlier taking the time to enlighten me about the police bastion. She beamed and renewed walking her dog in the park. As she departed, she seemed to almost waltz through the woods.
The people whom my wife and I asked for help when we were in Paris three years ago were at best brusque and at worst insolent. Not so in Vienna. Is kindness ingrained in the Viennese? It may well be as typical as apple strudel.
Delightful Toddlers in Vienna
Going to the store, I saw four toddlers helping their mother push a baby stroller. It was a smooth procedure, in fact, perfectly synchronized. Each child had a different strategic position to maintain on his or her side of the stroller. The mother had no worries; she didn’t have to say a word. The kids were self-sufficient, single mindedly devoted to their task. I couldn’t tell if the baby carriage was empty: if it were, it would have been even harder for the children to steer it in a straight line. I was fascinated with the tableau.
Coming back from the grocery store, I had another delightful moment. An elderly woman held a young girl’s hand as they slowly came in my direction. Whatever relationship they had, they both seemed very comfortable walking together. All of a sudden, the curly haired girl, who reminded me of Shirley Temple, looked up at me and gave me a big smile as she passed by. When she did so, the grandmother beamed as well.
A High point at Lowe’s
Recently, my wife and I used green epoxy paint to cover our garage floor. When we finished, we both were dissatisfied. The color was gruesomely dark. We should have gotten a lighter color. It was my job to go back to Lowe’s to buy some grey epoxy paint. Instead of trashing the half-empty can, I took it with me. I figured Lowe’s could get rid of it more properly than I could. After I found the grey paint, I grabbed it with my right hand and ambled over to the self-checkout counter. Before I could begin the transaction, a matronly clerk guarding the exit asked me about the can in my left hand. When I told her that it was half empty and the wrong color, she mentioned conspiratorially that I might still return it for a full refund, despite store policy to the contrary.
She told me to go through a nearby turn-style for employees that led to the back entrance for customer service. The line in front of me was very long, and the cashier would have to turn around to see me; but I patiently waited. I noticed that the clerk was watching my lack of progress. After a bit, she herself came over to another register to take care of me. Such unexpected concern for a customer! Before I left, I thanked her for her help, and joked that it was amazing that she showed me any attention, considering that I hadn’t even brushed my teeth that morning. She laughed and wished me well.
Two Unintended but Rewarding Encounters in Honolulu
I am always perfunctorily cordial to people whom I come across at my favorite haunts: the 24-hour fitness center and Temple Emanuel. Superficial conversation is the norm. But the other day, Daniel, a twenty-something at the club, and Celia, an elderly temple member, spent a lot of time confiding in me. When they were finished, I had tremendous respect for them, and I sincerely told them so.
Daniel as a teenager was 130 pounds overweight and felt like an outcast. He stayed indoors, pitied himself, and read voluminous downbeat literature. Eventually, without giving me any more details, he said that he became “depressed and depraved.” He dropped out of college and lamented that his life was meaningless. Until a year ago, Daniel was thrashing about in his self-imposed lion’s den. But realizing that he was headed towards a catastrophic “rock bottom,” he began a slow process of recovery and renewal. He lost those 130 pounds, gave up his obsessively unwholesome habits, and has made plans to go back to college for a degree in media studies. To reinforce his newfound mission in life, he has written extensively about his hurt and his hope. And when I told him that I had been an English instructor, he offered to email some of his work. I told him that it would be a privilege to read his testament.
That same evening, a spunky 91-year-old temple congregant sat down next to me and spoke profusely and at times profoundly about her life history. Her British accent was as beguiling as her stories about World War II—her home, including most of her neighborhood, was destroyed by incendiary German bombs. After the war, she and her husband sojourned to Israel, working in a kibbutz near hostile Arab territory. For the past twenty-five years, she had lived in Honolulu. One of her two sons is a local well-known realtor. Her other son, living in Spain, is a linguist who lectures internationally about the Basque dialect, which, Celia informed me, is the oldest spoken language in the world. He will be visiting her throughout October. She hoped I would have a chance to meet him, but I won’t be back until November. What a shame, she said, especially because both of us have advanced degrees in language and literature.
Celia is proud of her two successful children, and she prides herself on being able to live independently in her downtown condo. Most of the time, she takes the bus for necessities. But she relies on her friends to drive her to Costco for heavy-duty shopping and to drive her to the doctors to make sure that she is on time for her frequent appointments.
I was fortunate to get to know Daniel and Celia as more than passing acquaintances. Daniel is just beginning his life; Celia is near the end of hers. But each of them is brimming with optimism, with unabashed enthusiasm. I hope to spend more time with them when I return to Oahu. No more quick hellos—lots of intense listening. In the meantime, my wife will keep me honest.
FEEL-GOOD ENCOUNTERS WITH STRANGERS (5)
A Remarkable Coincidence
Last week, after leaving the fitness center and then waiting for a traffic light to change, I noticed a well-groomed woman next to me about my age. She turned to me and pleasantly proclaimed “aloha Friday.” A bit taken aback, I tentatively reciprocated the greeting. Undaunted by my lukewarm response, the woman told me that she was staying on Oahu for a couple of months and that she was visiting from Winthrop, Massachusetts. Wow! I then chimed in that I was raised in Revere, a town a mile away from hers. She got real animated, evidently delighted in the coincidence, and asked me if I was a full-time resident of Honolulu. I told her that my wife and I (I made sure to mention my wife) stayed here for at least six months a year in our newly purchased condo. The woman looked at me warmly and replied that she would be thrilled to live in “paradise” for that long.
