In the early- to mid ’80s, my former father-in-law, Ed, gave me an opportunity to work in the parking lot he operated in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. I was in my early 30s, a full-time college student, and married to Ed’s daughter with two sons and precious little time for a job. So, I’d tend the parking lot on Friday and Saturday nights. Ed would get some much-needed time off. And I’d pick up a much-needed buck or two.
A working-class guy with no formal education beyond high school, Ed is the closest thing to a philosopher I’ve ever known. As innately intelligent as he is street-smart, his worldview is informed by a curious intellect; a keen, sympathetic eye for the myriad vagaries of the human condition; an unflagging sense of humor; and a singularly generous spirit. I admire him for all of that. But I love him because he still calls me Kid.
Three more things about Ed: (1) He’s a great storyteller. (2) The only other person who can make me laugh as hard and as frequently as Ed is my next younger brother, Keith. And (3) Ed’s a cigar smoker. When he takes the cigar out of his mouth to talk — holding it between his right thumb and index finger as he waggles the ashes off the tip with the other fingers of his right hand — it adds an oddly comic touch, however unwitting or unintended.
We Are What We Give
On one particularly busy Friday night, Ed stayed for a while to make sure we managed all the traffic coming into the lot. After things quieted down a bit, we walked out to the sidewalk. I stood at the curb as Ed wandered idly west up Asylum Street.
As he walked west, a woman walked east. Her name was Peggy. Not quite destitute, she lived in a tiny apartment on Asylum Hill. Not quite crazy, as far as I could tell, she claimed to have been married to a philosophy professor at a prominent university until hard luck, hard times, and a harder life claimed her. I never knew how much of what she told of her past was true, if any. But I was certain of the challenges in her present.
As they passed each other on the sidewalk, I saw the fingers of Ed’s left hand reach subtly out, seeming to brush Peggy’s. They didn’t appear to otherwise acknowledge each other. They continued walking in opposite directions. As Peggy approached me, she said hello and kept on walking.
When Ed turned to come back toward where I was standing, he realized I’d witnessed what happened. As he walked past me and back into the parking lot, in much the same way Peggy had passed me just seconds before, and without breaking stride, he took his cigar out of his mouth and said this, which is all he ever said on the subject of what I saw, “Everybody’s got a story, Kid. Everybody’s got a fuckin’ story.”
The next day was Saturday. My former brother-in-law, Pat, had worked the parking lot for some small event at what was then the Hartford Civic Center that afternoon. I went to relieve him in the evening.
When I got there, I said, “Pat, this is none of my business. So, please feel free to tell me exactly that. But ….” And I told him what I just told you.
Pat gave me a slight, knowing smile, with an almost imperceptible shake of his head, and said, “Yeah, he was probably just slipping her a $20 or a $50. He’s been helping her out for years.” And therein lies the lesson.
We Are What We Choose
At 18, Ed was in Korea. One night, as he and his fellow GIs slept in the foxhole they’d dug, there was a concussion and a flash. Ed regained consciousness the next morning to find everyone around him dead. Dazed, confused, and very young, he started trudging through the Korean winter, having no idea of direction or destination.
As evidence of his charmed life, the first people he came upon were Americans. They recognized the extent to which he’d been traumatized and started the processing that would put him back in the United States. He arrived in his home town on a bus, disembarking with no job, no prospects, no one with whom to share his wartime experience, and no more sense of direction than he’d had leaving the foxhole in Korea. A friend gave him a job tending bar in town. Ed took the job and reclaimed himself, his compassion, his sympathy, and his generosity.
Ed shared his Korea story with me just one time, as we shared a night of heavy, cathartic drinking. But I witnessed many more manifestations of the lessons it instilled in him:
If a person came in to park and wanted special care taken with his car, Ed never asked why or said no. He’d take the car, hold the person’s keys, and make sure the car was parked safely.
If a street person came into the lot and asked for money, Ed would ask, “Do you want to work for it?” If the person said yes, Ed would hand him a broom and send him down to the garage beneath the lot to sweep up. When the person came back up, and without checking his work, Ed would thank him for his efforts and hand him $10 or $20. And on the stories go.
The value of what Ed gave me has nothing to do with dollars and cents. By his example, he taught me the value of decency, of compassion, of kindness, of respect, of nobility, of modesty, and of putting the stories of others before our own, regardless of how hideous and painful our own stories might be.
If you’re ever on the fence about whether you should extend yourself to someone else, just remember this:
Everybody’s got a story, Kid. Everybody’s got a fuckin’ story.