September 15, 1999
Passed a bar called Silly Al’s
I scarcely ever go to bars,
but that name was practically
enough to make me want to start!
Mirrors Don’t Lie
I said to a person cleaning a big mirror at the Hospital this morning: “Let me see how you’re doing.”
I looked in the mirror, gave her an ok sign. “Good job.”
She laughed, understood.
The Stairwell Crooner
He had tried the club circuit when he’d been younger. He loved to sing, but a career had been a no-go. Perhaps he’d been too shy, performing in front of crowds. Now, he sang in stairwells. Great acoustics! Arias, pop songs, show tunes… Nobody ever saw him. He was always a flight above, or below. But his voice throbbed through the entire stair vestibule of a building—stirring, thick, authentic. Closing your eyes, you could really imagine yourself at Carnegie Hall. You never knew when you’d be treated to his rich baritone. It could happen in any building downtown, but sometimes even in a far-flung suburb you’d have a wonderful surprise.
He became a kind of legend. But after a number of years, he completely disappeared. You’d walk up a stairwell, feeling an expectant itch in your ears, but it would inevitably be followed by disappointment. Nobody ever knew whether he’d died, moved or retired. But hundreds of souls downtown who had been touched by the Stairwell Crooner still, when they duck into a vestibule to walk a few flights in lieu of a slow elevator, still hear his liquid voice in their minds. And some of them, holding the hand of a small child, begin to recount: “You used to hear the most wonderful Music here!” And receiving a puzzled look from the baffled child, continue the tale.
The Signatures I Get
I have to get a signature for every delivery. One day I had—and this really happened—a person whose last name was “Love” sign for something. Then, an hour or so later, a person whose last name was “Money” signed. I didn’t laminate my copy of the Manifest, but it was kind of cool.
Meeting Characters from Long Ago
The two most interesting things, though, that have happened with signatures while I’ve been doing this, have had to do with the characters of the people. They were more than cute little coincidences.They remind me of the difference my old literature teacher described between “plot” and “story”. Plot, he said, is “the king dies and then the queen dies.” Story is, “the king dies and then the queen dies of a broken heart.”
Sometimes I’ll be looking down at the Manifest when the person signs, and I’ll scarcely notice the person. I did this on one of these two occasions. It was late in the afternoon and I was trying to finish up and get home. I was delivering some envelopes to a Merrill Lynch office high in a downtown skyscraper.
At first, though the elegant office was open, there didn’t seem to be anyone around. After a few minutes a fellow on his own way home came walking out through the receptionist area. I asked him if he’d sign for the envelope, and he said he would. I saw only his thumb and fingers clutching the pen, and the pen scrawling on my manifest, as I readied myself to instantaneously key in his name and e-mail it to the dispatcher. The pen wrote in a totally illegible scrawl. Then, though, the hand started to print, neatly, beside the signature— “Jim Mudd”.
I looked up.
It was Jim Mudd! So this is what had happened to him!
Jim Mudd had lived somewhere in the neighborhood when we’d been kids. I’d never known exactly where. He was a year older than me. He went to Catholic schools, but during summers we would both hang out around at Flynn Park, the big park and playground adjoining Flynn Park Elementary School, where I was a student. University City ran a summer program we both attended.
Sometimes, though, after program hours–on weekends or in late afternoon–we’d sit in a circle around Jim and his friend, Shelley Sansbury, and listen to them hold forth about about “older” things. I was extremely impressed, and always felt shy in the presence of such worldly folk.
One day Jim’s glance had lit on me as I sat in the circle, silently listening to him and Shelley discourse.
“Your parents didn’t fuck right,” he said with a laugh.
I had a vague sense that I was being made fun of, though it was the first time I’d ever heard that word and I didn’t know what it meant. Silently, I tried to puzzle it out from the context as Jim went on to another subject.
Another time, Jim and Shelley were reporting about “Jerry Lee Lewis concert” they’d been to downtown. Rock n’ roll had only recently come on the scene. Everyone knew Elvis by this time, but I’d never heard of Jerry Lee Lewis. Again I sat silently puzzling, thinking, “Gee, Is Jerry Lewis singing rock ‘n roll now, and using his middle name?” I didn’t ask, probably because I didn’t want to be made fun of again.
After the summer of 6th grade I never saw Jim again. Now, forty years later in the receptionist area at Merrill Lynch, I loudly exclaimed “I know you!” and proceeded to tell him the things I remembered. When I did, he remembered me, too.
