As I’ve documented many times, I’m prone to the occasional social faux pas in food service establishments. I think Meagan Briggs wrote the following piece just for me.
It’s not like you asked for all that junk.
You know, all that useless stuff that’s cluttering up your garage or your basement.
It didn’t start out that way. At one time, it was an organized collection of useful items, things that you might be able to use some day. Maybe some of that’s still there, but there’s no denying you’ve got shelves full of junk.
And now when you walk into the garage, where at one time you envisioned a woordworking shop, or the basement, which was going to be the place where your hobbies came to life, you’re filled with dread. You know that your once-cherished workrooms are wasted and probably will be forever. Because you’ve allowed too much junk to enter, and you’re never going to be able to get rid of it all.
It’s the same thing with people.
Why is the world such a mess?
It begins with us. It’s been happening for so long, we no longer recognize the junk of the world. It’s in the television shows and movies we watch, the books we read, the social media posts, the screaming and yelling that masquerades as free speech. And we take it in, one piece at a time until our lives are overflowing with useless clutter. No, it’s worse than that. Unlike the junk in the garage, the garbage in our lives affects everything we do.
Instead, maybe this:
whatever is true,
whatever is noble,
whatever is right,
whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely,
whatever is admirable.
if anything is excellent or praiseworthy,
think about such things.
If it is important to you, you will find a way.
If not, you will find an excuse.
— Ryan Blair
Most are not leaders of nations.
Most are not creators of wealth.
Most are not icons of art.
Their names will not be written in the annals of history.
But without them, we would be nothing.
Their fathers worked with pride as pipe-fitters and welders and electricians.
Their fathers mined coal and dug ditches and toiled with dignity.
They did what was necessary to provide food and shelter and clothes.
They did what was necessary to provide hope for a better tomorrow.
Tomorrow came, and it was better,
and the sons and daughters of the fathers went to school
and became teachers and writers and lawyers and engineers.
They became fathers and mothers themselves
and likewise provided for their families.
They did all of this without the need for attention,
without the need for adulation,
without the need for self-aggrandizement.
Fathers persevere and sacrifice.
They do what needs to be done.
They are good and honorable.
No, not all fathers.
Some give up.
It’s not about gender roles.
Sometimes the mother is the father.
Sometimes she is both.
It’s not about being the breadwinner.
It’s about being strong for the family.
It’s about providing direction to those who wander
and encouragement to those who strive.
Now they rest,
their work less strenuous,
their lives less demanding,
and they sit quietly,
content to let others lead.
They have lived simply.
They have lived nobly.
They have given their all.
They are our fathers.
copyright 2019, joseph e bird
you said you’d be pleased
to walk by my side
to breathe the night air
maybe go for a ride
so we walk down the shore
toward the music and light
with your hand in mine
feeling good, feeling right
then we stop for a drink
sipping cola on ice
and watch the wheel roll
and a toss of the dice
the carousel goes ’round
with the kids holding tight
never wanting to fall
but knowing they might.
and we’re walking the midway
the music is playing
and I’m wishing tomorrow
that you would be staying
my time here with you
is not what it seems
everything that I hope for
is a carnival dream
the smell of food fills the air
and it’s prodding my hunger
and your laugh fills my ear
makes me wish I was younger
i’d ask you to stay
to let go of tomorrow
let’s chart our own course
we’ll beg, steal, or borrow.
but our time is just this
cotton candy this eve
a quick kiss goodnight
and then you will leave
i’ll awake all alone
in the morning’s first light
and remember our time
in the carnival night
and we’re walking the midway
the music is playing
and I’m wishing tomorrow
that you would be staying
but my time here with you
is not what it seems
everything that I hope for
is a carnival dream
copyright 2018, joseph e bird
In the movies, it’s called a meet cute.
The boy rounds the corner and knocks the books out the girl’s hands. They bend down to pick them up and before they know it, there’s a spark. There’s an awkward, yet endearing conversation. She smiles as he watches her walk away. You know right then where the story is going. It will be – eventually – a happy ending.
