Passport to the other person

Payoff from the chance meetings in line, or elsewhere

Opinion

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By BOB SULLIVAN

Let's see, we left off on a testy note a week ago, the subject being, "we ought to talk more, but not just surface stuff." We were criticizing slovenly an un-imaginative mouthings like "wuzzup" and "wuzznew" and "howyadoin," and that oldie but baddie, "havenizday."

It's hoped that your patient indulgence isn't strained by one final example in the form of this Emo Phillips joke told on himself:

Emo was walking east into a west-blowing blizzard on Wacker Drive, near Michigan Avenue. It was January. It was windy. It was cold. He turned south on Michigan, and has almost reached the next block when it registered that he had blithely passed by a little 85-year-old woman down on one stockinged knee trying to changer her flat tire. "Emo! Emo! Emo!" he scolded himself. "That poor little old lady back there needed help, and you walked blithely by her!" So Emo backtracked, looked down on the struggling old lady and blessed her by saying, "havanizeday."

From drabness in speech and lack of imagination in the speaker to "live" communication that frees itself from being closeted, tired and stale, the key ingredient is a willingness to reach back and come up with a new way or two of saying something. This doesn't require you to become a creative guru. Maybe just think of you and another person?#34;any person?#34;as just a couple of guys knocking around in the same universe. Here are some instances:

 

Our first trip abroad: September, 2003, Italy, 17 days, wife, two grown daughters and sister-in-law. First things first: passports. Wife and I stop at Oak Park Post Office, main branch. Join end (where else?) of eight-person line. Stand. Shift weight. Look at paint on wall. Boring. Couple in front of us. Later learn 80-ish lady and 50-ish grandson. Consider chat with them. Break ice with highly unusual question for one in passport line:

"Where are you going?"

"England. She, but not me."

It turned out that the lady, tastefully dressed and sharp, yet modest, had done much traveling. She had been visiting relatives here, and after having lived in many places, was returning to England, where she was born.

Then paydirt was about to be hit when grandson coaxed her with, "Tell them your secret, Granma." The old lady demurred. Again he prompted her and again she gently nodded no.

"Then I'll tell them," he said. "She won the gold in the 1928 and '32 Olympics in (couples) figure skating." Was talking to these "strangers" worthwhile? Oh boy, it was most rewarding.

If we hadn't chatted, we wouldn't have been enriched. The paint on the wall just wasn't that interesting. A few days later, there it was in the Olympic Champions Record Book at the Oak Park Library, under 'Ice Skating Pairs': 1928...Andree Joly (the lady's name) and Pierre Brunet, France. And 1932...Andree Brunet and Pierre Brunet, France. (They had gotten married between Olympics.)

 

Last spring, at the same librarywhere I shelve books part-time in semi-retirement, a young mother pushing a stroller containing her year-old son passed by. As sometimes befitting his age, he was cooing tunelessly and causing no trouble. Deciding on a one-minute break, I accosted the mother further down the stacks and said, "Sounds like Metropolitan Opera material." (She smiled.) Then I addressed the baby boy, "I've heard a lot of good singing in my time?#34;but not this afternoon." He rewarded me with a big gummy smile, and all three of us had a laugh. I guess I created a little moment.

 

John Mahoney, not of Steppenwolf/Frasier fame, is another octogenarian. Years ago, on his Burlington & Northern commute home from Chicago to Westmont, he chanced a curious peak over the seat ahead to see what his fellow traveler was reading?#34;a venial sin. It was Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class." A brief, enthusiastic conversation ensued before Mahoney's stop. (The other fellow lived farther west.) Yet the two sought each other out regularly on the train, and the chance conversation led to a warm and lasting friendship.

 

Ron Hunt was twice married, twice divorced with a son from each marriage. He had a drinking problem that he was unable or unwilling to contain. We worked together as ad agency copy writers and did the social thing. He was an unabashed romantic. His drinking got worse after the second divorce and he moved to a bad part of Boston early in the '80s. To break the grinding loneliness he would call me once or twice a month late at night. He'd go into a crying jag about every other call. Not fun for him?#34;or me. During one of these calls he read from a poem he had written. I didn't copy it all, yet salvaged the fragment below.

I like sharing it. Why? Because it's very good poetry. Because a hurting human being wrote it. Because he had a razor keen mind. Because expression was the need of his soul. Because he had a thirst for things other than booze. Because he was just another guy kicking around in the same universe. And because we're much more alike than different. Ron died in '87 or '88, age 54.

 

Love dies not slow

But in the wink of unreflection;

I touched or I did not touch,

I said or I did not say,

I meant or I did not mean,

I ridded without knowing.

Undone with undoing,

I am done with doing.

 

This spring I showed the fragment ever so briefly during a social function to an Oak Park professor of English and Language who I had not met before or since. I imagined he felt obliged to read and praise. He did read it, yet said little. I noticed, however, that his eyebrows lifted in a telling way, and I think he liked it. I've since considered this poem and that moment as a three-way connection between what some might call strangers.

 

One trailing sentiment by another poet, William Stafford, serves to close the argument:

 

If you don't know the kind of person I am

And I don't know the kind of person you are

A pattern that others made may prevail in the world

And following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

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