A true story from my retail days.
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.Elie Wiesel
I’ve never spoken about this publicly, and the words are a little difficult to find, but I believe it’s a story worth telling.
This is the story of a man I met over a decade ago. His name was Jim.
Those who know me well also know how much I loved my first job as a barista, in a cafe located in the center of a large bookstore. The bookstore was a huge chain, though you won’t find it around anymore. Anyway, I began my training as a barista around the age of 19.
The bookstore, and the cafe therein, had several regulars. These were folks whom we saw every day. It was a joy to prepare beverages for them, and the rapport we all built with them was awesome. It was like having a huge family, or a huge community of neighbors, all enjoying books and coffee. Time passes in happy ways within those communities. You wind up knowing things about each of their lives, what they’re going through, what’s important and dear to each of your neighbors. It meant a lot.
Jim was one of these regulars. But Jim was different than the others. Jim arrived pretty well at opening time, each and every morning. Jim also often stayed until well after 9 o’clock in the summertime, or just after sundown in the winter.
Jim was homeless. He wore beat-up white sneakers, sweatpants, and a polo shirt every day. He had a trucker-style baseball hat and a windbreaker jacket during the winter. In the summer, he had rubber slip-on sandals instead of sneakers, which would reveal dirty feet and long, long toenails. He didn’t have access to a safe shower. He smelled, or so we were told. In the cafe, and on the book floor, we loved Jim. I can’t think of a single person I worked with who even noticed the smell. I think all we saw was Jim, just Jim.
Jim had one advantage in life. He could read. I don’t know if he read particularly well, but he could read well enough, and capitalized on this by devouring all the great authors in the bookstore, and the not-so-great authors after that, and the magazines after that, and the newspapers after that.
I like to think that management secretly wanted him to continue to come in, you know, to have a safe place to be, somewhere where he could have access to new ideas, to good influences. To hope. To a free education, really. This is what I like to believe, but the only evidence I would have to support it is the fact that they didn’t call the police to have Jim removed….that often, anyway. It’s more likely that they had an understanding–Jim would report people he saw shoplifting, and otherwise keep to himself, bothering no one, and as long as he didn’t get in anybody’s way, I think management allowed him to be there.
In no uncertain terms, we were forbidden from giving Jim samples of coffee or pastries–something we did several times a day for all the guests in the cafe. We gave them to him anyway. One of the fellas I worked with was someone whom I really admired. He and his wife would periodically bring Jim home with them after work, feed him a nice hot dinner, let him use their shower, sleep on the couch. Jim only took them up on this if he’d really had bad luck for a few weeks, and needed some help. Otherwise, he’d walk off by himself every night, off to sleep in places we didn’t know, and probably would have been to scared to visit ourselves.
Nowadays, cafes advertise how their leftovers are “donated nightly to the community,” which is a vast improvement over going in the trash, like they did before the Great Recession. In these days, leftover pastries were placed in a box, which the Salvation Army or another church group would pick up the following morning. I was only 19 or 20 at the time, but I remember thinking that it didn’t make sense to me that we had to save pastries for people who would buy them at a discount from a church-run food truck or have to go into some organization in order to get a piece of bread, yet we couldn’t give a sample of pastries to Jim, who was already there, who was hungry. This was just the pastries. The breakfast sandwiches had meat in them, which meant they had to go into the trash at the end of the night, as they weren’t worth the refrigeration since they wouldn’t be profitable, and couldn’t be given to people, as that would create a liability and an opportunity to be sued if a customer happened to get food poisoning. I once knew a guy who cracked after having to throw a good 30 sandwiches away one night. He wound up packing them all up the next night, and marching them straight to the homeless shelter. I think he got fired. I’m willing to bet that he would still say today that it was worth it.
Jim was successful at staying out of the way of management. But we didn’t stay out of Jim’s way. I think every person I worked with wound up spending time with Jim. Sometimes one of us would visit with him on one of our ten-minute breaks. Many folks spent their lunch-hours with Jim, myself included. Sometimes we’d just sit with him. You know, sometimes it’s nice just to sit with someone, and not have to say anything.
