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Joseph E Bird

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friends

simple desires

I want to have pride
like my mother has.

And not like the kind in the Bible
that turns you bad.

I want to have friends
that I can trust.

Who love me for the man I’ve become,
and not the man I was.


copyright Robert Crawford/Scott Avett/Timothy Avett, from the song The Perfect Space

missing

empty bench 2

He used to come by every couple of weeks.

My office has a back door to the alley, and every so often I’d hear the thump, thump, thump, and I knew it was Keith because no one else ever knocked on the door.  He lives in a high-rise in Dunbar, a couple of towns over.  He takes the bus to St. Albans, sometimes to Charleston.  You used to see him everywhere.  He’d show up at church on Sunday mornings, but never went inside to hear the sermon.  He’d stay out in the narthex with the ushers.  I sensed he never felt comfortable among the Sunday best.

When he’d show up during the week, I’d go to the back door when I heard his knock and we’d catch up for a couple of minutes.  He’d tell me about his daughter, who like him, battled addiction.  We’d talk about his counselor, Lisa, who seemed to be very good to him.  Helped him get through the everyday tasks of life, like keeping groceries in his apartment and making sure he had a good coat for the winter.

“What are you up to today?” I’d ask.

“I guess I’ll go back to Serenity Club,” was a common answer.  The Serenity Club, I gathered, was a safe place for those battling addiction to go and hang out.  Back near his high-rise.

I’d give him a couple of dollars for a cup of coffee and off he’d go.

Halfway down the alley he’d turn and yell, “Thank you, Joe.”  He was appreciative.

But he’s been missing.

I didn’t seem him through last winter.  Probably just staying in, I told myself.  Then spring became summer and I realized that I hadn’t heard his knock on the door for some time.  I began asking around.  Nobody had seen him.  He has relatives who go to our church but no one knew anything about him.

A few weeks ago I drove to Dunbar.  I knew where the Serenity Club was so I drove around the neighborhood looking for him.  Nothing.

This past Tuesday my wife and I were in Dunbar visiting an old neighbor in the nursing home.  We drove by the Serenity Club.  A man and a woman sat on a bench in the alley.  I parked the car and approached them.

“Is the Serenity Club around here?”  I asked, even though I was pretty sure of its location.

“You’re looking at it,” he answered as he thumbed to the building behind him.

“I’m looking for a friend who used to come here.  Keith.”  I told him his last name.

“Never heard of him.  What’s he look like?”

“In his 70s, I think.  Not too tall.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.  How long ago was he here?”

I didn’t really know.  I told him I thought he had been coming for years.  Keith is not the kind of guy you easily forget.

We drove to the high-rise.  A half dozen people sat outside under the entry canopy.  I asked the same question.  I got puzzled looks in response.  Nobody knew Keith.  As if he had never existed.

I got back in the car and circled the lot.  As I turned the corner, I noticed a man walking down the sidewalk beside the high-rise.

“There he is!”

I stopped.  My wife got out.

“Keith!  Where have you been?” she says.

He stops.  He looks confused.  “Who are you?”

I’m thinking this isn’t a good sign.

“It’s Joe and Gloria.”

“Oh.  Hey.  What are you doing here?”  Turns out it was just the sun in his eyes keeping him from recognizing us.

I tell him the story.  That we’ve been looking for him.  Been missing him.  Told him I stopped by the Serenity Club but nobody knew Keith.

“Nobody knows me as Keith.  They know me as Harry.”

“Harry?”

“Keith is my middle name.  I go by Harry.”

All these years, I’ve called him Keith.  Everyone I know who knows him calls him Keith.  He’s never corrected us.  Even his relatives call him Keith.  And then I realize that those who really know him, those who live with him, those with whom he spends his days, call him Harry.

So we spend a few minutes catching up.  He fell sometime in the last year and busted his knee cap.  He seems to be completely recovered but he doesn’t travel around like he used to.  Just stays around the high-rise and the Serenity Club.

His daughter died.  I didn’t ask how, just assumed she finally lost her battle.  Keith is still winning his.  Twenty-three years coming up in a week or so.  His anniversary date is also his birthday.

He’s had a hard life.  The roller coaster, as he says.  It’s worn on him.  You can see it in his eyes.  But if you look closer, you can see the warmth, too.  There’s a kindness about him.

He introduces us to some of his friends at the high-rise.  Friends from church, he calls us.  We all have a laugh about the Keith-Harry confusion.  It’s clear they like Harry.  He seems happy and content.

We give him a few dollars to celebrate his upcoming anniversary/birthday.  We promise to come back and see him.  As we leave, Keith gives us a wave.  But he’s Harry now, back among those who know him best.

coffee people

Tuesday – that’s her name – served me a cup of coffee today.  I know because her name tag said so.  Sometimes it’s Tara.  Sometimes Gina.  Savannah.  George, the Australian.  Others don’t wear name tags.

I’ve tried calling them by name.  They don’t like that.  It’s as if I’m crossing a social boundary and that makes them uncomfortable.  So I’ll just be anonymous coffee buyer and you be whoever you are and we won’t let our worlds collide.

The crew has changed.  I still see the old crew on the street now and then.  The guy with the long hair who wears a trench coat.  One of the old girls worked at KFC for a while.

I never knew the tough guy’s name.  Wore tight t-shirts to show off his muscles.  Friendly enough, but always had a smirk.  Like the guy in school who sat in the back of the class, always on the edge of trouble.  The guy you thought was funny but you always wanted to keep your distance because you didn’t want to be the center of whatever mayhem was brewing.

