Mr. Brown's Shoeshine Stand

I decided at the end of my Month of Hundreds that I would aim to give away $100 every week through the end of the year. Something about having that C-note in my pocket makes me more aware of what is going on around me; it’s just a fact.

I spent the weekend in Boston, where Elijah is attending college. We had a great visit and talked, among other things, about my verifiable history as a cheapskate. He told me how the Oregonian reporter had called and asked if he could give her some examples of my cheapness.  He apparently had no problem coming up with a slew, and reminded me about the time I drove around the block waiting for the guys at Jiffy Lube to put out their “$10 Off” sign. Stuff like that. I am very glad to see that my kids are both sensible and generous without having absorbed any of my bizarre relationship to money.

The streets were positively teeming with people; scads of tourists as well as lots of folks who looked pretty down on their luck. It was chilly out, though nothing like it will be in a month or two. I saw people curled up in doorways, huddled in sleeping bags and sometimes under a sheet of cardboard.

On Saturday morning I went to get coffee at Borders and was doing some browsing when I noticed a well dressed man sitting in a comfy chair. He was sitting up straight with his eyes closed and appeared to be sound asleep. I watched him out of the corner of my eye as I thumbed through a book about the back roads of Ireland.

After a few minutes a store employee approached. He didn’t say a word, just grabbed the back of the guy’s chair and lifted it up. Then he let it bounce, hard. “Hey! Get up!” he barked. The sleeper’s eyes opened; he was now dazed yet alert.  The employee told him to leave, then stood there staring him down.

I found this scene very upsetting and impulsively stepped to the guy’s side. “Have you read this book?” I asked him. I guess I wanted the employee to know whose side I would be on if it came down to it.  The sleeper looked at me somewhat blankly and said, “No, I haven’t read that one.” Then he stood up and left.

I went to tell the employee what I thought of the situation and found him standing behind the counter. I understand that they don’t want the store used as a hotel, but the guy wasn’t bothering anyone and I didn’t see the need to be rude and disrespectful. He told me they had been trying to wake the guy up for a while (really?) and were about to call an ambulance. “And”, he preached, “These people generally don’t want an ambulance called.” I put the books I had selected back and left without buying anything.

When I got to the airport today I still had the C-note in my pocket. I had plenty of time and a long flight ahead. It felt good to stretch my legs so I wandered around for a bit. I passed a shoe shine stand and was offered a shine. My suede boots were not a good candidate but I stopped to chat for a while. The shoe shine man asked me where I was going and told me he was headed for Berlin tomorrow; he’s lived there on and off since he married a German woman in 1977. His wife doesn’t like living in the US, although they tried to make a go of it. He has a second job with the airlines so he flies for free and goes back and forth every few months.

My mother was from Berlin, I told him. “You’re German, then! That’s what I tell my kids! Don’t deny your heritage! Just because you’re American doesn’t mean you’re not German, too!” He told me his name was “Brown, like the color.” A man came to get his shoes shined and Mr. Brown turned away and got to work.

I walked around a little more and thought a lot about Mr. Brown. He was going to Berlin? Tomorrow? It seemed such an unlikely coincidence. And he didn’t strike me as an international traveler. But there I go again with my assumptions.

Berlin is the city from which my mother fled as a young woman and never returned.  The city where her wealthy parents had their business and all their property confiscated by the Nazis. I’ve never visited and never wanted to. Berlin seems… scary somehow.

I turned back and went to find Mr. Brown. I told him I had a favor to ask him. A bit warily, he said sure, what was it? I explained about my mother’s family and that they had been largely ruined by the Nazis. How my mother had left some of her fear planted deep within me. And that she had died not long ago. He nodded with understanding and watched me carefully.

I handed him the C-note. “It would mean a lot to me if you would take this with you to Berlin and do something good with it.” His eyes lit up. “Oh, wow! Yes, ma’am! Yes, I certainly will!” He wanted some ideas for what I had in mind so we talked about some possibilities. “There’s no homeless there, you know,” he reminded me.  “Germany has got it going on; they know how to run a country!” Then he said, “OK, I get it! You’re blessing me and I’ll put a blessing on someone over there.” Then, “I’ll be thinking about you the whole time!”

I thanked him and we shook hands. He pulled a guy over to snap our photo then laughed at how small I looked. “At least I have a nice smile,” he said. He gave me all his phone numbers. In case I want to talk some time. And I really should make it over there. Berlin is a beautiful city, he said. With beautiful people.

As I walked away I heard him sing out, “Shoe shine! Shine ’em up! Shoe shine!”

Mr. Brown, I’ll be thinking about you, too.

Me and Mr. Brown

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