Red was a mainstay of my local Starbuck’s morning crowd, not the evening. In the morning he would greet everyone, tossing out a friendly nod or acknowledging them with a gesture, like a glance over the top of his glasses as he read the newspaper.
I’d only spoken to him a couple of times over the years, but we knew each other by sight, if not by name. He was a small man, runty even, with a reddish complexion, hence the nickname. Looking at him now I could see he was forlorn, sad. His face was a dark mask, not like himself, usually a bubbling bubble of a man open and antic and without concern.
Old Red, the lucky retired guy who gets to sit and drink his coffee and read the newspaper while the rest of the world goes to work. Lucky guy. Lucky Red.
Hey Red, I said, passing him by.
Hey, he answered.
Like a switch flipping, his face erupted, exploded, and he was bubbly Red once again. This was in an instant. Then his chatter starts to flow like some rushing river that has escaped the dam.
Red has the ability to hold you in the moment, and he held me now with his words pelting me over and over like some hail storm that comes out of nowhere. What he says doesn’t really matter. He notes the weather, notes the cost of coffee, notes the state of the world in slight seconds, in sweeping drips of passing moments, stirring the air with crisp words strung together without periods or commas, but stabbing the air with exclamation marks every few phrases.
Since I’m in a hurry, I want to bolt now and get on with my evening. But I have to know.
Red, I say, everything OK?
Sure, he says, sure. Then he begins and I immediately know I was right to stop even while I wish I were elsewhere and not here. She died in December, his wife of some 40 years, he said, died after months of pain and agony. This is delivered matter of factly, yet there’s an edge in his voice. He left the house and came here to the coffee shop to see what he could see.
He is about a foot and a half shorter than me, and I put my hand on his shoulder only because it’s really all I can do. He is not himself, this Red. He is another Red, a man looking for something, searching for a way to mourn the passing of a partner of more than four decades. I realize that I am now a part of that process, and so I hold my place, despite a desire to get wherever I was intending to get. Instead, I listen to some more patter and realize the importance of merely being there for someone who’s wounded and hurt.
I realize that above all, these moments are ways for us to administer hope to others, to offer a hand, an ear, a heart. I realized, as he spoke non-stop, that he must have piled up his thoughts over many months and was finally getting to unleash them, not about death and loss and mourning but about nothing at all, the state of the world, the downside of retirement, cops, baseball, the newspaper.
I didn’t have to say anything, so I didn’t.