When the light turned green, she said goodbye, waved, and walked away from me after we crossed the street. I stayed at the corner bus stop, buoyed by my brief encounter with such an upbeat stranger.
Agog at the Synagogue
Almost invariably in Israel, it is the easily recognizable ultra-orthodox men in black who stroll the baby carriages while the women walk beside them. But men don’t have to wear the garb of the Hasidim to be in charge of the baby carriage—as I delightfully found out at religious services last night at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue.
It wasn’t the cantorial chanting and the devout congregational responses that moved me the most. The inspirational highlights of the Shabbat service occurred at the end of the aisle directly in front of me: a father lovingly attached to his infant boy. A red-haired, baby-faced, preppy-looking orthodox Jew, while holding his prayer book in his right hand, ever so slightly with his left hand continually rocked a stroller housing his bundled-up sleeping son. Wow, that man sure could multitask, not grudgingly but glowingly. He sang with a silvery tenor voice, davened with grace, paid scrupulous attention to the liturgical passages, all the while turning his eyes towards the baby to see how much pressure he needed to put on the stroller’s handle so that the infant would be content.
Sometimes the baby boy would open his eyes, but he never squirmed or made a sound, oblivious to anything but his father’s soothing care. After a while, the man lifted his son out of the stroller and gently placed him against his chest, effortlessly resuming his prayers. Although a few young boys and girls were whooping it up around the aisles (the man briefly frowned at the racket), the infant, more or less alert, remained calm.
It was obvious that the father and son had a strong affectionate bond that I pray will always enrich both of them. I was blessed to have vicariously shared in that special relationship.
After the service, I saw that same man strolling his infant while his wife walked by his side. And so it goes. Tradition!
FEEL-GOOD ENCOUNTERS WITH STRANGERS (4)
Upbeat Moments to Offset Mainland Homesickness
Last week, I happened to be wearing a camouflaged Marine T-shirt and cap as I walked toward the fitness center in Waikiki. Just after I approached the building, a young guy passed in front of me and said with a nod of approval, “sharp-looking, man.” I never served in the Marines—but my outfit (the shirt from Havelock, North Carolina and the cap from Jerusalem, Israel) has always served to remind me of my abiding kinship with my son-in-law, now a major in the Marines.
Coming back from the fitness center a few days ago, I was in the process of tossing an empty yogurt container into a trash bin. At the same time, I looked up and saw an exuberant young girl (who resembled my oldest granddaughter) fling some sort of wrapper into the same bin. We both beamed at each other, briefly reveling in the coincidence.
Yesterday, while my wife and I were waiting for a table outside one of our favorite restaurants in Honolulu, I noticed a little boy nearby who toddled toward a window storefront next to the restaurant. On the other side was a little girl about the same age. When they saw each other, they began gently tapping the window, grinning, and prancing about. Later on, when the boy’s family was alerted that a table was ready, the boy grabbed onto his father. I couldn’t help but reach out for the boy. The little guy clasped his hand onto mine and would have dragged me with him into the restaurant if I hadn’t quickly let go. The father, very much aware of how appealing his son’s antics could be, smiled at the momentary attention I had given the toddler, the kind of attention I delight in giving to my three small grandchildren who live six thousand miles away.
The Power of a Smile during my Power Walks in Jerusalem
Just when I decided on my walks to be just as oblivious to women as they are to me, there was a breakthrough. Yesterday at the end of my last lap, I encountered a middle-aged lady who actually smiled at me as she came from the opposite direction. It was a genuine gesture that threw me so much off guard that I had no time to respond. Her momentary (but momentous) goodwill towards me has given me a renewed desire to be as pleasant as I have always been to the women on my walks.
A Warm-hearted Incident
When I checked out with a few apples at the Times supermarket, the vibrant young cashier in my lane handed me a small poinsettia with a thin stem. What a nice thing for her to do for such a small transaction. I thanked her for the gift and was ready to leave the store. She then began to titter: what she gave me was not a present but a flowered pen. I still needed to sign the receipt that she then gave me. I started to laugh at my mistake while she good naturedly chuckled, smiled, and wished me luck whenever I returned to shop.
Inspiration at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague
From a nearby courtyard I heard a Hebrew melody that I was very familiar with. As I approached, I saw a group of ultra-orthodox young men clasping one another’s shoulders and singing joyously. I couldn’t help myself. I started chanting too—but from a discrete distance: I edged closer to my tribe, continuing to sing with them, even if at times I was a beat behind because I only vaguely knew the tune and the words. It was so heartwarming to be a part of this Jewish world.
When we were done, the young men started dancing together. I figured that our camaraderie was over. I was wrong. Suddenly, one of them pulled me into the group, and I hectically but happily swirled around with them until I got dizzy. But there was to be another exchange before I had time to rest. The same fellow who got me to dance took me aside, tied tefillin (phylacteries) to my arms and forehead, plunked a yarmulke on my head, and urged me to recite two of the most sacred Hebrew prayers, the Shema and the V’ahafta from Deuteronomy 6:4. I knew both of them relatively well from memory, but when I did slightly pause, he quickened the pace by reciting the holy text along with me.
