The Stranger In The Coffee Shop
My mother would often pour out her heart to total strangers.
My family owned a fruit and vegetable stand, and Ma would regularly regale the customers with the major existential dilemmas of her life, which usually included me. Years later, when I would come to town, I’d meet somebody for the first time and they would look at me oddly and remark, “Aren’t you the guy who dropped out of Yale to join a commune?”
Yeah, I’m the guy.
One day I was eating at Pluto’s, the fast food joint across from our house. A man with a worn face sat down next to me. He stared at me for a few seconds, then asked, “aren’t you Ted Slipchinsky”? I swallowed the last bite of my fake lobster salad sandwich and warily replied, “yes, that’s me”. With barely concealed rage, the man launched into a verbal tirade. I was shocked at the inappropriateness of his words, doled out to a total stranger on a stool in a fast food restaurant.
But to this man I was no stranger. “It makes me sick,” he sputtered, his eyes penetrating through my defenses into the fortress of my soul. He shook his head, like a judge passing sentence. “It makes me sick when I think that someone would throw away an opportunity that so many people would die for. One of the finest institutions in the world, only one year left, and you spit in its face”. The man paused and drew his breath. “Threw it in the garbage, for what?” He paused again and looked at me in utter disdain. “To go live with a bunch of hippies”.
Sometimes you get startled so badly your well worn defenses are useless. At these times, if you listen deeply, you may hear the voice of your heart. I looked into the man’s eyes, but instead of anger, all I could perceive was the sadness of a million lost dreams. From somewhere beyond my mind the words appeared. “Did something like this happen to you?” I asked, surprised by the gentleness of my own voice.
The man looked at me in disbelief. Then his face softened and his eyes grew moist.
“Yes, something happened to me”, he sighed, and put down his coffee cup. “The Depression happened to me…and to a million others just like me.” He took a deep breath and began to tell me his story. He told me how he had wanted to be a doctor since he was ten, had worked after school and saved his money; how his farmer parents had struggled to help him, how he had gotten accepted into one of the best medical schools in the country, and finally…how he had been forced to drop out of school to save the family farm.”
It was a familiar story, told a thousand times in a thousand sad voices.
The man got up and shook my hand.
“I wish you well” he said kindly.
“I hope things work out better for you than they did for me.”