One morning he has a big bandage on his arm.  I ask about it.  He gives me the smirk.  Then launches into his story.  Some kind of altercation at the drive-through window.  The other guy had a knife and cut him.  But he got the knife and the guy drove off.  Big smirk.  Just another tough-guy story.

The franchise changed hands about a year ago.  The old manager left.  The old crew was replaced. Where are they now?  What’s trench coat guy doing?  Tough guy?

The new people are ok.  I haven’t seen Tara in a while.  She’s probably moved on.

Tara’s a little shy, but I get the feeling she wants to be outgoing.  She has a slight speech impediment.  Can’t pronounce her Rs.  I had the same problem when I was a kid.  My mother and my sisters tried to help.  They started out with good intentions, thinking they could really help me, but when I continued to fail, I became a source of great amusement.  Uncontrollable laughter.  Not cruel, just fun.  Eventually a school speech therapist helped me figure it out.  I always wanted to talk to Tara.  Because we had that in common.

In the world of #MeToo I think it’s important to point out that I am so much older than the kids that work at the coffee joint and I know I’m older and I’m very happily married and have no intention of being the old man creep.  Just to be clear.

I’ve never been one to have many friends.  I never have long talks about life.  Maybe that’s the difference.  Other people have friends and the imaginary boundary between coffee server and customer is easier to maintain.

And so I sit at my table, sipping my coffee.  I think I’ll quit reading name tags.  They don’t really want me to.  They don’t want to know my name.  I’m just anonymous coffee buyer.

 

 

We need to talk.

a glance of the eye, the innocent look
the curl of your lips, was all that it took

That’s the first two lines of a song I wrote a few weeks ago. The narrator is beguiled by a look, a smile. It’s a wonderful thing, even if upon reflection, it seems a little superficial. Though the moment may come and go, like so many moments in a lifetime, it might be the beginning of a relationship.

we talked without words, there was so much to say

In this case, it was just the beginning. They moved beyond the magical, natural physical attraction, and they talked. They had a real relationship. Because the conversation is the relationship.

In the case of the song, it was a romantic relationship. But the conversation is also the platonic relationship. The familial relationship. The business relationship. The political relationship. The faith-based relationship.

If you want a relationship, you need to have the conversation.

Years ago I had a friend with whom I had one thing in common: our faith. We had long conversations about the fundamentals and the subtleties of our faith. Because of that, we were friends. Our situations changed, however, and he moved away and we lost contact.

Twenty years later, the contact was restored. I quickly learned that we no longer had common ground regarding faith. But there were other things. He was (and still is) an excellent writer. So we had conversations about writing. The relationship was maintained. But over the past few years, we have come to realize that our viewpoints had diverged too far to maintain meaningful conversations about anything. Neither of us said it, we just quit talking. Which is ironic, because he was the one who first articulated that fundamental truth to me. The conversation is the relationship. I still consider him a friend, but we no longer have a relationship.

That kind of thing happens all the time. Maybe Chauncey Gardner was right. Maybe it’s seasonal. Spring, summer, fall, and finally winter, when things go dormant.

And then there are all of you out there in internet land, most of whom I will never meet. At various times, we have joined in conversation about many things: music, writing, faith. Any given exchange may be only one or two sentences, but over the course of weeks, months, and years, we get to know each other because we talk. Sure, it’s in bits and pieces, but we talk. And because of that, we have relationships.

Weird how you can have friends, yet never sit across the table from each other. Never see an expression of surprise or concern or contentment. Never know what their laugh sounds like. Never hear the sound of their voice, even while you’re having a conversation.

Maybe it’s not weird at all. It’s just good.

Here’s wishing for more of the same in the years to come.


Footnote: The author Susan Scott is credited with the concept of the conversation being the relationship. In her book Fierce Conversations, she discusses the importance of the conversation in all relationships.

the band

the-band-3-for-web

the-band-for-web
My music career started early.

When I was 11, my family was living in Houston and I got together with the guys in photo and formed my first band. Ok, my only band. We had a name but I don’t remember what it was. The guys, however, I think about all the time.

From left to right:

Ricky Penton, guitar player, I think, in addition to maracas. His nickname was Pinto Beans.

Randy Crabb, singer, bongo player. I think those were my bongos that I got on a trip to Mexico. I liked his older sister, Cheryl.

Lance Berg. He’s holding a drumstick and a snare drum, so yeah, he’s the drummer.

In center front is Scott Bert, singer. Older brother of Lance. The Bergs were talented. Scott wrote our first original song, Made a Mistake. More on that in a minute.

In the second photo, the kid holding the Polaroid Swinger camera was me. The picture was taken on my birthday and the camera was probably a gift. I’m guessing my older sister, Adele, took the picture.

I was a guitar player.

The kid in the doorway with the cat-eye glasses is my younger sister, Sarah. She’s always been on the cutting edge of fashion. Not sure if she was a fan.

We played two songs, Little Red Riding Hood (which is the same chord progression as House of the Rising Sun, so if you know one, you know the other) and Wipeout. And then there was Made a Mistake, which consisted of counting by five until Scott purposely made a mistake in the sequence. Then the hook, made a mistake, made a mistake, made a mistake. About as bad a song as one could write.

And yet, this was the peak of my musical career. That tells you all you need to know about my level of talent. I still play Little Red Riding Hood and Wipeout occassionally, and since then and I’ve learned a few more chords. But I’m just a pretender, a hack wannabe living in the glow of those glory days in Houston. We played one gig, the big going away party for our family just before we moved back to West Virginia. It was a short set.

And I never saw the guys again. That’s the way it is in the entertainment biz. Fame is fleeting. Everything is fleeting.

Carpe diem.

 

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