Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bach and My Father

Six days a week my father sold shoes
To support our family through depression and war,
Nursed his wife through years of Parkinson's,
Loved nominal cigars, manhattans, long jokes,
Never kissed me, but always shook my hand.

Once he came to visit me when a Brandenburg
Was on the stereo. He listened with care—
Brisk melodies, symmetry, civility, and passion.
When it finished, he asked to hear it again,
Moving his right hand in time. He would have
Risen to dance if he had known how.

"Beautiful," he said when it was done,
My father, who'd never heard a Brandenburg.
Eighty years old, bent, and scuffed all over,
Just in time he said, "That's beautiful."

- Paul Zimmer

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I am stuck in a long line of cars queuing up at a tollbooth outside Chicago. It's a breezy spring afternoon and the sun collects inside my car warming it up against the air-conditioning. I am fumbling for change, counting all the coins in the cup-holder and still coming up short. There are a few tucked away in the crevices of the passenger seat and as I slide my hand into its various joints I am amazed at how many secret places a car can hold, places where the human hand, for all its purported dexterity, is utterly useless.

I am so busy in my prying that I don't notice a car has cut into the line in front of me. A sparkling white Range Rover with tinted windows, it has flashing silver rims that spin within the wheels. A car built for shining in the sun and shoving into queues. I don't mind and let him in. With the window down and the music from other cars wafting in the air, it is a pleasant wait, something that we achingly long for all winter when the season deadens us against the prospect of ever idling in traffic again. Chicago is just a few minutes away and, within Chicago, that small nest of culinary excellence, Devon avenue, with its nihari and ras malai, its sambhar and dosai, its endless curlicues of fat golden jalebis. I fish for coins and quietly convince myself that this may, in fact, be bliss.

The line thins out and the Range Rover exits the booth. I slink up, ready to hand the attendant a fistful of glory. She smiles at me and tells me I don't need to pay.

"The guy ahead of you paid for you, for letting him cut in line."

I blink stupidly at her. "Sorry? What?"

"He paid for you. You're all set. Have a nice day!"

I wish I could say that I was smart enough to hand her the change anyway and pass the surprise on to the next person. We travel so much among strangers, who knows what will bring joy to another. Maybe there was a child in the car behind me and the parents would have used the opportunity to explain to him the importance of being kind. Maybe somebody could just have used a smile.

Instead, I thank the lady and drive off, letting the coins fall on to the passenger seat, ready to scurry back into their hiding places. An act of human kindness shouldn't have to be such a shock. Hopefully next time I'll remember to be more generous.

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