“Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?” – Walt Whitman
Upon entering Kohl’s, I went to the shoe department and aimlessly began browsing. That’s when I heard his voice: loud and filled with laughter and kindness. Half-expecting to see my grandfather (who has been dead now for over 16 years), I turned and in my grandfather’s place was an old, black man wearing khaki pants, a khaki jacket, a matching hat and white tennis shoes. He was asking the young salesman to bring him a pair of tennis shoes in size 13. The young man simply pointed to the aisle and said, “Any tennis shoe we have would be down here.” The old man and his tag-a-long friend (a black man in his 50s with crazy hair, sloppy clothes, a Carhart jacket, and a red knit hat sitting precariously on his head) stood and looked perplexed at this young kid’s statement. The old man calmly asked again for a pair of tennis shoes, no matter the brand, just as long as they were on clearance and a size 13. It was obvious to me that the kid didn’t understand “old school ways” in which the salesclerk used to have you sit down and would measure your foot, bring out the shoes to you, and help you try them on while also helping you decide which shoe best suits your overall look.
The young salesman looked confused and started leading the two men up and down the aisles. After a few minutes of searching, the kid walked away and the old man and h is friend were left to search for themselves. The old man started laughing and continued looking while repeating to anyone that would listen, “Yes, I’m lookin’ for a pair of tennis shoes, size 13.”
As I picked up a random shoe and looked at the price for myself, I decided it was time to move on and stop eavesdropping. Just as I put the shoe down on the shelf, I looked up and made eye-contact with the old man. He had the loveliest face. Though he looked to be in his 80s, his skin was smooth and the color of mocha. He smiled at me, and his big, dark brown eyes drew me in and seemed to say, “I’ve been lookin’ for you. I know you.” He had the nicest smile and the kindest face and those eyes literally sparkled. I felt like I could cry, and before I knew it, I was in love.
He grinned at me and repeated again that he was looking for some tennis shoes, size 13. No longer an observer, I took it upon myself to join in the quest for tennis shoes. This old man welcomed me into his search party, and I asked him what exactly he was looking for (as if I didn’t know). When he told me, I said, “I can help with that. Why don’t you have a seat right here, and I’ll bring a couple of pairs to you.” He liked that idea and sat down and began talking to me about his day. He informed me that he and his buddy, Melvin just got back from the Casino Queen, and he decided he needed to buy himself some shoes because he had a coupon and a senior discount coming to him. I smiled at him and turned to Melvin to see what he had to say about all this. Melvin just smiled, and his gold-capped tooth lit up his mouth. He mumbled something to me, and since I couldn’t understand him, I turned back to the old man and asked him what color of shoes he wanted – white like he was wearing,, or brown to match his clothes? He replied, “Something that will fit my feet and go over my stockings.” Saying this, he pulled up his pant leg to reveal compression hose that helped with poor circulation. With those instructions, Melvin and I split up. He took the clearance aisle, and I perused the newer sales nearby.
It was obvious the old man was a “talker” and, in this regard, he reminded me a lot of my grandpa. My grandpa never met a stranger. You could leave him sitting at a bench in the mall while you quickly stepped into a store to buy something, and when you came out, he would be talking to someone and extracting his life story. Other times he could be in line at the bank or down an aisle in the grocery store and talking to so-and-so about this-and-that. Grandpa’s face was a kind face, just like the old man’s.
It’s been my experience that people who have kind faces have warm, open hearts and can share life’s small moments with you, easily and simply, regardless of the short amount of time spent with them. A glance or a smile in passing or a brief conversation in the shoe department of a local store is all it takes to make time become more fluid. In its wake is an intense moment of sharing, of loving, of swimming soulfully in each other’s presence.
I brought a couple of pairs of shoes back to the old man and placed them at his feet. He began searching through the first box, but stopped before taking the shoe out. He smiled up at me and asked what I was doing out alone on a Friday night. “You should be on a date,” he playfully said to me. I informed him that I didn’t have a boyfriend. “Girl, you’re too pretty not to have a boyfriend. What’s wrong with you?” I meekly said to him, “I just haven’t found the right guy, that’s all.” After drilling me on how old I was (33) and if I had any babies (no), he was speechless for the first time since I met him. He quickly recovered and told me I better get to work to change all that. I sheepishly tried to tell him that I was a liberated woman and that I didn’t need a man to complete me. He saw through my mask to cover my loneliness and just smiled at me and changed the subject.