The same unsolicited encounter occurred in Venice a few years ago when a Hasid in the Jewish Ghetto yanked me into a prayer room, adorned me with the proper tools, and hovered over me as I a little nervously said the obligatory prayers that every devout Jew (I have never been that devout) is expected to recite at least three times every day. Thanks to the Hasid’s perhaps divinely inspired intervention, I rededicated myself to my faith outside of a temple setting.
In both cases, I got recharged by participating in a Jewish community so far from home.
A Tale of Two Events at the Waikiki Community Center
The brouhaha about North Carolina’s “Bathroom Bill” reminds me of the annual transgender commemoration that I attended a couple of months ago at the Waikiki Community Center. According to the introductory speaker, the get-together included transgendered men and women in various stages of transition and a smattering of people with other sexual orientations. Except for a few flamboyantly dressed folks, the crowd was nondescript.
The meeting focused on the hundreds of transsexuals throughout the world who were murdered last year, most of them from Brazil. On a large screen were pictures of each victim, with name and nationality. Volunteers from the audience solemnly came up (some more than once) to proclaim the names. I was so moved by the proceedings that I participated a few times as well. No one questioned my credentials; in fact, I was warmly accepted.
I had never before been to any LGBT event. Being drawn into the poignant transgender commemoration at the WCC may well motivate me to support the LGBT cause in other ways.
Today I unexpectedly witnessed a totally different event at the Center but one that was equally affecting. Just as I donated some stuff to the adjacent thrift store, I heard entrancing Hawaiian chanting from the auditorium. I started to leave but then decided to peek in. I saw dozens of young and old women gracefully doing the hula, rhythmically, hypnotically gesturing with their hands while undulating to the music.
I have seen many hula performances in many venues, some sedate, some raucous; this one in its reverent simplicity uniquely enraptured me. There were no elaborate costumes, no frills. There were no histrionics. I imagined that the dancers were communing with the spirit of the ancient female gods of the hula. I was hooked.
The Waikiki Community Center, with its abundant programs (whether they are mundane or meaningful) is located right next to the condo building that my wife and I moved into last year. It’s a shame that neither one of us has taken much advantage of the proximity, except to go to our Homeowners’ Association annual meetings there. I hope that we do better next year.
From what I’ve experienced so far, the W in WCC could well stand for Welcoming, and in some cases, Worshipful.
Walmart: Characters Welcome
Yesterday, I needed a few prescriptions for my grandkids filled at Walmart. An ordinary-looking pharmacy assistant, Lola, explained that it would take her over an hour to fill them, mainly because she and most of the pharmacy crew were just about ready to go to lunch. I wasn’t fazed at bit; I told her that my bunch of grandkids and I were going to eat at the Golden Corral at the same time. Then she, with a right-on, dead-pan expression, stated that the last person to put in for a prescription just prior to the lunch break had to buy lunch for all of the pharmacy assistants. Of course, I knew that she was kidding, but she had the demeanor of a consummate con artist.
While I returned to Walmart, another pharmacy assistant helped me verify some insurance data before I could pick up the medicine. In the background, I saw but couldn’t hear Lola chatting with some of the staff. All of a sudden, she histrionically proclaimed, “Don’t hate but appreciate.” Without having a contextual clue, I blurted out, “Yeah!” I liked the catchy phrase that encapsulated a life-enhancing stance. Lola was a little taken aback by my outburst but soon regained her composure. She nodded to me and then quietly continued kibitzing with her co-workers.
I’m glad that the grandkids insisted that I get the medicine while they remained in the locked, air-conditioned SUV. Otherwise, I might have missed two pleasant diversions: Lola’s low-key schtick and her witty wisdom.
Welcome Compliments in the Morning and in the Afternoon
If it’s not too crowded outside a grocery store, I enjoy shoving and then releasing my empty shopping cart into one of the cart corrals—whether the destined distance is short or long. Sometimes my aim is pretty accurate. Other times, I race up to an errant cart to make sure that it doesn’t hit a nearby parked or moving car or whack into shoppers passing by. So far, there have been no casualties.
A few days ago, I outdid myself. My aim (from a medium distance) was right on target. The cart not only perfectly slid into its slot. It also effortlessly inserted itself as far back into the last cart in the stall. Before I could give myself a fist bump, a couple my age stiffly walked toward me. My first thought was that they were going to reprimand me for taking liberties with the cart. But as they got closer, they broadly smiled; and the man remarked that both of them were impressed with my skillful maneuver. I thanked them for their kudos. A cheer sure beats a jeer.
That same day, I pruned, as I do every summer, the brambles and tree limbs enclosing a beach short-cut at the end of my street. While I was vigorously slashing at the foliage with my clippers, no one who scooted through said anything to me. I wasn’t offended. I wasn’t looking for an audience. I just wanted to make sure that the path was wide enough to comfortably accommodate most folk— including my son, who last year was concerned that his family needed more space for themselves and for their beach equipment.
After I spent almost two hours hacking away, satisfied with my progress, I walked back home, exhausted but exhilarated nonetheless. As I chugged on to my house, a man next door (he evidently had seen me securing the path) effusively congratulated me for my efforts. I was a little hoarse from dehydration, so I gamely waved back at him.