Jim and Shelley had been “bad boys” at Flynn Park. Somewhere in the intervening years—who knows what he’d had to go through first— Jim had taken himself in hand, sobered up, and done whatever he’d had to, to wind up as a quiet, middle-aged man working in the financial world. He seemed like a nice fellow, humbled by life. I missed the flamboyant boy I’d known, and it seemed like he did too, but I have the sense he’s probably a better person for all he’s endured.
Then There Was Earl Steiner
The other significant signature was Earl Steiner. He signed on an elevator. He worked for the company whose office I was enroute to, so that I never had to leave the elevator to make my delivery.
I was focused on the Manifest to watch his scrawls, too, suddenly become a whole past I’d had something to do with. I hadn’t been close friends with Earl, but we’d gone all the way through religious school, Hebrew School, and later, pubic high school, in the same classes.
There had always been something about Earl that…well, you couldn’t put your finger on it. There was just something vaguely…different. Now, seeing him in his well-tailored suit, 35 or so years later, I realized what it was. It was like his whole life, as I’d known it, suddenly came into perfect focus.
When Earl had been little, he’d always seemed out of place, I realized, because he’d always seemed like an adult in a child’s body! Now that he was an adult, he appeared completely comfortable with himself and his surroundings—a perfect fit! I imagined what it must have felt like for Earl to grow up.”Ah. This is what it’s about!” he must’ve thought.
I’m happy for you, Earl.
The Courier and the Billionaire
I often see each day at this job as an opportunity just to keep the ball of communication and inclusion rolling. I’m glad to report that when I tell others about this effort. Many report that they see life that way, too.
There was once a fellow who got a courier job like the one I have. But this guy was delivering mysterious packages and envelopes for an eccentric billionaire. The billionaire paid him very well, his only stipulation being that the courier discharge his mission responsibly and with courtesy and cheer. The courier did his employer’s bidding daily for years, carefully remembering the guidelines. He delivered packages so heavy he could scarcely lift them, and envelopes so thin they’d blow away in the breeze if he wasn’t careful. He took them from one end of the metropolitan area, to all points of the compass in the surrounding region, and occasionally even farther.
He never had the slightest clue what was in any of the parcels, and he never asked.
At the end of the billionaire’s life, the tycoon called the courier in to his sick room and asked him, “Do you know what you’ve been delivering all these years?
The courier replied, “No, sir. I’ve wondered at times, but you never told me and I believed that had you wished me to know, you would have.”
“I never knew whether I was bringing people great fortunes or ruining their lives. My job was simply to get the packages and envelopes to their destinations and to behave according to your instructions. I was always careful to spread cheer, as you had stipulated.”
The billionaire said, “Remarkable. You never even looked.Would you like me to show you what you were delivering?” He picked up a box from a coffee table in front of him and cut the taped ends. He pulled out the flaps and pointed the opening toward the courier, who now saw that the box was empty.
“Nothing!” said the billionaire, emitting a bellow of laughter from deep within himself. “All these years I was merely training you to be loving and cheerful, to spread joy to those you encounter! The packages themselves were all empty boxes. The heavy ones were weighted with lead, just so that you wouldn’t suspect what was going on, and would be able to concentrate on the real work I’d assigned. ”
Looking out from his bed, the billionaire smiled. He beamed silently at the courier for what seemed to the latter a long time.
“You’ve done your job well,” the old man finally went on. “I’ve kept tabs. The receptionists and shipping agents you’ve dealt with report that they look forward to your deliveries. They enjoy hearing you sing quietly as you get out of your car. They love the anecdotes you tell them sometimes, about a little thing that happened during your day. They love your smile and your laugh, and especially the fact that you listen to them when they have something to say.”
“Now I’ll tell you another secret,” the old man leaned closer. “The agents and receptionists were instructed to pass anything you delivered on to a special agent at each company, one whose position was maintained and whose salary was paid all these years by me! The heads of these corporations were all personal friends of mine, and they indulged me. These special agents promptly destroyed all the boxes and envelopes delivered by you, and sent the metal back to me to be re-used.”
“So you see, my sole purpose in employing you was to train you as a perfect servant. And I’ve done so. Your training is complete now. Whatever you decide to do for the rest of your life will express the qualities you’ve developed over all these years. And I believe that I’ve paid you well enough that you are no longer in financial need of your job.”
“That’s true, sir,” said the courier. “To tell you the truth, I did it the past few years just because I enjoyed it.”
“Well,” said the billionaire. “You may do as you wish. My work is finished. Long ago I vowed to train one person in love and service, and then move on.”
The courier suddenly realized his fortune. He bowed his head and brought his folded hands to his forehead. He could not see, though, if his longtime employer was smiling or bowing in kind, or indeed if the words “move on” might mean the old man had taken leave of his body right then and there.
Too many tears were blurring the courier’s vision.