While he was chatting about something else, my mind began to carry me back to my teenage years. My grandpa used to talk to me a lot about the topic of finding a “good feller” when I was in high school. He old me that I was pretty and could pick any boy that I wanted. In my warped, overly sensitive teenage brain, I used to hear: “Something is wrong with you. What do you do that makes boys not like you?” That thought pattern has stuck with me on and off throughout my adult life. My grandpa was my hero. The man who told me stories, made me laugh, and even listened to me as I shared my fears of puberty; yet, anytime this particular subject rolled around between us, I always felt like I was disappointing him by not having a boyfriend: the crowning glory and reward for my youthful beauty. Now, here sat another old man before me telling me the same thing. His comments seemed sharp and judgmental. It stung a bit, and it was all I could do to fight back tears. Didn’t he realize this was a sensitive subject for me?
I forced back a tear long enough to take another look at him. He sat there smiling at me and fumbling with the shoestrings. I realized then I wasn’t ready to walk away from him. He had asked me my name, and so I pushed back more tears and told him. He introduced himself as Andrew. He asked what I did, and when I mentioned that I was a high school teacher, he sat up straighter in his chair and said, “My wife was a teacher.” I asked him what she taught and he replied, “English.” This time, I was the one who smiled deeply. Regardless that I teach mostly Spanish classes, English was my major in college, and it is how I define myself. “I bet she keeps you on your toes. We English teachers have a way about us,” I teased. He laughed and told me that she was a really smart woman and she never minded that he was just a janitor at the school where she taught. He went on to say that even though he wasn’t book-smart like her, he was a good mechanic and also fixed all of the buses in the district. I told him I believe there are a lot of different ways to be smart in this world. He simply looked at me, and I noticed that his shoulders relaxed a bit, and he had a teary look in his eyes as well. Leaning forward, he simply told me, “You see right through to a person’s soul with them big, brown eyes. You could be a fortune teller with those eyes.” Then he chuckled like he was telling me something I should already know.
Again, the onset of tears. Mine. No one, except grandpa ever said anything that revealing about myself to me. I didn’t know how to react, so I changed the subject. I mentioned that I overheard him say that he and Melvin just got back from the Casino Queen. “Did you have any luck?” I asked him. Before he could answer, Melvin came over and handed him a shoebox. Andrew looked inside and fished out a spiffy pair of white Nikes with blue and gold piping on them. Andrew liked these and proceeded to take off his shoes and try them on. His compression hose were not fully pulled up past his toes. They had puckered up at the ends and made his feet look like and elf’s. He grabbed a shoe from the box and then said, “Oooh yeah. Me and Melvin play at the casino. I play the Sevens.” Not being a gambler by nature, I had no clue what he was talking about. He mimed playing a slot machine. I laughed and said that he and my mom would get along well together. She loves to play the slot machines that line up all the 7s, fruits, and diamonds, all while she smokes and talks to anyone who happens to be nearby.
I turned to Melvin and asked him if he played the Sevens with Andrew. Melvin mumbled something I took as playing Blackjack and occasionally winning. I smiled at him and wondered about this seemingly odd pair. I turned back to Andrew and asked if he ever won. “No. It’s not about winning. It passes the time. But ooooh boy, when everything lines up, I feel lucky!” He laughed and tried to lace the shoe with his arthritic hands. He mentioned luck doesn’t happen all that often, so you have to take it and run with it and enjoy that moment. “Does your wife care that you gamble? Do you take her out to eat or buy her something nice when you’ve won?” I joked. He stopped what he was doing and looked up at me and sorrowfully said, “She’s been dead now for three years. But we were married for a little over 60 years.” My heart sunk. I apologized and told him how sorry I was to hear that. He smiled and skipped over my comment.
He asked me again why I don’t have a husband or any babies. The old feeling of disappointment washed over me, but I decided to be honest with him, instead of guarded and defensive. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve just had a hard time meeting or finding someone. Why do you think that is?” I asked. Expecting to hear an analytical answer or a sympathetic statement to my question, I was taken aback when he told me it was because of my eyes. “You’re choosy,” he said and went back to pulling the shoe on his foot.