Although the kudos that I received outside the grocery store and alongside the beach are merely a blip in the cosmic scheme of things, brief moments of appreciation can be very gratifying to everyone involved. They shouldn’t be minimized. They enhance life.
Victor Hugo is alive and well: A few days ago, I was amazed to encounter a female grocery cashier who resembled the animated Disney character Quasimodo. She was similarly severely hunched over but, like the animated character, resplendent with a broadly endearing smile whenever a customer approached.
A Good-natured Soul: Bus drivers in Honolulu are normally pretty grim and standoffish, but recently I came across an effervescent bus driver who regales every passenger who enters and leaves Bus 13 with “hello,” or “hi” or “How are you doing today?” He always smiles and graciously answers any questions about the route. At one point, I made sure to tell him how much I appreciated his friendly gestures. He beamed and wished me well.
FEEL-GOOD ENOUNTERS WITH STRANGERS (3)
The Kindness of Strangers
I have intently followed the news regarding the bike lane brouhaha on King Street. Yesterday, I got personally involved. While I was complacently driving in the left lane, I noticed the corridors of empty designated car parking areas in the adjacent bike lane and wondered how businesses on King Street would fare without them.
In the meantime, I had stopped at a red light. A few cars were ahead of me, and as the light changed, they accelerated. But the car in front of me didn’t move; I couldn’t pass it because of the heavy traffic to my right. After about a minute, the car still did not budge. Perhaps it had stalled or was broken down. Or perhaps the driver was otherwise preoccupied. I couldn’t tell because the rear windshield was filmy, and there was a glut of clutter in the back seat.
Before I got too upset, a woman approached my car, repeatedly knocking at my window. I lowered it ever so slightly, assuming she was either a panhandler or a nut. But she turned out to be a Good Samaritan. She said with a smile, not a smirk, that the car in front of me was legitimately parked, so I had better try to maneuver around it. Ah ha! Just as cars could park in the previous left lane, now cars could park next to the concrete barrier separating the old left lane—now reserved for bike riding—and the new left lane.
The woman could have ignored my plight and walked right by. Instead, she took the time to help me get on my way.
Earlier in the week, other people were just as kind to me. The service manager at a Toyota service center squeezed me in for an overdue oil change even though I didn’t have an appointment. A mechanic at Midas allowed my car to pass inspection, despite what he called “major engine issues,” a euphemism for my car’s obstreperous, chronic rough idling. One of the construction workers renovating our condo freely chose to replace some annoyingly buckled laminate next to our entrance door. And as I was power walking along the canal in front of my street the night of Thanksgiving, three different couples at different intervals joyously exclaimed to me, “Happy Thanksgiving.” In all of these incidents, I wasn’t expecting such graciousness.
The Aloha spirit is alive and well in Honolulu.
On Ode to Melanie
My wife and I were fortunate to find two tall comfortable floor-model barstools last month for our lanai. We couldn’t fit both chairs into our Corolla, so I was designated to make another trip to Pier 1. The distance was only ten miles, and the traffic was minimal.
A few days ago, we decided that we needed two more of these barstools to accommodate guests. There were none in stock at any store in Oahu, but a shipment was due to arrive a week later at a Pier 1 store that was over fifteen miles away in an area undergoing extensive road repair.
Today was pick-up day. As expected, a couple of miles from my destination, three lanes soon shrank to one lane, yet the congestion wasn’t too bad. When I arrived at the store, a young salesclerk (Melanie) bubbling with enthusiasm greeted me. When I told her that I had prepaid for the chairs, she flashed a smile, checked the computer, nodded, retrieved the barstools, and told me to drive up to the front door. When I did so, she lugged the chairs to my car. I told her that I probably couldn’t squeeze both of them into my Toyota. She discounted my doubts and grinned optimistically.
But before she had a chance to test her skill, I offhandedly mentioned that she had not asked me for my ID or my MasterCard. Melanie stopped short. Oops! She confessed that she might get in trouble if I didn’t complete some forms. I wondered whether she was a new employee or was just so intent on helping me that she overlooked basic procedure. In any case, after she consulted with one of her superiors, she gave me a slip to fill out. Then Melanie apologetically asked me to again drive up to the front doors.
Before I had an opportunity to assist her, she, within a minute, proficiently maneuvered both chairs into the back seat. It was an amazing feat of finesse. Now I wouldn’t have to make another trip to Pier 1. That was a godsend, for the traffic in the same lanes I had been caught up in earlier was ten times as backed up.
Melanie might have been clueless about paperwork protocol, but she certainly had a way with barstools. In that respect, she was peerless.
The Toothpick Saga
My wife for the past week has said that we need toothpicks for upcoming company. I prefer a fork to this flimsy utensil for snagging cut-up fruit. Nonetheless, I have tried to remember to pick up a bunch of them whenever I frequently go to the supermarket. But each time, I forget.
Today on my way to the fitness center, without any coaxing from my wife, I tried to locate toothpicks at the nearest mini-grocery store. It didn’t stock them. Later, as I was shopping for some other items at a larger venue, toothpicks evidently were not a priority: They got trumped by bread and bananas. Eventually, after completing an errand at a bank, I got back on track—thanks to a toothpick reminder call from my wife.
