I became aware of this man – I’ll call him Joe – as he often sat across from me at the cafeteria-style eatery we both frequented. Around four decades older than I, he was no shrinking violet. If I had my daily paper spread out to the side of and behind my bagel, egg and coffee meal, he’d say something like, “Do you think I could have a couple inches of the table?”
Rather than get annoyed, I liked his feistiness and I would quickly move my paper to give him as much room as possible.
But it wasn’t the space I made between us that was to make a difference in both of our lives, but rather the subtle closeness that developed over a number of breakfasts. Yes, the verbal skirmishes continued unabated. I think when he saw that I could take it and even lightly dish it out at times, it was easy for him to open up to me.
He: “I eat this bagel and cream cheese. My doctor tells me I can’t have bagel and cream cheese. According to him I can’t eat anything they sell here but I can’t just sit at home and eat my bland food all the time. I got to get out.” Another time when approaching my table (our table) gingerly with his cane he said, “It’s getting harder and harder for me to walk.”
Between swallows of his forbidden bagel, he told me he lives with his sister who sometimes takes him places but he didn’t like to bother her. Sometimes, when there was quiet between us, I’ d ask him what he planned on doing that day. He’d tell me, “What can I do? I can’t walk well. I can’t see good. I’m in pain.” Then I’d be silent until I finished my meal and wished him a good day.
A few weeks later, as the temperature was turning colder and it seemed that his limited chances to get out would become even more curtailed, I asked him, “What do you like to do?” He snickered. “There’s not much I can do.” I wouldn’t let up. “But with what you can do, what do you like to do?” He thought about it for a minute and gave a brief smile and said, “I like to listen to big band music.”
“That’s good,” I said. “So why don’t you?” He laughed and said, “I don’t have any big band music.”
“There’s plenty of tapes available.”
“I don’t have a tape recorder,” he said.
I left it at that, said my goodbyes and went to work. I wanted to do something for Joe to help make his day a little brighter and I didn’t know how to do it.
I got absorbed with work, especially for preparations for Chanukah at the senior home I work at. Planning for the party, getting the entertainer, arranging for classes of children to come in to entertain and planning the humor program was invigorating and also, by the time I left work, somewhat draining. One night, decompressing, relaxed, as I was walking home, without a thought in my mind, it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks. I would buy Joe a tape recorder for Chanukah and I would buy a big band tape and put it in the recorder.
Busy as I was, it was no problem finding the time for something that meant so much to me. The next night after work I went to Radio Shack and after looking at a few recorders I settled on one that seemed well made and not too heavy. It cost around $34 and I gladly paid it. Then I went a few doors down the avenue to a music store and bought a big band tape. Exhilarated, when I got home I opened the wrapping on both purchases and put the big band tape into the tape recorder. I tested it and it sounded great. I then wrapped the recorder in Chanukah wrapping people and looked forward to giving it to Joe.
When I walked into our breakfast place the next day I was hoping Joe would be there. Fifteen minutes into my meal and he still hadn’t shown. Then I saw him, walking gingerly with his cane through the front door. We exchanged greetings and before he could go up and order his food I said, “I have something for you for Chanukah.” When I showed him the wrapped gift he looked stunned. “What’s this?” he asked. “A Chanukah gift for you,” I answered.
“Thank you very much,” he said, “but I wish you would have told me you were doing this so I could have reciprocated.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
Joe sat at the table and opened the wrapping and when he saw it was a tape recorder he smiled. “Wait,” I said. “There’s more. There’s a tape in there.”
“What kind of tape?” he asked.
“Push ‘play’ and find out.”
Which he did and soon he heard the big band sounds that he enjoyed so much. His eyes lit up. “This is very nice. Very nice.” He listened for a few beats and said, “I’ll have to get you something.”
The next day when I saw Joe he said to me, “My sister couldn’t take me out to the store so I hope you don’t mind that it may be another day or so before I get you a gift.”
“That’s fine,” I said.
The following day Joe walked into our breakfast place looking concerned. “My sister had to get her car repaired and she couldn’t take me to get you a gift. Maybe later today.”
I reassured him that it was okay but Joe didn’t look too happy.
The next day when I saw Joe walking in with a long face, I knew I had to take action. I didn’t need or want a single thing from him. Just seeing him happy with the recorder and the big band tape made me feel wonderful. But I saw very clearly that gift giving is a two way street.
Joe: “I don’t when my sister’s car will be repaired and I don’t know how I’m going to get you a gift.”
Me: “Tell me if this would work. Instead of giving me a gift, just give me whatever money you were going to spend on it, and I’ll but my own gift for myself.
He looked at me with wide eyes of intense gratitude. “You would do that for me?!!” he said.
“Sure,” I answered.
“Oh, this is wonderful.” Then he reached into his pocket for his wallet and asked, “How much can I give you?”
Now I wasn’t going to ask him for the $40 I had spent on his gift, but I also wasn’t going to make him feel bad by asking for some small number.
“Is $20 okay?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, and he reached into his wallet and handed me a 20.
We sat and had an enjoyable breakfast, talking about this, that and the other thing. Joe was happy that he not only had his tape recorder and his big band tape, he had his dignity too.
Alan Magill is happy to have many friends, of all ages. He is a produced playwright and published writer and works as recreation director at Ateret Avot Senior Home in Brooklyn.