Not that this would happen, though. Jim was incredibly shy and easily spooked by people, but he really became a talker once he got comfortable with someone. Many lunches, many afternoons, and very often a good half-hour after my shift had ended, Jim would tell me all about his younger days.
He never mentioned what had happened that caused him to simply uproot his life, leave his family, and leave the idea of having a home address. He always started his history from being a little boy watching trains, and then fast-forwarding to his adult life, when he decided to ride the rails as a real-life hobo. Jim rode trains all day and all night. He snagged open boxcars on moving trains with running starts, he built fires by the tracks and cooked fish he had caught. He rode open-air, cold and free, through all the major landmarks in the United States. He met people from absolutely everywhere.
I have no idea how long he did this, or even if most of it was true. Nonetheless, Jim spoke as a person with the fire of freedom. His blue eyes were eagle eyes, with the experience of soaring where he wanted. He had the gravel in his voice of someone who lit cigarettes at twilight, and sent smoke clouds up to huge open skies, becoming glittered with millions of stars, away from light pollution, away from any pollution. Away from people, from whom he was clearly terrified. That was his secret, which none of us would betray, and he knew it.
Old age had caught up with Jim. He couldn’t run anymore. In fact, he could only walk pretty slow. He had a grocery cart, which he used as a walker, since that’s what he needed nowadays. Sometimes he’d have headaches. Sometimes he’d be a little wobbly. Soon he was wobbly a lot.
More and more often, he’d be overcome with coughing fits. Customers would move away. Management would suddenly turn and stare at him with a suspicious start. The rest of us watched. The other regulars–our beautiful community–knew Jim, of course. They watched warily with us.
It became such that Jim was having more bad days than good. Sometimes it would take him until the late morning or early afternoon to get to the cafe, to his safe place, from wherever it was that he’d spent the night before. Sometimes I suspected that he slept behind the building, and it still took him that long to get into the store. His allies had been fired. Replacements had been hired. Soon, it was just a few of us who were willing to go spend the time.
I will never forget the day I came to work to find Jim in one of the oversize comfy leather chairs in the cafe. I remember thinking how strange; my eyes saw his physical self there in the chair, holding the newspaper, which was pretty usual. But there was something about him that looked…different. Something that felt different. Some instinct in the back of my brain.
I checked in with him, brought him a sample of coffee and asked how he was doing. He couldn’t reach for the sample cup. I placed it among those overgrown fingernails. He gripped it. Barely.
“Are you ok, Jim?”
He looked at me with wide-eyes and this part haunts me still.
He said, “I can’t feel my legs.”
And then, his eyes looked at me, and the familiarity in them was gone. I was alarmed to realize that he no longer had any idea who I was. He was totally at the mercy of anyone who had been willing to ask how he was.
I still start crying when I think of how he told me then, in his gravel voice, so weak on this day, from underneath his dirty trucker hat, with his dirty gray beard.
That was all the information I needed. I left the counter, to go find my manager. Oh, how I wish I had simply called 9-1-1! But I was only 20. I had only seen slow but steady death like this once before, when my grandfather passed away, and I had been a child, and as such, had been given minimal information. I needed my manager. I needed to know what to do.
I remember finding her in the back office, my overseeing manager. She usually made a point to ignore me when she wasn’t making catty remarks toward or about me. I didn’t care. I didn’t have time for her to be ridiculous. I told her there was an emergency.
I told her how I had found Jim, what he told me, and that I believed he was dying. I thought she would have a sense of emergency about it, after all he was dying. I remember the shock I felt when instead, she cooly remarked that there was no reason to do any action until it was clear that action was needed. She explained that the business would have to pay for any ambulance that arrived, and that there was every possibility that Jim was simply trying for sympathy. She’d allow us to call an ambulance when it was clear that one was needed, otherwise myself and everyone else on staff was strictly forbidden to charge the business with that kind of cost. I was informed that if I moved forward with it, there would likely be write-ups for insubordination in my future.
I left the office, numb. My world was a blur. This woman was only five or six years older than me–how was it that she was already so cruel? I had no idea about the hallmark inhumanity of retail management, but that’s a story for another day.
