Coffee Shop Compassion

One random morning a stranger asked me for a matchbook.  That, in itself, is not significant.  The events that took place before and after, however, certainly were.

You see, our family is like many in America; middle-class, fairly fortunate, insulated from poverty and hardship.  We have a nice house, food in our pantry, a car to drive, and jobs to support us.  We are aware, however, that there are lots of people in this country that do not have what we do.  I try to educate my daughter about helping others that have less than us, and we make efforts to give when we can.

On this occasion, my daughter and I were on an early morning trip to Starbucks in Portland, OR.  We’d flown out from Ohio, so we were still on East Coast time and I was trying to get my rambunctious 6-year-old out of the house for a bit so she wouldn’t wake the rest of the family at 5:30 am.

As we were sitting at our table enjoying our goodies, I noticed a man crossing the street towards the shop.  He was wearing only a black t-shirt and sweatpants (despite it being fairly cool and rainy), he was slightly balding and bent over walking, and he was missing his right arm from the elbow down.  After watching briefly I turned back to my daughter and our conversation which she abruptly stopped, because she had a serious question.

“Mom, why did that man pick a used cigarette off of the ground?”  I turned to look as the man I had noticed before now entered the shop.  I told her I would explain a little later since we were now, with him, the only patrons in the shop and I didn’t want to embarrass him in case he overheard us discussing it.  I heard him ask the baristas for a book of matches, to which they answered they had none.  He then turned and looked at me, rather sheepishly, and asked the same.

Without really thinking about it I stood up and told him I had no matches, but would he like a cup of coffee instead?  He stared at me for a moment, as if he was confused by the shift in topic, and then answered, “Yes, that would be nice.”  I led him over to the counter and said that they had breakfast sandwiches, and would he also like something to eat?  He pointed at the example in the case and said the sausage one looked good.  We got him squared away and he came and sat next to us.  He introduced himself then, “Charlie Chester”, and shook my hand.  I did the same, introducing myself and my daughter.  We made small talk while we ate; I told him where we were from, he told me where he got his shirt with the ten bats.  He seemed a bit disconnected, but happy to have some company.  It occurred to me that perhaps it was not often that anyone took the time to speak with him.  He had kind eyes.  I noticed he was a bit shy but tried to connect with me and my daughter, though she was oddly irritated and wouldn’t respond to him.  I tried to keep myself the focus of the conversation until we were done, then wished him a good day as we packed up to go.  He thanked me wholeheartedly, and told my daughter “You sure have a nice Momma.” to which she scowled and said a snipped “Thank you.”

As we got into the car, I asked her why she was so irritated and rude to the man.  I was sure it had something to do with the fact that he was a stranger, or dressed shabbily (and, to be honest, probably could have used a shower), etc.  I was surprised by her answer: “You didn’t even know him, and you gave him our money, Mom.”  I did not expect that she was possessive of our giving to him in that way.  Especially since the week before she had voluntarily chosen to give her own gumball quarters to the Children’s Hospital fundraiser at her school, and we often pack up her extra unused stuffed animals and take them to the fire station for children in need.  It then occurred to me that she didn’t see what I so clearly did, that this man was so very much in need.  I suppose she just thought he was some random man and I had just handed over something I could have given her instead.

I then proceeded to try and explain, in my best 6-year-old-speak, about Charlie Chester and his world.  I shared that his funny bat shirt and shabby tennis shoes were probably the only clothes he owned.  The coffee and sandwich that Momma bought him with “our” money this morning would probably be the only thing he ate today, maybe even tomorrow, unless he found something else in a garbage can to scrounge (“People DO that, Momma??” “Yes, they do honey, when they have nothing they do lots of things you’ve never thought of…”).  Charlie Chester probably has no place to sleep at night, except wherever he can find outside to stay out of the rain and wind, if he’s lucky; no bed, no pillow, no blanket, no roof.  And certainly no “friends” (what she calls her stuffed animals) to keep him company.  Wherever he goes he has to rely on his two feet, because he also has no car or bicycle or scooter.

At this point, her eyes were fairly wide, and I had her full attention.  I reminded her how she made the choice the week before to give her quarters to the Children’s Hospital (“Yeah, so I can help the little babies who need it!”), and to give her old “friends” to the fire station (“For kids who don’t have ANY friends at all, Momma.”).  I told her just like her acts of kindness, I was choosing to help Charlie Chester with my money, at which point I think it finally connected for her.

It was really an interesting morning of learning, for both of us.  I was surprised that I had just assumed that my daughter would automatically have known poverty and sadness when it walked in front of her.  I felt that I already talked a lot to her about helping people, but clearly I’ve not done a good job about showing her who those people are, or what the need for help really looks like.  I was reminded that though compassion is innate, generosity is sometimes learned by example.  We’re getting there…

The Pusher

Many areas of the U.S. weathered quite a heat wave this weekend.  This past Saturday in Ohio, temps climbed to a mind-numbing 105 degrees.  Like many parents of young children, this somewhat limits our options for weekend activity; park visits or sprinkler fun look a little less inviting when you layer in the heat-stroke possibility.  However, being cooped up in the house with a six-year-old who’s full of energy and climbing the walls isn’t particularly appealing, either.  Solution?  Play place at the mall, of course!

The play area at the mall closest to us is set up to resemble the solar system.  There’s a mock space ship to sit inside, planets to climb on and around, as well as plenty of room to run.  When we arrived I was relieved to find that it wasn’t quite as crowded as I had expected, especially given the weather outside.  There are only so many seats around the perimeter, and they’re prime property and go fast.  I wound up sitting next to a father who appeared to be fairly near my own age, and settled in while my daughter happily sprinted off.  The father next to me was busy laughing with his son, who looked to be maybe eight or nine years old.  I had my head turned away from them when I heard a really loud *thwump* sound, and turned to see what it was.  The son was lying on the ground with a grin on his face.  Initially I thought the boy had fallen (frequent occurrence in the play area) and, since he appeared unharmed, I didn’t think much of it.

I turned my attention back to locating my daughter (which is basically my full-time occupation on these occasions – there she is!  Wait; lost her.  There she is!  Oh, lost her again…there she is! – and on it goes…), until I heard it again, *thwump*.  Same boy, same fall, same location; right in front of me and his dad.  It seemed odd, so this time I kept looking.  The boy was laughing while he got up, and then he said, “Again!”

At this point, his father proceeded to basically push him to the ground.  (Okay, maybe push is an understatement; shove may be more accurate.)  *thwump*  The boy, lying flat on the ground, erupted in hilarity, then got up again and asked for more.  This continued for a good twenty minutes, to my amazement, and I tried not to stare.  I have to say, it’s quite distracting trying to locate your child when another youngster is being throttled to the floor right next to you.

*thwump*

“Again, Dad, do it medium this time!”

*thwump*

(Wait, there are different speeds?  Can he breathe down there?)

*thwump*

“Hahahahahaha!  Do it again!!”

*thwump*

(Shoot; where did she go this time??  “Hey, no hair pulling, girls!”)

*thwump*

(Seriously, is this really safe?  Minor organ damage, perhaps?)

*thwump*

“Awesome!  Good one, Dad!  Hahaha!”

*thwump*

(Good grief!  What is this, linebacker training?)

*thwump*

And on, and on it went.  I kept looking around to see if anyone else was as uncomfortable as I was by this roughhouse recreation.  I mean clearly, the boy thought it was fantastically fun and the father was happy to play along.  But I couldn’t shake my unease at the forcefulness of the interplay, nor my relief when they finally packed it in for the day and proceeded on their merry pusher/pushee way to greener, air-conditioned pastures.

Talking later to my husband about it, he explained it was really just a sort of father/son male-bonding.  Sort of when guys take turns slugging each other in the arm or stomach to see who can take it better, or jump up and slam their chests together to see if they can make each other pass out.  (Quick note: these rituals sound just as ridiculous as the shoving game, so the logic was a bit lost on me, but I digress…)  He shared that it’s just the way guys sometimes relate, and that it probably made me more uncomfortable than anyone else (well, save for maybe some other mothers in the area).

Interesting observations for an afternoon fleeing the heat.  I think I’ll keep my ‘pushing’ limited to the swings at the park, thank you just the same.

Storms, and Bookstores, and Accordions…Oh My

There are days where you start out with a plan.  Maybe you have a goal in mind, errands to do, an outing, etc.  You decide on a course, confident you will follow it and accomplish what you set out to do; and then fate steps in.

My Sunday started out like this; the goal was to acquire activity books for my daughter to be used during our plane flight on our upcoming vacation.  There is a Half Price Books store fairly near our house, and they often have new ones for cheap, so this was the intended location of the morning.  (A little background…  The weather here – Ohio state – has been volatile lately.  Very hot, humid, and stormy.  Two nights ago we had a particularly nasty storm; 80 mph straight-line winds, power outages, downpours, lots of damage.  Many areas of town were still recovering through the weekend.)  My daughter and I had already wandered over to Half Price Books on Saturday, only to discover they were closed as a result of no power.  However, I was again in the area later that day, and the traffic lights and a couple of businesses looked operable.  I assumed the grid was back up, so we decided to try again the next day.

With our mission in mind we again headed out Sunday morning for our destination.  Unfortunately, they were still closed with no power.  A little frustrated but undeterred, we decided to head a bit farther out to another HPB location so we could acquire our intended loot.  After 20 more minutes in the car and some overly dramatic radio sing-a-longs, we arrived.  There were markedly few cars in the area, and upon inspection we learned that this location was also out of power.  Ugh.  The plan for the day was unraveling quickly…

Given that our trip was looming, and I didn’t have the luxury of more HPB locations nor lots of time to wait for power fixes (some areas at this point were estimating 5-7 days before repair), we broke down and decided to head for the full-price shelves of Barnes & Noble which was very nearby.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite fond of B&N and browse there often.  But for activity books that my girl will use and abuse on a plane and then dispose of quickly, I would really much prefer the budget route.  However, with a little selective browsing and a trip through the sales rack, we wound up getting out of B&N without breaking the bank.

After a nice girls lunch full of laughs and funny faces (not to mention odd looks from other patrons), we decided to meander over to Whole Foods before heading home.  Shortly after we walked in, I noticed the familiar strains of accordion music drifting through the air.  Leaning over to my daughter, I whispered in her ear, “Remember the accordion man I showed you the picture of not too long ago?  He’s here.”  “NO WAY!!  WHERE?!?”,  was the loudly excited reply.  It took a few tries, but I finally convinced her that where he was located was outside of the checkout area, and we needed to quickly gather our purchases and pay for them before we could go see him.  The plus side of this was it helped to get her to be uncharacteristically helpful while we shopped for the few things we needed, and kept her from being as handsy as she normally is.

We checked out quickly and made our way over to the same spot I found him in before; a chair in the corner of the eating area.  I wasted no time walking up to him today, and saying a hearty hello.  The big grin I remembered from the first time I saw him (you can read about it here) was just as sparkly, and he was obviously happy to have company.  I reminded him I was the woman who took his picture a few short weeks ago, and apologized for not having caught his name.  “It’s Burt!” he said excitedly.  I introduced myself and my daughter, who was suddenly very shy.  He pulled a chair up for us and encouraged us to sit down and listen, which we did, my daughter on my lap.  It was so sweet the way he showed her his accordion (“64 years old with lots of duct tape, but it still plays just fine!”), and picked out songs he thought she would know (such as ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’).  My daughter relaxed and opened up once the music began into play.  She loved the tunes immensely, and I loved watching her listen and smile.

What I didn’t expect was to be caught off guard when he started playing ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’.  I found myself tearing up as I was suddenly my daughter’s age, sitting in my childhood living room, watching my father play the accordion as I marveled how he could work such an amazing contraption.  Somewhat of a surreal experience as I held my own daughter on my lap.  As Burt shifted to ‘Tura Lura Lura’ the memory continued, and was compounded by thoughts of my large Irish family and my grandfather’s funeral.  I had no sooner started to dab at my eyes when my daughter turned and asked, “Momma, are you crying?  You’re not supposed to cry, dry it up lady!!” She said it in the funniest way I just had to laugh, then we both laughed, and then Burt laughed because he probably had no idea what happened but thought laughing was a great idea and joined in for the heck of it.

We listened a little while longer and then said our goodbyes.  Burt asked us to please come listen again, and we promised we would.  As we exited the store I mentioned to my daughter that it was probably a good thing the power was out in the Half Price Books that day, or we never would have run in to Burt and his accordion at all, for we would have been nowhere near the Whole Foods store.  Our original plan would have had us in, out, and home in a flash.  As it turns out, the revised events for the day held much more adventure and richness than my original plan could possibly have garnered.  I supposed plans aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, now are they?  Often times it’s the unplanned that yields the biggest rewards.