I swooped down on a nearby gas station food mart. It had a bathroom—most gas stations in Honolulu don’t provide one—so why couldn’t it have some toothpicks? There were three women behind the counter, all of whom were sure the store didn’t carry this elusive item. The youngest lady, innocently assuming that I needed to clean my teeth, offered me some floss. Before I could explain that I was searching for gourmet toothpicks, an older woman pointed to the floor next to where I was standing. If I wanted a toothpick, I should bend over and grab one. When I gave her a blank stare, she and the other women laughed uproariously. I at first wasn’t amused, but when I saw a not-so-pristine cellophane-wrapped toothpick lying at my feet, I lifted it in my hands and in a dead-pan voice thanked all of them for their generosity. Then, playing along, I broadly smiled. Perhaps thinking that I was seriously going to use that toothpick to dislodge some food from my teeth, they regaled me with renewed gusts of laughter.
I left without what I came for, but I received something more worthwhile: a moment in which I brightened the check-counter ladies’ day, toothfully.
Gracious Assistance at Walmart
At one of the self-checkout counters, I noticed that two of the off-brand plastic spice containers that I was ready to scan were leaking salt and onion powder. I was in no mood to discard these items, to continue scanning the rest of my groceries, to trudge off to my car in the back of the parking garage, to come back to find better sealed cooking oil, and to wait in line to check out once more.
I told a nearby checker my dilemma. She pleasantly offered to rummage through the isles for undamaged containers and get them to me while I stayed put. I hoped that she would return soon because many people were lined up behind me. Within a minute, the clerk handed me two undamaged identical containers. She then apologized for the incident, nodded deferentially, and rushed to another customer who needed her assistance.
The Spirit of Aloha is Alive and Well
Twice in two days, my car broke down in Oahu. In each case, someone stopped to help me. All of a sudden, after I drove through hairpin turns to reach the Diamond Head/city-scape lookout site at Round Top Road, my car conked out. Neither I nor my wife could revive it. Just as we were ready to call a towing company, a car began to pass by. The driver, seeing our predicament, stopped, grabbed his tool box, and proceeded to tighten the battery cables and bang on the starter compartment to jar it back to normal. He unsuccessfully prodded and poked other parts of the engine and vainly tried to jump-start the battery until he regretfully gave up. I had to have the car towed to my all-too-familiar service station.
The next day, the mechanic assured me that the problem was a defective fuse. After he installed a new one, the car was running fine. Relieved, I drove it a couple of miles in heavy traffic. Soon, however, the car once more became comatose. Within a minute, two guys emerged, painstakingly shoved my car from the middle of the congested street into a parking slot in front of a shoe store. Then they commiserated with me, revealing that they too had had similar mishaps with their cars.
Their assist reminded me of an incident with my car in North Carolina. After dropping off my son at the North Carolina School of Math and Science, I had to navigate through a sleet storm. In the midst of it, I slid into a ditch. Immediately, four or five young men riding in vehicles behind me stopped and without any fanfare managed to push my car back onto the highway.
As cynical about human nature as I sometimes have been over the years, I must admit that many Good Samaritans have aided me on the road. In fact, the first year that my wife and I came to North Carolina 40 years ago, our car malfunctioned on a sparsely traveled freeway. It was a scary moment. Luckily, an older man appeared with a tool kit. After he tightened a loose wire, our car ran well again.
Whenever my car has broken down, invariably someone has offered to help. Being mechanically challenged, I have never been too proud to welcome and applaud their assistance.
My wife and I have just bought a new car, and we will keep it until it is inoperable. It may take a few years for our sporty Mazda to break down with ALS. But I have faith that when it does, kind strangers will be there to intervene between my car and its nemesis, the dreaded tow truck.
Balm for the Soul
Today, when I picked up some medicine at Walgreen’s, I asked the pharmacist’s assistant if she would recommend an over-the-counter remedy for my persistently cracked lips. I mentioned that the only thing that has remotely worked for me is greasy Vaseline. Most lip balms have been useless. She deliberated with herself for a while; then she said that she’d ask the pharmacist, who was filling out prescriptions. In a moment, he greeted me.
I had consulted with him before about reinstating a coupon for one of my wife’s prescriptions. While I was waiting, he painstakingly researched my request. He gave the keyboard a workout. Although Medicare eventually denied the discount, I appreciated the pharmacist’s efforts.
Today, instead of just giving me some advice about my coarsened lips, he escorted me to the shelves of lip moisturizers. He rummaged through every kind of emolument, explaining how each item’s ingredients might sooth if not cure my sore lips. His final choice was Blistex. I wasn’t sure that I had tried it last year, so I agreed to buy it—and after all, the pharmacist, scrupulously thorough as usual, had spent so much time trying to help me that I felt obligated to make the purchase.
I then decided to pay for the Blistex at another register because I didn’t want to tie up the pharmacy for a four-dollar purchase. After I paid, I noticed a small bag next to me. I asked the check-out clerk if she knew who had left it there. Perhaps it belonged to the befuddled woman who had just left the counter. Without a trace of mockery in her demeanor or in her tone, the clerk ever so kindly reminded me that it was my own bag. Skeptical, I opened it up. Oops, there was my prescribed drug. I have had many memory lapses recently; this faux pas was par for the course. I was grateful that the cashier graciously handled my misperception, insuring that it would not be an embarrassing senior moment for me.
I don’t know if all of Walgreen’s employees take a course in courtesy, but if they do, I congratulate the teacher.
Stymied and without a cell phone (our visiting grandkids had mine at home), I parked, and then raced into McDonald’s, anxious to find out exactly where Alamo was. Most customers were as befuddled as I was. Just when I felt defeated, a man in an Aloha shirt revealed that Alamo was on the street parallel to the one I was on. Finally at ease, I got back to my car and pressed on the ignition. Nothing happened, repeatedly. My old car had died a few days before; and now the Mazda was kaput?
Stranded at night in an unfamiliar area without my wife as backup didn’t appeal to me. I went back to McDonald’s to borrow a cell phone from the same person who gave me directions. He was again happy to help me. Such aloha spirit twice from the same person! I notified my grandkids (why I didn’t call my wife directly escapes me) to let Nana know where I was. They said that they’d do so. A moment later, I realized that I had no idea how long it would take for my wife to find me, particularly if she had already returned the rental car, so I briskly—with just a few palpitations—walked on a dark, weedy, uneven sidewalk to intercept my wife. I couldn’t find her on the way.
And when I got to Alamo, I couldn’t locate my wife there either. A bit frantic, I pleaded with a few stragglers milling about if I could use their cell phones to call my wife. Before I got a positive response an Alamo employee graciously offered me hers, another gesture of aloha from a stranger that night.
When my wife and I visited Israel a couple of years ago, she bought me an earth-toned circular medallion to wear around my neck. It is embossed with Hebrew letters of great significance; I believed at the time that it was a talisman protecting the traveler. I have been so fond of the medallion that I never take it off and always wear it on the outside of whatever shirt I’m wearing, whether a muscle shirt or a dress shirt. I have many memories of Israel, but the medallion is a constant, tangible reminder of the trip, inscribing me as a faithful member of the tribe.
Occasionally, some people—whether or not they notice that the lettering is Hebraic—will ask me what the medallion means. I always say the same thing: it safeguards the traveler. Normally, their reaction is polite but not heartfelt.
But yesterday at the Waikiki Yogurtland, a young man enthusiastically responded to the medallion. He asked me right away if the inscription was in Hebrew. When I said that it was and told him what it signified, he exclaimed, “That’s holy, man.” He nodded his head and then left.
For the rest of the afternoon, thanks to the young man, I felt that I had an extra protective aura encircling me and my medallion.
The Governor and I—the Laying on of Hands
The other night, my wife and I went to an organ recital at the Cathedral of St. Andrews in Honolulu. There wasn’t much seating left when we arrived, but my wife found a spot at the end of the front row next to a very short bearded man in a rumpled brown suit. I felt a little self-conscious dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sandals. It then occurred to me that this avuncular man looked a bit familiar, and I soon realized why: He rose as the concert’s sponsor wanted all of us to welcome the Governor of Hawaii! I had not seen, never mind sat next to, any politician in person since I got a glimpse of Hubert Humphrey campaigning in Ohio about forty years ago. Now for a couple of hours, sitting within an inch of Governor Abercrombie, I had to make sure that I showed the proper decorum—prematurely applauding, burping, passing gas, or dozing off were off limits. Fortunately, I didn’t commit any faux pas. In fact, the Governor and I were in sync. We both were mesmerized by the organist’s impeccable command of the organ. We simultaneously shouted out formidable bravos, and we clapped with uninhibited enthusiasm. During the encore, I felt so comfortable with the Governor that I mentioned to him that the organist’s footwork was amazingly nimble. He gently put his hand on mine and agreed with me wholeheartedly. I wasn’t just physically touched by a politician: I was touched by his devotion to classical music, something we both shared with equal fervor.
Hands do make a difference. The Governor’s hand was like a benediction.
The Good-humored Revenge of the Cable Guy
A Time-Warner technician spent over an hour in our condo upgrading our TV menu, internet, and phone line. As he was splicing cables, connecting wires, installing a digital box, replacing our modem, checking power sources, and reprogramming our remote control, my wife and I peppered and pestered him with questions. He humored us, articulately explaining in layman detail what he was doing bit by bit (if not byte by byte). I am sure that our interrogation unduly lengthened his stay, but my wife and I like to double team all the professionals who service us, whether they be tax accountants, fitness trainers, or doctors. When the cable guy completed his work, he asked what we did before we retired. My wife said that she was a high school counselor; I proudly added that I was a community college instructor. The rather large man then grinned (or was it a grimace?) and speaking softly as if only to himself but addressing the two of us said: "You might do well to consider letting all that education work for rather than against you." Touché: we laughed uproariously, all the while fondly recalling that my wife’s father used to good-humoredly make the same kind of offhanded comments about our rapid-fire intellectual probing.
FEEL-GOOD ENCOUNTERS WITH STRANGERS (2)
Two of my Heroes at the Gym
During the past couple of years at the cozy fitness center in my North Carolina hometown, I have noticed that a tall, aristocratically chiseled, well-muscled, silver-haired man who appeared to be a little older than I am (late 60’s) lifted a tremendous amount of weights—at least three times as much as I could muster. He was a little intimidating, but after a while, I initiated a conversation. To my relief, he warmly responded. At times, we would speak casually about the weather up North (we are both Yankees) and family members who were still living there. Then out of curiosity, I asked him how old he was. Smiling just a bit, he said he was 84 years old. Wow! What a revelation! I told him how impressed I was with his remarkable strength and stamina, especially for an octogenarian. But he pooh-poohed my tribute. He lamented that he was not as powerful as he used to be. In fact, it was hard for him to sustain what little prowess he still had. I found it difficult to feel sorry for him. Regardless of his own misgivings, to me he will always be a prodigious poster boy for senior fitness.
Recently, while I was plodding away on the treadmill, I saw a very young buff Marine lift the whole stack of weights (325 pounds) on a triceps machine—five times more weight than what I have been able to hoist—and then do twelve reps without a hitch. I was so flabbergasted at this feat that I blurted out to him as he got up from the machine, “That was effing amazing.” Although he had made some progress since he was a teenager (from his wallet, he showed me a picture of his once scrawny self a few years ago), the Marine modestly replied that he was just a novice. He intended to be much more proficient over time. I admired him for what he had already accomplished. I couldn’t even imagine how much more awesome he could become if he attained his goal.
The positive influence of these two men (one nostalgically past his prime, one painstakingly anticipating his prime) was reinforced last week. Just as I finished talking to another member of the health club about the remarkable 84-year old, he strides into the weight room, nodding a hello to me. That same day, just as I finished taking an outside shower at my house, I see the Marine visiting a fellow leatherneck next door. We both wave in recognition.
The 24-hour fitness center in Waikiki, where I am now situated, is much more extensive, has many more amenities, and boasts a more exotic clientele than the one in Emerald Isle. But there is no substitute for the small-town familiarity that has nurtured me at the rec center six thousand miles away—as epitomized by the still virile octogenarian and the mighty twenty-something Devil Dog.
The other day two men took the time to chat with me in the locker room at the fitness center. The middle-aged, older one vigorously shook my hand and immediately related that he was a recovering cancer patient and hoped to live old enough to get senile. With a proud grin, he then introduced me to his twenty-something son, Herman Jr., who proclaimed that he and his dad were inseparable, they had identical exercise regimens, and they agreed wholeheartedly on everything from food to finance. They also shared an unerringly optimistic outlook on life. Although I have been accused of being overly cynical, I had no doubt that this camaraderie between father and son was genuine.
Since that day, both Hermans have warmly greeted me, inquiring about my health and my travels and travails in retirement. I am so gratified that this duo felt free to befriend someone as standoffish as I usually am.
In a couple of weeks, I will be going back to North Carolina, where my extended family lives close by. I just hope that I, whose nickname used to be crabby, display to them the same enthusiastic affection that the two Hermans had for each other and the attention that they gave to each other. But first, I think I'll practice on my wife, if I know what's good for me.
The Sustaining Spirit of Aloha
Today, while walking home from the fitness center, I saw ambulance lights blinking in the distance. As I got closer, I found out that an empty ambulance parked in the middle of my one-way street blocked any vehicles behind it: a tour bus, a couple of pick-up trucks, and a dozen cars were backed up perpendicular to the four-lane road where other vehicles that wanted to turn into my impassable street were lined up.
Curious, I waited to see the outcome. As I did so, I noticed that no one appeared to be impatient or angry about the delay. No one honked, complained, or rubbernecked. People calmly stayed in their vehicles. I don’t know when the ambulance arrived; but I wouldn’t have been surprised if those drivers already had a long wait. After all, this is laid-back Hawaii, even in the city. After a few minutes, two EMS workers wheeled out a man who thankfully seemed to be doing well on his own, and traffic soon resumed.
Today, as it is so much of the time, sterling and stirring examples of the Aloha spirit are everywhere. And I’m so fortunate to have the opportunity to witness them.
A Follow-up to the Sustaining Aloha Spirit
Because mid-morning is relatively congestion free in Honolulu, I figured it was a good time to run some errands. But the second I got on the Ali Wai Boulevard, cars were barely moving in any of the three lanes. I couldn’t tell if there was an accident ahead (all too frequent) or a water main break (a common infrastructure concern) or roadway construction (also endemic to the asphalt-challenged Island). In any case, going half a mile took over 15 minutes until traffic could bypass lots of police cars blocking the right-hand lane near a major intersection (again, not an unfamiliar sight). All of the cops were interrogating a bedraggled Hawaiian native (another unfortunately routine procedure).
Despite the delay, the Aloha spirit was still alive and well. Not one driver honked his horn, no one switched lanes without first using a turn signal, no one anxiously got out of the car to see why traffic was so stalled. From what I could see from the cars around me, no one scowled or beat upon the steering wheel; there was no road rage; no middle fingers were raised. On the contrary: It felt as if a huge hand hovered over all of all the traffic, with thumb and pinky figure wiggling in sync, the surfer-originated hang-loose sign of greeting in Hawaii.
Last week, when I drove my car to the edge of the right lane exit for the library, there was traffic congestion. Lots of cars were waiting for a red light to change. When the light turned green, I figured that I couldn’t get into line until all the other cars went through, if they could make it before the light turned red again. I was reconciled to a long wait. But just as the cars began to move, the driver closest to me stopped to allow me to get in front of him for a quick exit while the light was still green. In fact, he also allowed a car on the opposite side of him to enter the library parking lot.