That’s the movies. Let me tell you about my real-life meet cute.
It was in the coffee shop. No surprise, right? Almost a cliché in itself. But I like coffee shops. I’ll tell you why, but truthfully, if I have to explain this to you, you might was well stop reading right now and jump on over to check last night’s scores. The other day I overheard a co-worker tell someone that he didn’t like coffee, that he would have no reason to stop by the new coffee shop on the west side. I find it hard not to hold his dislike of coffee against him. You’re really missing the point, man. You don’t like coffee? Fine. There are options.
A couple of years ago my nephew spent the night at our house over Christmas. When he said he didn’t care what he had for breakfast, my wife started making oatmeal. We didn’t learn until he was finished eating that he had been lying. He should have said he didn’t care what he had for breakfast, as long as it wasn’t oatmeal. Too late. But the oatmeal he ate that morning was unlike any oatmeal he had ever eaten. If you take plain oatmeal, bland as it is, and add a little brown sugar, some raisins, apples and walnuts, topped with a little cream, what you end up with is a big bowl of oatmeal cookie. Who doesn’t like oatmeal cookies? My nephew sure did.
So, co-worker man, if the coffee is a little too bitter for your still-developing child-like palette, they can foo-foo it up (as my wife would say) and give you something sweet and mushy. But then again, going to a coffee shop isn’t really about the coffee. It’s about people. Seeing people, talking to people. Just being among other human beings.
But back to the meet cute.
This coffee shop is a relatively new establishment, just a couple of blocks from my office. I don’t always stop there in the morning because they’re not open when I usually go to work. It’s a quiet and peaceful place. Music is always playing softly. People doodling on their laptops. Quiet conversations.
It’s a Friday morning a week and a half before Christmas. I had skipped my early cup of coffee and I find myself at a good stopping point in my work at the office. The sun is shining and it’s an unusually pleasant day for December so I grab my coat and head out the back door and make my way to Main Street. I’m going to get a cup of coffee, maybe a muffin, and sit at a table by the window and watch people go by. I can just take off from work like that because I’m an important executive and I’m a salaried employee and I come to work early and stay late and if I want to take a few minutes for myself in the middle of the morning I have the moral right to do so. I also have so many weeks of vacation built up that it would be nearly impossible for me to use them all. For those of you who have a propensity for delving into a person’s psyche, this little tidbit about my inability to use my vacation time will tell you something about me, though I don’t think I would care to know what this tells you. Not that it matters. Let me save you the trouble of the analysis: I’m boring.
I get to the shop around 10:30 and stand in line for a few minutes and then it’s my turn and the owner of the shop says hello, calls me by name, and takes my order, a small black coffee. No nonsense. No cream, no sugar, no flavors, no steamed milk, no holiday blend. Because I’m a man. A grown man. It’s an ego-boosting construct, this notion that drinking plain, black coffee makes me any more of a man than the hipster in front of me who ordered a skinny latte with cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg. Clint Eastwood drinks his coffee black. Maybe. I don’t really know. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, this hipster, and I’m sure not all the world’s problems result from his generation’s socialist leanings, but I’m getting old and my time has passed and it’s the role I must play, the only other option being the teetering, out-of-touch relic from another time. But I don’t teeter (yet) and if I’m going to be an out-of-touch relic, I’m going to be a hard-edged Eastwood-type who the kids actually fear when I tell them to get off my lawn. That’s right. Black coffee. And one of those scones. Cranberry.
