One morning a couple of weeks ago, I went for a walk in the well-to-do neighborhood in Austin where I was staying with friends. Yard men, pool cleaners, construction hands, and their pickup trucks were everywhere. The workers were almost all Hispanics of dubious legal status. The Anglos I saw were walkers like me. Or bike riders.
Before setting off, I had read a David Brooks’ column on selfishness and altruism (New York Times, June 2, 2017). It was remarkably simple-minded, and seemed even more so, coming as it did from a University of Chicago graduate who reads instead of sleeping. He made the case that the antidote to President Trump’s pernicious self-absorption is for all of us to commit more acts of kindness. It seemed like a reach.
His words were going around in my mind as I moved along at a medium mosey, dodging the pickups and wondering if I would see an ICE raid on these hard-working brown men I was among.
About a mile out, I began to have a twinge in my low back and hip. That was not unusual. I’ve been living with back trouble for decades. I manage it. Most of the time moderate exercise has an immediate palliative effect. Not this time.
Rather than taking a chance on the pain becoming serious, I turned around and started back to my digs. Normally, I would not have been so prudent, but I was in town to attend the high school graduation of a granddaughter that evening. And I had a full schedule of visits with family and friends over the next few days. It wouldn’t do to be immobilized by back spasms.
Suddenly, the pain became severe. Within a few minutes my stride was reduced to about six inches, and I was stopping often to lean over, hands on knees, hoping for relief, and trying to make a plan for how to get back home.
I sat down on the curb once, but the pain of standing up again was too much to bear. Better just to keep inching forward.
In a well-motivated but mistaken decision, I had purposely left my phone behind. A phone has no place on a quiet morning walk. But as I struggled to move along a few inches at a time, I surely did wish I had it with me. Ann was back in Saranac Lake, but my sons live in Austin, so I could have called one of them. It would have been an interesting conversation. “Hey, it’s Dad. Can you take a minute and come pick me up? I’m standing in the gutter on Scenic Drive, and I can’t move.”
A pruning crew was working in some Live Oak trees across the way. I thought about calling out to them. But I’m a man, and men don’t like to admit to needing help, especially not from strangers. It would be an admission of weakness. Anyway, I guessed they might call EMS, and that would be a big inconvenience. I had things to do that couldn’t be done in an ER. Besides that, back spasms almost always go away after a while, no treatment required beyond rest and a few pills.
Several walkers passed by. They greeted me cheerfully, and if they noticed something amiss, it didn’t affect their responses. A bike rider sang out, “Good morning.” Even in my messed-up state, it occurred to me that if she was so visually impaired that she couldn’t see how much trouble I was in, she shouldn’t be out riding a bicycle. (I didn’t think for a minute that she was just hard-hearted, but she may have been.)
Unexpected thoughts like those that accompany a high fever put in an appearance.
A hot-weather marathon. An out-and-back course. At the thirteen-mile turnaround, I was too dehydrated to continue. I started walking, thinking that I’d catch a ride back to the start. There were worse things than being a “Did Not Finish.” Death by overheating, for one
.Once in a while an aid worker on a bicycle would appear, and we would have a brief but somewhat disappointing colloquy.
“How you doing?”
“Terrible. I need a ride.” I seemed to be speaking a language unknown to anyone but me. The race was in Canada. Maybe they spoke only Canadian. They knew a little English, though. They’d respond, “Hang in there,” and then they’d pedal away.The first one gave me a sip of water, but ones who showed up later had run out.
Back to Austin. After a bit, I could hardly move, and I concentrated on not crying out. I was going to have to do something.
I thought about the stinking, hungry, hopeless homeless people I had looked away from and passed by over the years.
A truck pulling a trailer full of lawnmowers stopped a little way up the block. The driver seemed to be looking at me. Could it be?
He got out and walked toward me.
“Are you all right?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Do you want me to take you home?”
He carefully muscled me into his truck.
I think I could have said just about anywhere, and he would have taken me there; he seemed that kind. On the way, he talked. It was like a hit of Demerol. Let me know in so many words that though back pain can seem like the end of the world, it isn’t. His grandmother in Mexico treats her bad back by rubbing on an ointment she makes out of marijuana and alcohol.
When we got to my friends’ house, I offered my profuse thanks and got out. He drove away without my learning anything about him except his name – Nathario – and that he worked in yards all around the neighborhood. A couple of days later, when I was up to driving, I went around looking for him, but without success.
