I went to the post office today. The mailman left me a pink notice just after Christmas but I hadn’t found the time to pick up the package it described. The second notice said if I didn’t pick up the package today, the day after New Year’s, they would return it to sender.
I knew what it was. My stepsister, Tracy sent me a pound of wild rice from Minnesota. Nothing reminded me of home as much as chicken wild rice soup, and Tracy, knowing that I wasn’t going home for Christmas, sent me a pound of wild rice. I knew it would be the real stuff, the kind you can only find in my midwestern home state. I could already taste the soup I was going to make and I didn’t want the package sent back to Tracy. Not after she had gone to so much trouble for me.
So off to the post office I went. It was only a couple of miles from my house, but wind advisories issued that day were accurate and my little car was rocked by the strong gusts as I drove the short distance. Driving down the road, there were few people on the sidewalks. One usually sees a lot of pedestrians in Baltimore, but the wind and the cold kept most of them indoors it seemed.
Just before I reached the post office parking lot, I saw an old man, bent against the wind, making his way painfully down the street. He was tall and very thin. He used a cane and dragged one leg.
Step, cane, drag. Step, cane, drag he went. It was agonizing to watch him. I drove by and went into the post office.
My timing was good. Not too many people were in line. I stood and waited my turn. When I was next in line, I glanced out the door and there was the old man, continuing on his painful journey. Step, cane, drag. He stopped once, to catch his breath, then continued again, making slow but determined progress.
I wondered where he was going. It was cold out, and the wind was nothing to trifle with. It has to be something important I thought, to bring him out in such conditions. He was dark, that kind of blue black skin that reminded me of my dad and his Mississippi roots. The man’s jacket looked warm but hung loosely on him. His shoulders had been broader, his legs wider and stronger once. He looked closer to seventy than sixty, but it was hard to tell. Untrimmed whiskers over his lips were white and wisps of white hair stuck out from the knit cap pulled down around his ears.
The customer at the counter was sending a package overseas and the clerk was having a hard time processing the postage. It was taking a long time and the line was growing longer. Several postal customers passed the old man, as he made his way down the sidewalk. Step, cane, drag.
I thought he would keep going, but he made his way down the handicap ramp and entered the post office. He turned to the area where the post office boxes were and I wondered if that was really his intended location, or did he just come inside to get out of the cold and the wind.
Then I thought, if he is going to check his mail box, I hope something is in there. What if he came all this way, in the cold and wind, only to find an empty box? I hoped he found a card from a grandchild, or a package from an old friend, better yet a check from some government agency. Something that would make his trip worthwhile.
I still waited my turn, not in any real hurry and decided, if the old man was still in the post office when I was done, I’d ask him where he was heading and offer him a ride. In Baltimore, you don’t offer strangers rides, especially if you’re a woman, but I didn’t want to watch him walking anymore.
A few minutes later, the old man was at the door and leaving the post office, and off he went going in the opposite direction he had been headed, returning home probably, after getting his mail. Step, cane, drag.
Now there was no question. When I left, I would offer him a ride.
Finally, it was my turn. I picked up my package, bought some stamps and hurried out the door after him, wondering how he would react. I caught up to him easily. He was headed into the wind now, and the going was harder. He was concentrating on the sidewalk just in front of him, his shoulders hunched up around his ears.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said.
He stopped and turned to me, a look of surprise on his face. His dark face was lined in experience. His eyes yellowed with age.
“I saw you on your way here. Can I offer you a ride?”
“Really?” he said. His shoulders drooping slightly in a sign I took for relief.
“Yes. I bet you’re not going far.”
“No, just over by the Bayview Liquor store, you know.” He said. That made me pause for a second. Was he headed there to buy a bottle of something? It didn’t matter. I would take him.
“Yes, my car is just over here.”
He smiled, all of his crooked yellow teeth revealed. “That would be great,” he said.
I walked, at my normal pace back to my car. I wanted to push the passenger seat of my two-door car back as far as it would go. He was taller than I had thought, and I knew it would be hard to fold himself into the seat. By the time I got the seat adjusted, he had made it to the car.
“A pretty lady offered me a ride,” he said, smiling as he handed me his cane, sat down on the seat and struggled to get his legs in the car.
“A pretty lady offered me a ride,” he repeated, finally getting himself settled. “It reminds me of a poem I wrote.”
A poem? I thought. It was the last thing in the world I expected him to say.
“You’re a poet?” I asked.
“No, no,” he said. “I just dabble, you know.”
“Well, I’d love to hear it,” I said.
So he told me his poem, six or seven lines of rhythmic, surprising words. I pulled out of the parking lot, smiling now too. I glanced at the man, his weathered, ashy dry face, his eyes so yellow and aged. And he had just told me that I reminded him of a poem, one that was beautiful and pretty damn good.
“That’s lovely,” I said. “You wrote that?”
“Yeah, I just dabble, you know,” he said. “I wrote it after I read one of Shakespeare’s plays again.” And he quoted a few lines of Shakespeare, saying the words as if he truly understood the meaning, felt the purpose of the phrasing. I wondered who the hell this man was.
“You’ll have to tell me where to go,” I said.
“Just up here, couple blocks,” he said. “Let me tell you another one.” And he gave me six or seven more lines, lovely words with meanings I would understand better if I could see them in print and could contemplate them more fully.
“I’m a writer,” I said. “But I’ve never written poetry.”
“Oh, I’m not a poet.” He said. “I just dabble, you know.”
By this time, I could see the Bayview Liquore store. It had only been three blocks. Three blocks that probably would have taken him twenty minutes to walk and I wished it had taken us twenty minutes to drive it. I wanted to hear more from him. What had he done for a living? What other things had he written? What did he get in his mail box?
I turned the corner by the liquor store, wanting to get off the busy street so he could take his time getting out of the car.
“My name is, Mary,” I said.
He turned his yellow gaze to me. “Raymond,” he said, offering me his large and calloused hand. A working man, I thought, or maybe it was just from gripping his cane.
“I thank you for the ride, Miss Mary,” he said, unfolding himself from the car.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Raymond. Happy New Year.” I said.
He smiled and waved and didn’t go in the liquor store. Instead he went to the neat little row house next door, gripping the stair railing as he made his way to the door.
I drove away, so glad the line at the post office had been slow. Glad that I had offered Mr. Raymond a ride. It was a good thing to do. I’m not a big do-gooder or anything. But I dabble, you know.