I left the office in a daze, walked through the book floor, and found my way back to the cafe counter, my comfort zone, from which I intended to try and figure out what to do. Praise God: at that moment, a couple arrived and approached the counter. This couple–a man and woman–were regulars, and knew Jim just as well as I did. They saw me right away and asked why I was so pale. I quickly informed them about Jim, about talking to my manager, about not understanding why she’d said what she said, and being lost for what to do.
Oh, this lovely couple. They were a couple of people in the wrong socioeconomic class to be valued by upper middle-class society. They felt like outcasts. They were Pagan as can be. They probably lied, were likely not above running a con against a bureaucracy, probably smoked weed, probably did harder stuff, and yet, they read books and loved ideas, and thought interesting thoughts, and had value as human beings. They were constantly snubbed and spoken ill of by my manager as being “trashy,” but in my opinion, one of them would be worth a hundred of me.
These lovely people sat with Jim all evening. I continued my shift, holding the position of being on-task, since we all knew my manager would be checking over in that direction–let’s face it–to see if there was someone she could scold or write-up. She loved that part. Somehow, Jim had rallied, and managed to get himself outside while the couple had used the restroom or something.
We had no idea where Jim went at night–we could never get that out of him. Only my former coworker was trusted with that information, but he’d been sent away by the same system who refused to call an ambulance for a dying man. Because of some sandwiches. So now, Jim was gone, and we had no idea where, and it was dark and cold.
My shift was long. I remember calling my sister, who works in emergency medicine, to ask what I could do. She confirmed that without knowing Jim’s location, I was pretty powerless. I finally got off work around midnight. I started the car, and drove to the end of the shopping center, about to leave the parking lot. I saw the lights.
The flashing lights of the ambulance illuminated the paramedics as they approached a dark corner of the shopping center–one that led to an alley access door–where a figure lay on a bench, not moving. It was Jim. He would have been difficult, almost impossible, to see in this corner. No wonder we couldn’t find him.
It clicked in my mind that Jim had indeed rallied all his energy, and left the store, to go be free, to see the sky one last time, not to go down gently. He’d made it about 200 feet to this corner area, where he’d lost strength and collapsed on a bench.
I immediately broke into a sob. I had to park the car, and I stayed, and watched, and prayed in the periphery, unbeknownst to anyone, until the ambulance drove away with Jim inside.
I learned later that the couple who sat with Jim wound up driving all around the area, looking for him. They phoned everyone they knew who was connected to the store, everyone who might possibly know Jim. They had found him. They had called for help for him.
This couple spent the next three days in the hospital with Jim, where he lay in a coma until he eventually died. Since Jim was estranged from his sons, there was no one to claim his body for several days, while they attempted to locate his family–who knows how they even found that information. This couple, these wonderful people, claimed Jim as one of theirs. Jim hadn’t had to die alone, and he hadn’t had to be alone, even in death, because of them.
The gratitude I feel toward this couple is immeasurable. We all felt that way. Jim had been claimed by us, too, in a way. He was ours. We had been his. More than this, though. The gratitude I feel toward them is more or less simply because of being a human being. The cruelty I discovered in this experience had been more of a shock than the element of death. It was just so important that someone somewhere had done the right thing.
I was somehow oddly grateful to have been there, as well. Especially since we in the cafe had been the last people Jim had around in his conscious life. We had gotten to be there for him for every second he was able to recognize faces and places, and even afterwards. At 20 years old, I couldn’t make too much sense of this, but I knew it was important, and so I was glad to have been there. We also learned from the couple that the doctors explained he had likely gone into several failures earlier that day. Wanna know what they thought had kept his heart pumping? You guessed it: the caffeine from the coffee samples.
I’m still so glad I was one of the people who gave those out, too. Like my friend showed me with the sandwiches–it’s worth it. It’s just worth it.
So that’s the end of this tale from retail. I like to think I took the lessons I learned with me, about doing my best to have respect and dignity for all. I did very well in customer service. I even rose to retail management with this philosophy. You can probably guess that not only did this philosophy make me pretty lonely in that position, I was resented for it by those who had earned those positions through more conventional means, like my manager at the bookstore.
More importantly, though, I guess what I want to tell you is simply that once upon a time, there was a man named Jim.
And Jim, and that lovely couple, and my wonderful sandwich friend and his wife, this one’s for you: