Last night was one of those rare times that the city snuck up on me.
I was exhausted and frustrated, on my way home from the second-to-last of these days I’ve been pulling in worship of anorexics and bright fabrics. I stopped at the 24 hour deli by my house, to get a beverage before slumping home, and got bushwhacked.
The deli is manned by a pair of Egyptians – one of them, who I mentally dubbed "Moustace Guy" was arguing with an older black man when I went into the deli. I can say for certain, I am not completely sure what they were arguing about, mostly because the older gentleman was clearly somewhat inebriated, and Moustache Guy was vehement, and when agitated, his English gets clipped and heavily accented.
I interceded, initially, carrying on with the funk of my day, by demanding I get some attention. When they paused long enough for me to buy a soda, I got a better chance to look at the man arguing with Moustache Guy.
He was, as I said, older, but that is a relative term of a momentary glance. After a bit of examination while Moustache Guy counted out change, I noticed one thing my first glance had overlooked – the older black man was wearing a Vietnam Veterans hat.
Vietnam was not my war, or my generation’s war. I leave the philisophical waxing of its impact to those who are more versed on the matter, and, generally speaking, have a firsthand understanding of it. After collecting my beverage, I thanked Moustache Guy, then thanked the old man, for his service, and offered to buy him dinner (which, though I did not know for sure, was what I suspected the argument I had broken up was about). The look on the Vet’s face when I thought was a polite offer could not have been more outraged if I had slapped him.
To say he upbraided me would be an understatement. I was raised with a guideline that you should always be deferential to sevicemen – retired or otherwise, and, above all, hold the upper airs of that deference to Veterans. Maybe this was fresh in my mind because of my Grandmother’s recording for StoryCorps, or perhaps it was because of what I had read earlier in the day about the stories that helped Bush/Cheney justify the war in Iraq, finally, out in the open, being linked to solid lies.
Whatever my motivation, my goal was not charity – it was a gesture of respect. I always buy enlisted folks a drink at a bar, if they come in on leave or off duty, and I always try to do something similar, if I run across them in a place that is not a bar.
The gentlemen who I made the offer to, honestly, assumed I was making the offer because he thought that I thought he didn’t have the money, and futher, because I thought he was some "crazy old nigger in a deli after midnite".
In the mood I was in, I have to say, my initial inclination was either to walk away, or meet dislike and distrust with more of the same. Instead, I explained how I was brought up, and the bit about the bar or meal, as it realates to Veterans.
This won me no points, but, at the same time, took some of the anger out of the old man, who suggested we quit the deli, and return to the bar he had come from, where his bag was ,and where I could make good on my (implied) offer of a drink.
This, gave me misginings, particuarly given the hour, and my energy level, but the ruts of upbringing are sometimes the hardest to jump the wheel with.
On the street, Walter and I introduced ourselves to each other. The bar he refereced was not even a block away, and I fell in line behind his lead – a trick for me, since Walter walked about half as fast as I usually do. Now committed to something more than a passing gesture of respect, I really took a close look at Walter, as we ambled across the street under the sulphur light.
The first thing I realized was that Walter was older than I had initially realized, probably closer to eighty than sixty, and that part of the reason we were moving so slowly was because, even though he was walking with a fairly robust pace for someone his age, he was probably about two feet shorter than I was.
Walter had a shaggy mane of grey and white hair, hidden under his Veteran’s cap, and a goatee to match. The insigia on the hat suggested he was attached to the Army Rangers, not an enviable post, in the war he served in. He had a nondescript black jacket, a number of necklaces and rings, and a pair of workboots that looked like they were cobbled before I was toddling.
As we walked I apologised to Walter for insulting him, and explained, more fully, my stance and practice concerning former service members. I explained about my father’s parents, and their parts in World War Two, and about my Uncle, now passed, who got the Purlple Heart in Vietnam, and my Uncle, still alive, who recently retired, after a lifetime of service.
I bought him a drink. We talked for about an hour and a half. He is a pretty amazing person. I don’t think I have the mental fortitude to unfold all the layers of conversational origami we engaged in, but, I can say that the part that surprised the hell out of me came in a couple of conversational trivia points that I didn’t know the answers to offhand. I think, by the end of the conversation, I impressed him, a little – he refuesed to believe my age, or that I didn’t have a self-serving interest in our conversations somehow.
Walter was convinced, perhaps almost to a level of paranoia, that I was a shrink or a scholar, looking for an angle on "one of those damn Doctorate degrees", which is why I had engaged him in conversation in the first place. At the same time, he was incredily proud of his daughter (who is a well placed Civil Engineer), who has a PhD from a reputable school.
Walter was the cook for a Mash Unit, which, as he explained it, was somehow connected to the Rangers. He had a surprising number of pictures in his wallet, from Vietnam. He also had pictures of his daughter, and wallet-sized copies of both of her degrees. I got the sense they don’t talk often.
Walter was born and bred in Red Hook. He was from a millitary family, who he lost points with, late in life, after returning from Vietnam hating the Army. He talked some about the killing fields, and politics, and why things were so bad, even if they seemed okay.
I wouldn’t say he was a hopelessly negative person, but he had clearly had experiences which left him in a sour place between jaded and frustrated. My usual tack – to take the Devil’s Advocate position, left me in fairly unfamiliar ground – trying to look to the positive, and, for a first, argue for hope.
At a point, my arguments about the general negativity of humanity boomeranged on me. I realized that I wasn’t sitting in some bar arguing with an old vet (Walter is soon to be eighty) about anything that I strongly belived in, but, despite _my_ jaded outlook, they were things that I desperately wanted. I want them because I feel like humanity has so much untapped potential, because it should be working towards better things, instead of towards worse things – but, most of all, because I am going to have a kid in a few months. I want that kid to have that world – not the shitty one we have now, and have had for a good long time. I want the world that _could_ be, if people could get their head out of thier asses long enough to see the combonation of shortsightedness and long-term rammifications that are just going to ruin us, if we don’t change somethihg…
Walter was adamant about me not calling the kid-to-be a kid – he insisted on "child". I demurred, but explained that part of why I seek wisdom in experience, particularly from people who have been around longer than I have, is so that I am, in some limited way, better situated to cope with the endless decades of unanswerable questions, fears and dreads, and laughs and celebrations I am about to get myself (and my wife) into.
Walter and I parted amicably. He left me with some homework (I’ve read considerably today, between shows, about non-Black Panther violent Black Power groups, and para-terrorist organizations based out of PR), but still insisted I was in it for the doctorate.
I can honestly say I’m not. I appear to be in it for something way bigger.
|Originally published at delascabezas.com|