“Amigo, por favor, yo busco por un hombre llame Nathario.” Maybe my pitiable Gringo Spanish was the reason I got nothing but shrugs. On the other hand, given how much talk was in the air about the wall and deportation, I shouldn’t have been surprised at their responses. Another possibility. A bilingual friend had never heard of the name “Nathario;” had I lived a moment of magic realism? My Samaritan was Latino.
It’s tempting to generalize from this incident. Poor Hispanics are more empathetic than well-off Anglos. People who scratch out a living doing manual labor are kinder than people near the top of the heap. Of course not. It was just that this one man who happened to be a Hispanic mower of lawns responded to my need, and some other people who happened to be Anglos and who hire people like Nathario to mow their lawns did not respond. Surely the capacity for kindness and for selfishness is pretty evenly distributed among ethnic groups and economic classes.
Bit by bit, my day improved; the pain abated enough so that I was able to get around if I moved slowly and carefully. Some of that was due to a fast-acting drug. Much of it came from the loving care of my host and old friend Carolyn, an offering she has made repeatedly over many years. Short of calling 911 (not appropriate) or putting me in touch with her neurosurgeon (overkill at that moment), she couldn’t do much beyond letting me know that my pain mattered to her and asking if I needed medicine or a heating pad. That was a lot.
By loading up on pain medication and leaning on a cane Carolyn loaned me, I was able to go to the graduation ceremony. My son stopped by for me, and I hobbled down the driveway to his car. I imagined him thinking, “It’s happened. It was always something that was in the future. But no longer. I have become father to my father.” I suppose his thoughts were not that full blown, but he probably felt something of the sort.
When the last strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” had died away, and thousands of family members (there were over four hundred graduates) gathered at a favorite spot to take photos, I received still another gift of unwarranted kindness.
I’ve never lived closer than a couple of thousand miles of my grandchildren. We see each other once or twice a year for a day or two. I hardly know fifteen-year-Jesse. He’s a little shy, and I don’t recall any conversations of substance with him. But when I was shuffling my feet trying to push through the crowd and keep up with the family, he who talks little, said, “Grandfather, put your hand on my shoulder. I’ll get you through this.” I’ve seen blind people in the Middle East being led by children in that way.
By chance, I ended the evening having supper with my first wife, Judy. It’s been many years since we were tormented by the awfulness of our marriage dissolution, but still, there has always been – on my part at least – some discomfort in being together. Not that evening, though. We chatted and laughed and celebrated in an easy way having retained affection and respect for each other.
The next morning, the pain in my back was gone. Backs are that way. Sudden onset and sometimes sudden departure of pain that only hours before had been debilitating. It seems like a matter of luck. But in this instance, more than luck was involved. I’m sure of it. I have no idea what caused the pain to start, but I do know what pushed it away. It was the caring responses of Nathario, Carolyn, Jesse, and Judy.
David Brooks may be right. Acts of kindness are so powerful they may even be the antidote to a President whose destructive narcissism threatens us all.
Soon after returning to Saranac Lake, I drove to the annual meeting of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, held this year in Manchester, New Hampshire. There I was to receive an award for Ruminations of a Geezerblockhead.
It was not to be; that most unreliable of human organs acted out again. I was unable to move when the time came to take my bow. (Ann had to come from Saranac Lake and drive me home.) I didn’t have my photo taken with Maureen Dowd, who was getting a lifetime achievement award. And I wasn’t standing by the podium when the following was proclaimed aloud to the assembled multitude:
Paul Willcott understands the beautiful specificity of things – his cat, his wood stove, his copy of the Times Literary Supplement, the articles in which are not always so beautifully specific. He writes about how a door may frame what lies beyond and how the clutter of our workspaces frames our lives as if autobiography is always captured in our peripheral vision. He writes about past battles with noisy radiators and current battles with noisy squirrels and noisy ghosts, though if ghosts they are, they are the ghosts of the nuns who once occupied the “erstwhile monastery” in which he lives, and their noise “angelic.” One thing a writer can do is create a life into which the reader can slip for just a while and think it would be pleasant to stay. That’s what Willcott does.
To paraphrase Mae West, my writing has been rejected (over and over starting in the sixties), and now it has been praised. Being praised is better.