I’d love to drive in another American city of equal population density that displays such civility on the road.
A Delightful Coincidence
Yesterday as I began a short walk from my condo to the gym, a man passed by me pushing a double-seated baby carriage housing two infants, one luxuriously asleep, and one awake, giggling and wriggling. Usually I do the passing, but a thigh muscle strain slowed me down a lot. Before I finally reached my destination, I saw the same man with the baby carriage, minus the sleeping child, stroll by me in the opposite direction. He waved at me, and I saw the super alert baby try to imitate that same greeting. If I were power walking, instead of hobbling, I would have missed these two uplifting encounters.
An Unsolicited Kindness
Last week at Food Lion, as the cashier was ringing up a heap of my groceries, a scruffy man suddenly appeared beside me. Without saying anything, he handed me a crumpled five-dollar coupon that I could use on the spot. Just as I was about to thank him, he scurried off. I had already bought enough merchandise to warrant an eight-dollar discount. Now I had amassed five more dollars, courtesy of the random kindness of a stranger.
Yesterday, my wife and I ate at a small local seafood restaurant, Angie’s Lighthouse. We had never been there before. The food was wholesome and the low-key ambience was pleasant—except for a single fly that enjoyed hovering next to our plates. When the waitress later asked us if we needed anything else, I half-facetiously replied, “A flyswatter would be useful.” Instead of taking offense, she apologized for the nuisance, explaining that she was familiar with that fly. Unfortunately, if appeared only when customers were eating. Otherwise, the staff would have gotten rid of it. I found her naiveté refreshing. A man sitting nearby then turned around to tell us good-naturedly that he always attracted flies, as if to put the blame on himself for our misfortune. I appreciated his fellowship. As we were exiting the restaurant, a man ahead of us unexpectedly said good-evening. That was a welcoming farewell from someone whom we hadn’t even noticed before.
My wife and I don’t care that Angie’s Lighthouse isn’t upscale. We like the fact that it is so down-to-earth. We intend to eat there again, even if it doesn’t have a no-fly zone.
Recently, as I was about to leave Golden Corral, I overheard a ruddy-faced local in the booth next to mine effusively praise the counterman for offering such delectable baked catfish. I don’t recall ever eating catfish, and I wasn’t hungry. But my curiously being whetted, I took the bait. And was I pleasantly surprised! The fish was delicate and tasty. Between bites, I got up to thank the man in the booth for his earlier comments. He grinned and again praised the catfish. A few moments later, on his way out, he wholeheartedly told me “thank you for thanking me.” Then we shook hands. It was an unexpected encounter between a Yankee and a good-old-boy that I will fondly remember.
A BENEFIT AND A BLESSING
Because it is the decent thing to do, I have tried over the years to be courteous to other people. At times, I have neglected this worthy goal. Recently, I rededicated myself after overhearing someone in AA state that the program requires each member every day to do at least one kind thing for someone else.
My initial little act of selflessness occurred last Friday evening. While driving to Temple, I was getting groggy. So I lumbered into a fast-food place to get a boost of caffeine. As I was ready to exit, I saw a man outside, barefoot and bedraggled, ambling towards the entrance. Typically, I was in a rush; but I slowed down and opened the door, waiting for the man to get through first. As he passed by, he nodded at me and said “preciate it, my man.” I don’t know if that was his rote response to such a nicety or if he was touched that someone bothered to take note of him.
I’m not sure why, but this brief encounter buoyed my spirits so much so that I wasn’t upset when I got to my destination on time, only to find out that the Temple was closed: I then recalled that no longer were religious services held on the first Friday night of the month.
The Temple may have been vacant, but my heart was full. Somehow, what the man said to me at the store renewed my faith in humanity. Even a week later, I am haunted by his words. They remind me how gratifying it can be to do a good deed every day.
Two Unintended Good Deeds
The other morning, as I was exiting the sporting-goods section at the Waikiki fitness center, I noticed that the young, pale, plain-Jane cashier was struggling to manage her evidently uncooperative hair. Normally, I exchange trite pleasantries with any one of the cashiers, male or female. But I felt obliged to say something especially encouraging to the damsel with the unruly tresses. So I said: “You look gorgeous as it is.” She looked up at me and blushed. Then she delightfully smiled as if my compliment made her day. Her reaction boosted my spirits as well.
Later in the afternoon, while I was walking home after outfitting one of our condos, I picked up a flimsy colorful canvas that had been straddling a gutter. I figured that I’d dump it in a trashcan along the way. At the same time, I passed by an old bedraggled homeless woman who was ever-so-slowly pushing her uncovered shopping cart. I don’t usually bother to say anything to or do anything for a homeless person. But this time I relented. I turned back, gingerly approached the woman, and asked her if she could use the canvas. At first she looked perplexed but soon grinned, gently took the canvas from me and placed it on top of her cart. And then she gave me a warmhearted thank you.
It is possible that the cashier and the homeless person might have been offended by my good-willed intrusion. But I took a chance: I nudged myself out of my comfort zone and realized that it doesn’t take that much to make someone else a bit happier.