I went to get my car tuned up a last week and ended up having to leave it at the shop for a couple of days while I figured out how I was going to pay for it: over a thousand dollars of work in order to pass state inspection. The car shop had their man, Jack, drive me home. He was 70-something guy, probably a smoker, with the kind of Rhode Island accent it took me awhile to get used to when I moved here. Jack tried to make small talk but I wasn’t in a chatty mood, absorbed in figuring out what I was going to juggle around to pay for the repairs.
A couple days later the car place arranged for Jack to pick me up, early in the morning, to get my car back. It was a gorgeous spring day. The birds had woken me up early. The shock of the thousand dollars was a little worn off. On the way back to the car place, Jack and I conversed about life and business ethics. He was a former used car salesman who’d left the business because ‘well, ya know, things change, an’nat’s all I’m gonna say.’
“I use ta just tell people, even if they loved a ca’ cause it looked good onna outside, ‘I’m not sellin’ it to ya.’ The people who came in widda lotta money, well, they always wanted the best deals, but me, I useta give the best deals t’da people wit the least money, and I wouldn’t let ‘em walk off widda bad ca’.”
I got out of the vehicle at the shop feeling happy. ‘Salt of the earth’ as they say in this part of the country. Good people. And goodness is catching. I waved good bye to Jack, drove off, in a sunny mood, and realized I needed some gas.
The car place is about 40 minutes south of Providence, out near the Rhode Island beaches, small towns and organic farms. I pulled into the nearest gas station and got out to pump. The attendant, a smallish, roundish, oldish man with the sweetest smile in the world appeared immediately, ready to give me a hand. ‘Oh, you’re full serve?’ He grinned at me, ‘Oh yes young lady, there’s the sign.’ Indeed, there it was: We pump your gas. ‘Just relax and I’ll get you all settled.’
I sat back in the car, all smiles, the breeze blowing through the windows. Vittorino, the attendant finished up and came over to the car window. “There, you’re all set now.” I signed the credit card slip. ‘See, we take good care of you here. We even give you fresh herbs.’ I couldn’t tell if he was flirting with me now or teasing me. I perceived an Italian accent but his smile made me wonder if he was putting it on or if it was real. I was kind of in a daze. I didn’t know if I was misunderstanding this bit about the herbs, or if he was pulling my leg. I flashed him another big smile and thanked him again, and started up the car.
‘So you don’t want any parsley? You wait – I give you some fresh parsley.’ So he was for real. I turned the engine off, and he walked with a slight limp over to a bed of parsley, picked off a few bunches and came back. ‘How about some oregano? It’s Italian oregano.’ Most definitely. ‘And here I got flowers too. Marigolds. They are just starting to come up but they’ll be beautiful soon. Come back again. I give you flowers. And tomatoes.’ Another huge, flirtatious exchange of grins. Vittorino handed me my Italian oregano, gave me a wink and I was off.
I spent the sunny, breezy drive home thinking about the gentle, kind and good-hearted old men that I have encountered in my life….
There was Dr. Yen, originally from Kunming, China, ‘in the mountains, where we are tall’ as he liked to say. He was in his 60s, leading the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of Southern California. He hired me for my work-study job in college. I showed up for the interview with spiky blue hair, wearing all-black clothing from the Goodwill and a nose ring. Dr. Yen ignored my appearance, asked me if I could type, and hired me on the spot. I worked for him for 4 years.
He treated me like a daughter, counseled me, guided me, and bounced ideas off me about how to handle his graduate students. He’d eat traditional foods at lunchtime, and then laugh if I’d catch him with his chopsticks. “Ah Mrs. Yen, she doesn’t like me to eat this. She says it’s Buddha food.” He co-signed for me on my apartment when I moved off campus. He let me take time off work to get married in my senior year and told me he’d help me out if I needed anything. He helped me find a job with another department on campus my first year out of college when I had no idea what I was going to do with myself.
And there’s Bert who lives across the street from me. He is in his 80s by now, originally from Scotland. When I moved to the States with my kids in 2001, my mother-in-law came up with us from El Salvador for a couple months. She had no English whatsoever, and would spend her days alone in the house, cleaning and tending the yard while the kids were at school and I was at work. Bert would come over in the mornings and give her a smile and a wave and a brown bag full of tomatoes from his garden. He made her feel welcomed into the neighborhood through a language she understood well. It was often the highlight of her day.
I think of both my grandfathers, one quiet and reserved, one flamboyant. My mom’s father, a soft spoken Chicago Cubs fan, collected stamps and raised show pigeons in a coop in the garage. The smell of lots of pigeons always takes me back to my childhood and my grandpa. He liked to tease us by grabbing our shoulder blades and saying “Look at those wings! They’re growing pretty fast. By the next time you come to visit, you’ll be ready to fly!” Or he’d grab our bare toes on summer evenings and sing “Stinky feet from Eddy Street”.
He was a gold beater and worked in a little artisan’s shop near the house on Eddy Street that he’d grown up in. He’d buy gold, boil it down, cool it and beat it into delicate, thin gold leaves. At the shop and at his workbench at the house, where my grandmother would often spend her evenings, there were little packs of tissue paper and round leaves of beaten gold. My grandparents had a tool to cut the fragile, finely beaten gold into perfect squares. Then they’d lift each square carefully onto stack with special tweezers, add a square of thin tan tissue paper in between and make packs of gold leaf, ready for shipping out. The gold was used to cover fine mirrors or gold domes on fancy buildings. My grandfather was the last known person in the US to hand-prepare gold leaf, and was featured once in National Geographic as one of the last artisans of his kind in the US. He was always referred to as ‘a fine, fine man.’
My dad’s dad was loud and boisterous; an engineer who loved music and theater, especially when he was starring in it. He would play jazz and swing at top volume in the downstairs of the house in Freeport, Illinois, whistling and scatting to the music. Family stories abounded about his brilliance. He was ambidextrous and could write two different sentences at the same time. I remember one Christmas as a child, I woke up around midnight and snuck downstairs. My grandfather was in our front room and the television was on, and it was now in color. Such was the legend of my grandpa’s amazing abilities, I imagined he had turned our black and white television into a color one.
My grandmother got Lou Gehrig’s disease when she was about 70. She slowly became paralyzed from the feet up, and my grandfather became her fulltime caretaker. He’d set her up in a chair at 5 p.m. for their habitual evening cocktail. A scotch sour for my grandmother and a whiskey sour for him. He’d put a straw in my grandmother’s glass so that she could drink it without help. She hated being dependent. By the end, my grandfather had to help my grandma with the slightest thing. She’d wake him in the middle of the night to help her move her legs into different position because they’d become painful. Over time, he had ceded the center of attention to her and moved himself to the background.
My own father too is becoming an ‘old man’. (Sorry, there’s no way around it, Dad). With age, his kindness also grows. He’s been there for me on countless occasions, when I couldn’t tell anyone else what was going on with me. I love to watch him with my kids, his patience and sweetness expanding with the years as he settles into his age.
So this little post is dedicated to these men and all the other ‘old men,’ the salt of the earth, who’ve passed through my life in one way or another, expecting nothing in return, and making the world a kinder and gentler place.