Friday, May 27, 2011

Not who I expected to meet

I had stepped out of the office to take a quick walk around the block. After sitting for hours staring at a computer screen I had to clear my head and stretch my legs.

As I rounded the first corner, an older black man was standing near the curb. He looked my way and we exchanged pleasantries. How you doing? Pretty good.

As I walked on, I thought I heard him saying something to me, so I turned around, and sure enough, he was. Usually, this is not a good sign in downtown Birmingham. If someone keeps talking to you after you’ve passed he’s usually hitting you up for money. Still, I didn’t want to be rude.

“You’re moving, aren’t you?” he said. “So you’re not just ‘pretty good.’ You’re good!”

“I guess you’re right,” I told him. “I’ll have to watch what I say from now on.”

“No guessing about it. I am right!” he said.

Little did I know that saying I was “pretty good” was going to get me into a 20-minute conversation. But it did.

The man introduced himself as John, said he was 81 years old and has been keeping the law office we were standing in front of clean for the past 30 years. And John has no sympathy for panhandlers.

“I offer ‘em a job. I say help me move these boxes and I’ll give you $2,” he said. “They don’t want that. They say, ‘My back’s bad.’ They want the money up front. They’re not going to spend it on something to eat.”

I told him about the woman up the street who once asked me for money because she hadn’t eaten in three days. “I told her to come across the street with me. I was getting lunch and I’d buy her whatever she wanted. She asked what they sold thee, and I told her sandwiches. ‘Oh, I don’t like sandwiches,’ she said.”

“She wanted to spend it on drugs,” John said.

John won’t give them money because he’s worked hard for what little he has, explaining he still puts in six days a week. He works so much partly because he likes the people who run the law office. “They respect me, and I respect them,” he said. He also does it to get away from his wife. “If you sit around and try to relax, she wants to know why you’re not doing something.”

Turns out that even though John has worked just around the block from me for the entire 15 years I’ve been at The Daily Planet I’ve never seen him. But he’s seen me.

“I see you walking around here all the time,” he said. “Out stretching your legs. You need a break. Working your brain is hard work, too.” He’s seen some of my co-workers, too. John’s not a busybody; he has to keep an eye on who’s around. “There’s plenty of people would rob you out here if you don’t pay attention.”

His house was hit by the April 27 tornadoes. While it is still livable, it needs repairs to keep out the rain. The insurance company, having to pay the hardest hit people first, told him to pay someone to fix it, then send them the bill. He understands that they're extremely busy, but doesn't have the money to pay a contractor, who wants half his pay up front. He had to borrow to get the work started. "That's all right. There's people who got it worse than me."

I'd tell you a lot more that John said, but he repeated himself a lot. And he spoke in almost a whisper, so sometimes it was hard to hear him over the passing cars headed home and the occasional wind gusts from an approaching storm.

I told him it was a pleasure meeting him, and we shook hands. Then he talked another 10 minutes. I finally had to pull myself away before my boss sent out a search party.

Besides, if I stayed too long it was going to be time for my lunch break, and I had planned to go meet an author I had interviewed a few weeks ago who was having a book signing in town. I had followed Jon Acuff on Twitter and Facebook for several months, and when his new book “Quitter” came out this month I requested an interview, which he was kind enough to do. Our circulation isn’t bad, but is far less than the audiences of “Fox & Friends” and “Dave Ramsey,” both of whom also had interviewed him about the book. So I was pleased he’d said yes.

Then he added Birmingham to his book tour, so I dropped by to meet him in case by the next time he’s in town you have to get a wristband and wait four hours to see him. He was complimentary of and thankful for my article, and introduced me to his wife. They had both gone to college at Samford University, which was only a mile or two from the book signing, so he was no stranger to the area. I had been toiling away at The Daily Planet all the years they’d both been earning their degrees right up the road a decade or so ago.

I had to get back to work, and Jon had to meet more fans and sign their books, so it was a far shorter conversation than I’d had with John, but it had been the only one of the two I had planned. Sometimes serendipity steps in. Jon’s book, “Quitter,” is about achieving your dream job while staying with your day job. Jon has found his dream job in writing and speaking full time. John has found his dream job cleaning a law office six days a week at the age of 81. They both were two of the happiest people I’ve met.

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Photo: Library of Congress: Alfred T. Palmer, Carpenter at work on Douglas Dam, Tennessee (TVA), June 1942

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