Wednesday, 12 December 2012 | 60 comments

There’s a bar in the center of DC’s Union Station’s soaring atrium. It’s the kind of place that collects all the passersthrough and commuters and the odd federal employee who has finished a day of calculating labor statistics. It serves cheap happy hour specials and the kind of food that travelers want. Wings. Chips and salsa. Crab cake sandwiches. None of it’s that good, but it’s hot and salty and so satisfying, however briefly, when you’ve skipped lunch after a day of meetings.

I sat there last week. I had about a half hour to kill before hopping a bus home. I started a new job Monday: a little more money, a sleek new tablet computer thrown in to sweeten the deal. I was brooding. Transitions do this to me, throw me into a tailspin, even though I technically have everything under control. The new job is intense, but probably good for me, professionally. I love the “food stuff”, though, the cooking, the garden, my home, and I worry I’ll be taken away from that. I’m plagued by a guilty sense of privilege despite the “non-profit” classification of my work, like the swag that comes with the new job is too much, and moreover like I don’t belong in this world.

The conversation around you at any given bar in DC is absurd: “Oh no, I don’t want anything to eat, I just had some nibbles at both the Ukrainian embassy receptions.” “So I said to Senator Dodd…” “The situation in Turkmenistan is tenuous at best, but we’re working on it.” (These are all real conversations I jotted down in my notebook.)

I’m not anywhere apart from this world of privilege. I am flying to Ghana, tomorrow, a week after starting my job. But even though I’m kind of the same as the Ukrainian embassy nibblers, I feel decidedly apart from them. At home, the wonderful folks running the veggie farm in our town don’t seem to understand why I won’t leave what they consider the “establishment”. Yet , in DC, everyone at my workplace has degrees in medicine or public health and doesn’t seem to care about where their food comes from or how it’s grown or how we get access to it and cook it and eat it.

I’m nursing a beer, decidedly not the healthiest way to kill time until my bus, but whatever. My backpack is on the chair next to me. A man approaches. “Sorry,” I say, hastily moving it to my feet as he scrreeeeeks the stool first toward him, sits heavily down, then screeeeks it back in, toward the bar.

The bartender comes over. “A—a—jimbeam,” he says, haltingly, just as screeek-y as his chair. “With cuhhh-coke.” The bartender adds, “And lots of ice, right?” and then, placing his hand on the man’s forearm, says, “Joking, just kidding,” and the man laughs, if you can all it that, hoarse, thin. He brings him a Jim and Coke, no ice.

I’m still brooding. I have my arms folded and I stare into middle-odd distance, I haven’t even looked at my new neighbor. “I’m Jimmy, too,” he says, possibly to no one in particular, but I turn and he’s looking at me. Jimmy is hunched and has wrapped an American flag bandanna around his frizzled, long grey hair, with a pair of holographic-lensed shades resting on top. His beard threatens to swallow his thin lips. He has a vague southern or country drawl, and I say, “I’m Sarah,” and turn back to the beer. I take another sip.

“S-sarah,” Jimmy says. I turn to him again, and he’s lopsided, half-grinning. “DC,” he says, and it sounds like “DT”, “Marijuana?”

“Yeah, there’s marijuana here,” I say. He grins larger. His teeth are ruined. Meth head? I wonder. “W-where?” Jimmy asks me. I gulp my beer. “I actually don’t know,” I say, somehow sorry I don’t have the street sense to tell him. He shakes his head. “In California…you…can have a card.” He holds up his hand in the manner of holding a card. “Yeah, medicinal. They have that here too, “ I tell him. “They just legalized in Colorado.” “Oh y-yeah?” he says. “When?” “Just this last election,” I tell him, and he looks confused.

I go back to my beer, and Jimmy to his drink. Then, a tap on my forearm. “How do you get the c-c-…the c-c-…” he can’t get it out, and makes the shape of the card in his hand again. “You have to see a doctor,” I tell him. “You need to have a prescription.”

He sighs a little and rubs the base of his spine. “Have pills,” he says. “Still h-h-urts. Two…h-h-…” he then makes the motion of taking a hit on a joint. “Two of those and…better.”

Another few seconds. “Veteran,” he informs me, pointing at his American flag bandanna. “Oh!” I say, “When?” “Korea,” he shakes his head at me, knowingly. All the wars in my lifetime have barely affected me, but I nod too.

I’m starting to feel bad for Jimmy and I look at him that way, pityingly. He shakes his head and grins. Smiles, wider, again, lopsided. Pulls something from his pocket. It’s a harmonica. “You play, Jimmy?” He nods, vigorously. Puts it to his mouth. “I love harmonica,” I tell him. “Me and my boyfriend mess around with guitar and banjo. You know that setup Bob Dylan had? I would love to have that so I could do both at the same time.”

He nods again, more, puts it to his mouth, and then, then, Jimmy is playing me harmonica in the middle of Union Station at rush hour. People in the center bar at Union Station turn and looks at us, Jimmy playing some beat-up rusty harp and me leaning onto my elbow. Playing, of all things, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” after I told him I like Bobby D. I have strange tears welling up behind my eyes and reach for my beer as social security blanket, only to realize it’s drained.

“Don’t Think Twice” stops suddenly. Jimmy reaches for my glass, taps it, motions the bartender, and points at the glass again. “Oh, no Jimmy. Seriously. I appreciate it, but you don’t have to do that, really.” I look at my phone, and I’m supposed to be leaving to grab my bus in ten minutes. Jimmy orders another Jim and Coke and smiles at me. I order another beer from the bartender. I slug down three gulps.

He points to his spine. “You—youuu know…” he trails off. “No,” I say, “What do you mean?” “St-oke,” he says. “St-st-oke,” he repeats, pointing, again, to his spine. Jimmy had a stroke. I nod in recognition. “Stroke, I’m so sorry,” I say.

He shrugs. “One side…up. One side, down.” And a half laugh, half sob escapes me, because what a way to describe the hemispheric differences stroke survivors sometimes have. I am chugging my beer now, cognizant that I have to leave to grab my bus in three minutes, and cognizant that I really, really shouldn’t be running to catch a bus punch-drunk, but that I ordered that beer to stay here with Jimmy.

Jimmy is sliding out the cocktail napkin from under his glass, and painstakingly, painstakingly produces a ballpoint pen from his leather jacket pocket. He leans over the napkin, the entirety of his body leveraged into the effort. I drink more, deeply, the beer almost drained. In four minutes. He slides the napkin over. In shaky handwriting he has written:

JIM:

and then, a phone number, which I can’t read. The condensation from his drink dampened the napkin, it wrinkled and tore under the pressure of his pen, and I can make out probably 3 of the 10 digits.

I look at it. Jimmy presses it into my hand. “Thanks,” I say, and I need to go. I stow the napkin safely in the front pocket of my purse. I tell Jim as much, and he reaches to shake my hand. I surprise myself and hug his smelly self, and he presses a wet kiss on my cheek. I smile, I don’t know what to say, I shoulder my bags and walk away, fast, standing up for the first time since I started drinking the beer and feeling that peculiar head rush.

I run down an escalator, through a hallway, up some stairs, headrush, more, lump in my throat. I see the bus, I run, the doors close, the driver starts away, but then, impossibly, stops, doors open, let me on.

“It’s okay, honey,” the driver says, encouragingly, “You made it!” And I’m wondering why he’s saying it as if I should be so happy about it, and realize that a big fat alligator tear is running down my cheek. I must look ridiculous. The whole bus is looking at me curiously and I sit down, hugging my bag to my chest.

When I get off the bus at home, Ben stands leaning against the car, a bouquet of winter field flowers in his hand, fluffy white bits beginning to float away from yellow-green grasses arcing up prettily and seed pods hanging open, and I start crying, first tearing up and then shaking, hard. Food, nourishment, health, poverty, privilege, whether or not, I am here, and I don’t deserve any of it. I wished I had told Jimmy something, anything, but the truth is I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

§ 60 responses to

  • Dana

    This is just beautiful. This is why people write – to express these types of complicated thoughts, experiences, and feelings, in hopes that someone else has felt or experienced them, too.

    The world contains boundless human experiences. It’s so, so easy to become consumed with the tiny thread of our own life. Sometimes the immensity of the human experience just washes over me, and, like you, I realize that I just don’t know. But also that it’s ok, that the not knowing is part of the collective experience of being alive. And then gratitude for it all, especially the ability to see, notice, and feel, even if what you’re feeling is that terrifying-but-freeing infinite boundlessness.