I’ve moved down the counter now, standing, waiting for my coffee. And my scone. The hipster stands to my left. He’s wearing a nice-looking jacket and a knit cap. A backpack hangs from his left shoulder. He’s texting on his phone, his fingers flying. He’ll take a table near the window, maybe my table, and pull a laptop from his backpack and begin to do whatever people do when they have a laptop in a coffee house. Facebook? No. He’s young. Instagram. Or maybe some other app that I don’t even know about. A young girl who looks like she’s fifteen but is probably twenty-five – I can’t tell anymore – shakes a can of whipped cream then squirts a mound of foam on the skinny latte with cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg and the contradiction of the skinny latte and the whipped cream is lost on the poor hipster boy. She hands him the drink and he goes straight to my table.
Get away from there. I shout this across the room. In my head.
The girl hands me my scone in a paper bag and I’m waiting for my coffee, wondering why it takes so long to pour a simple cup of coffee. She finally hands it to me, my name illegibly scrawled on the side of the cup.
There’s a stack of napkins to my left. Had they been to my right, I probably wouldn’t be telling you this story. But they were to my left. I’m holding the scone in my right hand, the coffee in my left. I need my left hand free to grab a napkin, so I transfer the coffee to my right hand, holding it just with my thumb and index finger, the scone in the bag below the cup. Not a good grip at all.
And this is when it happens. My meet cute.
I didn’t see her come in. I didn’t know she had been behind me when I ordered. I didn’t know she had moved down the counter to wait for her order. I didn’t know she was standing so close to my right.
And I turn to go toward the front of the coffee shop, and before it even registers in my mind that she is there, I bump into her and my coffee falls from its high perch, tumbles toward her, hits the front of her coat – her beautiful white wool coat – and the lid pops off and the coffee flies everywhere and I watch as the cup empties itself completely, and a horribly beautiful, artistic, brown stain flows downward to the hem of her coat and drips onto her brown leather boots and finally puddles on the floor.
I hear gasps from the people nearby. Then the entire shop goes quiet, except for me, mumbling an apology, grabbing the pile of napkins on the counter.
She hasn’t moved, this young woman, save to hold out her hands, coffee dripping from her fingers. I start there, wiping her hands, apologizing the whole time, and when her hands show no more signs of hot coffee, I start on her coat, trying to soak up the brown stain, and I realize that I have to stop because my actions are highly inappropriate, even if my intent is plainly obvious.
By now the shop owner has made his way from the other side of the counter with a handful of paper towels and he faces the same dilemma I faced but he thinks more clearly and asks her to take off her coat which she does and he lays the coat on the counter and begins sponging up as much coffee as he can. It’s a losing battle.
She hasn’t moved.
I’ll see if I can rinse it out, he says, and without asking, he takes the coat to a back room.
She still hasn’t moved, but she turns to look at me.
She’s a lovely woman, much younger than I, though not so young that I shouldn’t notice her loveliness. She appears to be of Asian descent. And her eyes are filling with tears.
I’m so sorry, I tell her. I don’t know what to do.
The young girl on the other side of the counter hands me more paper towels and I kneel down and start to sop up the puddle on the floor. She takes a step back, allowing me to get to the puddles that have pooled behind her and I see the coffee in drips and runs on her boots and without thinking and without asking I start to wipe off her boots, first the tops of her feet, but they’re boots and they rise over her calves and again I cross that boundary of appropriateness without thinking and without any intention other than trying to right the wrong and clean up the mess and I’m on the floor where shoes have trod and spills throughout the day have dried into dark circles and crumbs from scones and muffins and cookies are scattered like microscopic boulders and my hands are getting dirty and the knees of my executive slacks are wet and gathering grime and I no longer feel like Clint Eastwood but more like Willy Loman and I feel the blood rushing to my face and now I want to stay down among the other shoes that I see gathered around because to stand will reveal my reddened face and expose my shame and confirm my humiliation.
But I rise to my feet and again tell her I’m sorry and she’s not quite crying but there are tears and she is sad. I take off my coat and put it on her shoulders because everyone else has a coat except her and she looks cold and lonely and though she probably isn’t, I don’t know what else to do. I tell her I’ll go check on her coat and I walk to the back of the shop where I imagine a food preparation area but there are only bathrooms. The door is open and the shop owner is trying to dry the coat with paper towels. It looks like the coffee has washed out but I look closer and see the stain, lighter, but still there. The shop owner has done all he can. I thank him and take the coat.