I’ve been told so often that I’m picky and that I’ll throw away any man if I don’t like the way he walks, talks, dresses or acts. Now, here I stood in the middle of a department store with a kind old man who didn’t mince words, nor did he take pity on me. He was telling me the truth about myself. He looked right through to my soul with his eyes. The The truth is, the loneliness exists because I place such great emphasis on the expectations of having someone in my life. In the past, I was looking outside of myself to gauge how I was doing. I would make excuses or lie to others as to why I wasn’t involved in a serious relationship: he’s not attractive enough, he competed with me, he told me I wasn’t pretty enough, he said I was controlling, he lived too far away, he wore a Nascar jacket.
Hearing those words from Andrew, I was stripped bare of excuses. Part of me thought I should leave our conversation and continue down the same familiar path I’ve been traveling; a path that was littered with routine, blame, and bitterness. However, if I did that, the same results would keep happening: men would break up with me by e-mail, my phone calls would never be returned, I would continue to sit on my couch trying to understand what I was doing wrong, and trying to manipulate situations and scenarios that would increase my chances of meeting someone. If I stayed here with Andrew, I could be real with him and bare my soul just enough to see if he could help me see myself more clearly. The truth is, I’m running out of excuses and am at the point where I have to turn the table and take a look at myself to see what needs changed in order to unblock the love that is mine for the giving and the taking. Maybe this was the conversation I was supposed to have a long time ago with my grandpa.
I looked over at Andrew and saw him fumbling with the shoe and trying to push it on his foot. Without thinking, I knelt down at his feet and helped him. We began talking casually again about his granddaughter in high school, about his late wife and the house they lived in. He shared with me how they met while he was in the Navy (she thought he was handsome in his uniform). His arthritic hands rested on his knees while he allowed me to lace up the shoes. His hands reminded me of my grandpa’s. Grandpa had rheumatoid arthritis in his late 40s, and when I knew him, he was on pain medication and had already gone through two hip surgeries and rod implants in his toes and fingers. My mother once told me that he constantly lived in pain, but he never really talked about it nor engaged in self-pity. Instead, he always shared his life, and asked me how I was doing in school and told me stories about his youth. With every story came expressive hand gestures in which they flew in excitement or reached out to you when he asked a question. His body language made you feel what it was like to give a rich man a ride in a cab when you were young and starting out in life, or made you visualize delivering the mail with him along his route. Ending with every story, tall-tale, or recollection, was his smile that radiated from his eyes.
Kneeling in front of Andrew, I looked up and saw a similar smile. Immediately a flash of energy crossed between us, and I forgave myself for being briefly angry over his earlier words to me. Suddenly, I was moved to ask him, “Is it so bad being picky?”
“No, it’s not. You should be,” he said. He set me straight by saying,, “But I didn’t say you’re picky, I said, ‘you’re choosy.’ There’s a difference.” He proceeded to tell me that there was absolutely nothing wrong with me. I realized he was saying I had a gift. That I could look at people and read them and connect with them on a deep level, but my intensity sometimes got in the way, making people feel uncomfortable. All a man wants is someone to recognize him for who he is, he instructed me, and that I have to use my eyes to do this. “How?” I asked him. And he turned to me with a loving look on his face, put his hand out, and simply replied, “You just smile. That’s all.” Then, he smiled at me with his eyes shining and sparking like moonlight rippling on a calm ocean.
At that moment, Melvin brought over two more boxes of shoes, and Andrew discarded the flashy Nikes for a more conservative pair of brown New Balance tennis shoes from the clearance rack. I helped him put them on, and he said he liked them. He stood up, walked around and stated that they were a fine pair of shoes. He had Melvin put his old ones in the box, and he took out the 15% coupon from his wallet along with some money. Andrew reminded Melvin to not forget his senior discount either. Melvin took everything and crossed the aisle to the checkout counter. He stood back patiently waiting for Andrew and I to say our goodbyes. Andrew reached out his hand for a polite handshake, and I wrapped my arms around him, hugging him tightly. I almost wept, and I thought, “My God, I love this man.” Andrew hugged me back, and I knew then it was my cue to leave. I said goodbye again, and I watched him turn and walk towards Melvin. They both got in line, and time opened its door to the future and ushered me out of the store.