  • Such a moving story Sarah. These are the experiences that draw us out and widen our horizon so that we can reassess, reorganize, and reconsider what it means to be ourselves standing in our own shoes. Though disorienting and emotional, these experiences that allow us to settle back in deeper, more fully aware of who we are, where we stand, and what matters. Thank you for sharing.

  • Most days I chastise myself for wasting too much time on the internet: then I read something like this. Thank you.

  • uncatim

    Don’t think twice, Sarah – you are all right.

  • Ruth

    Thank you.

  • Wow, now there’s some writing. Beautiful, Sara. Thank you for this.

  • Gorgeous. Thank you. Through this story about a stranger at the bar, I think you perfectly captured the inexplicable tensions and disconnects I often feel, too — between my professional drive and love of the food world, between the fast-paced and contradicting worlds that swirl around us and make my head ache. Go, lady, go. You’re doing it right, just by asking the questions.

  • Wow. Thank you for that. And you do. Deserve it all, that is. Think higher, feel deeper says Elie Weisel….and share your gifts. And you just did. I’m very grateful you did.

  • AJ

    Thank you for writing this … it’s a beautiful piece

    It’s a good reminder to me that we’re not just sitting on our own islands – that we do all interconnect and maybe we need to think about what we can do for all not just worry about ourselves

    Thought provoking …

  • Laura k

    Thank you for writing this. I started tearing up after reading this during a tea break. This is exactly how I feel after going home some days. I work with mentally ill patients , most of whom are in the lower income to no income bracket. I guess all you can do for yourself really is be grateful for all that you have, and show kindness to whomever and whenever you can.

  • Sharon

    Thank you Sarah for your vulnerability in sharing this story. You did make a difference!

  • Oh sweet Sarah. This life and this world can feel so overwhelmingly confusing, and you have captured so well the way that confusion can crystalize sometimes, in a moment. When it all feels too much, remember this: sometimes, bearing witness is all we can do – it might not feel like enough, but it is so much better than nothing. Thanks for sharing, and for caring.

  • Thank you Sarah for sharing, I am so moved.

  • Beth

    Beautiful writing, and a wonderful addition to your blog. You made a mark on him as much as he did on you. Know that!

  • Mary

    Best thing I’ve read on the internet in a long time. Great essay, Sarah. You captured a feeling that is nearly impossible to put into words–thanks for that.

  • Len

    Oh, Sarah…Thank you so much. You made me cry. You are such a beautiful, beautiful human being.

  • Amanda

    Lovely. Thank you.

  • Oh Sarah. You brought us right into that moment with you. And sometimes you don’t have to know. You just have to open up and make a connection.

  • Deborah

    Thank you.

  • Melissa Nunes

    As someone who will probably never be in a bar in DC, I appreciated the experience. I hate the situation, if that makes any sense.

  • jenna

    i haven’t had this experience, but these thoughts yes. it is hard to see and grasp the disparities in the world. i feel very privileged too. thanks for making me think about it again, right now.

  • Sally

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crocodile_tears

    • Whoops, someone needs to check her idioms, huh? I was under the assumption that it wasn’t false, but rather big, round, caricatures of tears. Interesting. Thanks for the help; will get it right next time. -S

      • Aoife

        If the responses on twitter are any indication, you’re not the only one confused!

        I like your interpretation, though. :)

  • Sally

    :)

  • Maggie

    Sarah, I’m not sure I believe in karma; I’m not sure I don’t. To quote a wise friend, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” But it seems that two acts of kindness came your way after you gave Jim what may be the only warm attention he has enjoyed in awhile. First, the bus stopping after it had started on its way and Ben waiting for you with flowers! (And let’s just give him boyfriend, husband, significant other award of the year right now!) Our lives are so often made of these smaller moments. And you do know, because you are courageous enough to let them touch you and brave enough to share them with the rest of us.

    Love and safe travels while you’re away from home.

  • Sarah, I don’t know you, but I feel like I just want to say hello and thanks. I can connect to this story because of its raw humanity, and it is touching. Thanks for sharing. You are a compassionate writer, and I appreciate that.

    Laura

  • Wow Sarah, I just discovered your site today and read this powerful post. The beauty of your humanity and honesty has left me haunted (in a positive way) all evening.
    Thank you for sharing this – I look forward to digging into more on your site. Cheers!

