I was in Target on Sunday with my toddler. I was grabbing some water for her as we headed to Kenneth Hahn Park for some kind of cook out to celebrate the wedding of a family friend. She was smiling and playful, hugging me from the cart as she normally does, the familiar stream of non-sequitur babble that is the lingua franca of the pre-K set serving as her soundtrack.
Honestly, I’d gotten side tracked. I swung by to see if I could find a set of behind-the-head headphones after breaking my best pair, a birthday present from my wife, while I was at the laundromat, before we got a washer & dryer at home. I’d ended up somehow in the paper products aisle of the grocery section when I needed to find those tiny little bottles suited for little hands.
As I passed overpriced Tupperware, I noticed an elderly Asian woman was reaching for those cube-esque boxes of tissues on the top shelf. She wore some kind of light blue and white polyester jacket, was maybe five foot one, and was having quite a hard time straining for an object just beyond her reach, like many of our dreams.
I didn’t think about the very real perception issues Questlove discussed, I didn’t think about being an hour late to the event (I had no belief they’d even started grilling the chicken, honestly, and I turned out to be right). I simply said, “Can I help you, ma’am?”
She didn’t look. It’s possible she didn’t understand, or didn’t believe I was speaking to her, as she kept reaching, straining on tip toes, an aluminum walking cane hanging from her left elbow that reminded me of elderly relatives in snowbound parts of the country. I asked again, closer now, my arm near the shelf, and she said “Oh … okay.”
The box she’d been reaching for had torn plastic, so I reached past it and got an identical box, then handed it to her. “Is this all right?” I asked, kneeling slightly and speaking in the quiet tone that southern streets had shown me you should speak to somebody that much closer to the other side. She smiled and nodded, and said, “Thank you.” I smiled, responding, “Happy to help,” and reached back for my plastic red and white cart without another thought about it.
My toddler clasped her arms around me and said, “Daddy!” (she’s started doing that because I believe she senses “baba” — the word we settled on for our blended family — isn’t echoed enough in the “real” world for her) and I patted her back, not thinking much about it, making my way along the store’s wall towards the possibly overpriced flouride-enhanced water.
Maybe my littlest girl saw something that’ll stick with her — two people from very different cultures just being civil for the simple reason that there was no reason not to. Handing an old lady a box of tissues doesn’t change any of the horrible and sometimes illegal things I’ve done in my past (and believe me, there are many), nor does it qualify me for some special consideration as one of the angels. I’m just a tall dude who grew up in Memphis who saw something that needed doing, something that didn’t cost me anything and that (spirit willing) didn’t call down the wrath of Rule 285 on me (again).
Some days later, I’m reminded of an Arthur Ashe quote my friend Geoffrey Thorne posts fairly often: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
I’m trying, you know? I’m trying.
Playing (Music): “Pedestal” by Portishead