The young woman is sitting at table by herself, her own coffee drink in front of her. She moves it away from me as I approach, carrying her coat draped across my arm, holding it out from my body as if it’s a blemished lamb, because that’s exactly what it is. I shake my head. I lay it on the table and sit at the table across from her.
I’m so sorry, I say again for what seems like the tenth time and she manages a smile and tells me it’s ok.
I’m really sorry. Eleven.
I’ll pay to have it cleaned. And I’m already thinking that I’m going to buy her a new coat because the stain is likely there forever.
She puts her hand on the coat and strokes it lightly. It was my mother’s coat.
The phrasing of the statement is not lost on me. It was her mother’s coat. Her mother has died.
I’m so sorry. Seventy times seven will not be enough.
I don’t actually remember her wearing the coat. Or her, for that matter. She died when I was a child.
I stop myself from saying I’m sorry again.
Old photographs my father had. The three of us. Mother, Father, me. Mother wearing the coat. I thought it looked so sophisticated on her. After she died, my father held on to all of her things. He died two years ago and it was all left to me. I found the coat in a trunk.
So, I’ve not just ruined a coat, I’ve ruined an irreplaceable keepsake. I’ve ruined the one connection this poor woman has with her mother.
I had it cleaned. Sewed some seams that were coming apart, and then just hung it in the closet. And this winter I thought it would be nice to wear it, to think of her, to let her live a little through me.
I’m trying to think of something to say, something other than I’m sorry, thinking there must be a phrase or an expression of remorse that goes beyond mere sorrow, one that puts me on my knees, not to beg forgiveness, because what’s the point in that, because it’s not about me feeling better, it’s about somehow finding words or actions that can make up for what I’ve done. But it’s done and can’t be undone.
I just shake my head. I tell her again I’ll pay to have it cleaned. I’ll buy her a new coat, I tell her, and I feel stupid as soon as I say it, as if a new coat would have the same connection to her mother. But what else can I do?
It doesn’t quite fit. She was a little smaller than me, apparently.
I’m silent, because there are no words.
It’s only a coat. It was my mother’s coat, not mine. I’ll have it cleaned as best they can. Then I’ll keep it in the closet. I’ll bring it out now and then, and think of her, but really, I have no memory of her to recall. Just a mother and father and a little girl in a photograph. That’s all.
She’s smiling now. A sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. She reaches for her coffee and I move her coat away from the table and lay it across the back of a chair. She laughs a little. We talk.
Her name is Janine. She lives in New York. She’s an accountant in town performing an audit of the local bank. She travels a lot and likes to explore the towns she visits. She’s traveled to Japan twice to visit the families of her mother and father, but there are fewer of them now, and in Japan she is a stranger in a strange land. And here she is, in a small town coffee shop, with a coffee stain on her mother’s coat.
She needs to get back to the bank.
I apologize again and I’ve lost count of how many times, and she assures me again that it’s ok, that I don’t have to pay for dry cleaning or buy her a new coat or in any way try to make things right. Because we both understand that I can’t.
How can you be so gracious after what I’ve done?
She offers no answer. She stands and realizes my coat is still around her shoulders.
I believe this is yours.
She hands me my coat.
And this is yours.
I help her into her mother’s coat. The front is still damp and she looks at the stain and sighs. It’s all I can do to keep from apologizing again. Instead, I thank her, and in the moment, I’m not sure what I’m thanking her for except that the kindness and understanding she showed to me was so undeserved.
We walk out of the coffee shop together, our conversation now just the usual chatter that people who really don’t know each other make as they’re about to leave each other’s company. The ordinary, the forgettable. Nothing witty, nothing charming.
It wasn’t that kind of meet cute. Meet truth is maybe a better description. She’ll go back to the bank, back to New York with a story to tell.
And me? I’m still here. Still drinking my coffee black. Still imagining I’m Clint Eastwood. Still working too much.
But this Christmas is a little different. I understand a little better. I’ve experienced grace.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
copyright 2018, joseph e bird
On the first day of winter he awoke and stood at his window and looked out on his fields wet with rain. It had taken him longer this year to clean the banks and hillsides. He no longer went at tasks to finish them in one day. Now he worked as time and strength allowed […]
It’s been described as having ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s simultaneously. There is no cure and the disease is fatal.
According to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, there are currently 30,000 symptomatic Americans. That’s less than 0.01 percent of the population. But if you or a loved-one has Huntington’s, that’s a meaningless statistic.
My family has no first-hand experience with Huntington’s. The wife of a former associate pastor at our church was my introduction to the illness. When they came to our church, she was in the middle-to-late stages of the disease. She was still able to walk and engage in conversation, though it was sometimes difficult to understand what she was saying. Her symptoms at the time included chorea – involuntary and unpredictable body movements that affected her upper body, arms, and face. Over the course of a few short years, her symptoms worsened. Soon she was unable to walk and required a wheelchair. Then a nursing home. After a year or so there, she passed away peacefully.
She was fortunate in that she had a husband who loved her unconditionally and was by her side until the end. I don’t really know what his life was like as the primary caregiver, but I have no doubt that it was unimaginably challenging on so many levels. He leaned on his faith, as did she, with the knowledge that though in this life she was broken, in the next she would be made whole.
In my novel Heather Girl, Heather Roth has Huntington’s Disease. I didn’t start out to write a novel about someone with Huntington’s. My intent was to tell the story of a young woman with challenges, one of which was how she was dealing with a serious health issue. As the story unfolded, I learned that Heather’s mother had Huntington’s. It’s hereditary. If one of your parent’s had Huntington’s, there’s a 50-50 chance that you will have it. As my story begins, Heather is becoming symptomatic. And she knows where it leads. There are other complications in her life and because her family is fractured, she doesn’t have the best support system. She doesn’t always act reasonably and her decisions are not always the best. But this story is fiction.
In real life, the effects of Huntington’s, like the disease itself, are varied. Some, like the wife of our pastor, have love and support all the way. For others, it’s a long, lonely journey. If you know a family living with Huntington’s, you can be a friend. Little things can help. A Frosty from Wendy’s is always a treat and good for those with difficulty swallowing. A bowl of soup for caregivers on a cold, winter’s day will mean more than you realize. And a sympathetic ear is always appreciated.
Even if you have perfect health – and nobody I know has perfect health – life can be hard. Be a friend, lend a hand, and help someone find hope in the compassion that we can all offer.
New York, September 11, 2001.
It was journalistic instinct that pulled Richard Drew to the Twin Towers when everyone else was running away. The veteran photographer did what he always did – take pictures. And from the scores of photographs he took that day came the iconic image that would become known as The Falling Man.
It’s a disturbing image that is seldom published. I know of it because of an article I came across in Esquire Magazine by Tom Junod. Journalism at its best, even when capturing the most horrific scene you would never want to imagine.
The photograph is an anomaly, one frame of many in a sequence that shows the true horror suffered by dozens of victims forced to choose how they were to die on that sunny September morning. The person in this particular photograph appears calm, accepting his fate. An anomaly of a single click of the shutter.
The photograph is also an accident in symmetry. The Falling Man is vertical, in line with the architectural lines of the Towers. To his left, the North Tower, to his right, the South Tower.
It’s a controversial image, the discussion of which can quickly devolve into a bitter geopolitical debate. Some think the photograph should never be published. I understand that. Some will say that Tom Junod’s article doesn’t tell the whole story. Of course it doesn’t. How you feel about the photograph, how you feel about the story, is your business.
But you will feel something. You will feel something very strongly.
It’s the power of photographs. It’s the power of words.