  • Oh boy, you kicked me in the gut with that one. Beautiful.

  • Nicole

    Beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Courtney

    You had me in tears at my desk. Beautiful. Thank you for writing.

  • Sometimes people just need to talk. They need to feel that someone is listening to them and we are lucky when we get the chance to be that person, to be the one who orders another drink and makes eye contact, instead of turning the other way and grabbing one’s phone. Privileged or not, it is how we interact and communicate with other people, all people, that really matters.

    Thank you for sharing this. I like to imagine how Jimmy’s harmonica sounded that night at the station.

  • Hey Sarah. The same day you wrote this, I was visiting the Western (formerly Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. I’m not Jewish, but I was kindly allowed to approach and pray. I don’t know how to explain it, but as I touched the wall, with the crevices filled with little folded papers, the tears just flowed. Looking back, I had the same feeling as you. “I don’t know” and profound pain. I’m so glad I allowed the reality of the suffering in the world to wash over me. It makes me long for something more.

  • Sarah,
    I have had these same feelings of leading a (what I feel to be) privileged life… asking why me? Why is the gentleman on the street corner holding a sign asking for food not me?

    I went through a period of about a year when I would cry (more often than not) when I’d see what I believed to be an injustice of this world. I frequently would say to myself, “I don’t know. I just don’t get this.”

    Let yourself question things, as you clearly are. Try not to get too wrapped up in it.

    I ended up leaving my career in which privilege was all around me for various reasons. (I am not at all saying you should consider this. I am simply saying it was part of my life process. )

    Try to let yourself just “be” with the tough stuff without judging it, perhaps just notice. This may give you some distance with this issue further clarifying something you are working out.

    All the best… Kelly

  • Kerri

    Sarah, Thank you for writing this. So much of this gives voice to the same tension I feel on a daily basis as a social worker. There will probably never be any easy answers, but I’m glad to know that I am not alone.

  • Sarah R.

    Lovely, touching, human post. Thank you

  • Heather L

    Beautiful.

    Thank you -

  • Amy

    Thank you for sharing such a precious moment of human interaction. It always astounds me that we rush past so many other souls everyday without an opportunity to truly hear their stories. When you stop and take the chance to know someone, really look at them, even for just a moment, you open yourself up to the true power of the universe: humanity. We are all here, none of us know why, but we are here together.

  • Magnificent writing Sarah—x

  • Theresa

    We are ALL renting….
    Trying to get to know each other when we can.
    Thanks for the honest recollection of your time with Jimmy.
    I don’t know. I don’t know either.

  • Oh wow, I got so choked up reading this. Your talent with words is a great gift to honour this man and your interaction. Even if we don’t have all the answers, the love you gave him in that moment is beautiful. It’s incredible how some random interactions with strangers can affect us so profoundly that sometimes we wish to hold on to them and make it all ok. But the reality is that it is a moment in time that you will both cherish. I’m sending some love out to Jim and hoping he meets more nice souls like you.

  • Jessica

    licked in the palm of my hand
    by an uninvited woman. so i have held
    in that hand the hand of a man who
    emptied into his daughter, the hand
    of a girl who threw herself
    from a tenement window, the trembling
    junkie hand of a priest, of a boy who
    shattered across viet nam
    someone resembling his mother,
    and more. and more.
    do not ask me to thank the tongue
    that circled my fingers
    or pride myself on the attentions
    of the holy lost.
    i am grateful for many blessings
    but the gift of understanding,
    the wild one, maybe not.
    -Lucille Clifton

  • Ellie

    This is just so beautiful. Thank you so much.

  • Tunie

    Being a writer, it’s probably more difficult for you to see that actions speak louder than words. Your tenuous expression of unconditional love likely said way more to him then words ever will. Thank you so much for sharing so generously – with him, with us. You totally deserve everything good that is offered to you, please accept that. Don’t let your own beauty and the expressions of abundance that do exist in the world frighten you. Best of luck in Ghana and with your new job.

  • I have just finished reading this post and my thought is, gosh I’d like to meet you… Jim reminds me of someone I was very lose to who passed away and you taking the time moved me. When my two girls were younger they asked me why I always said hello and talked to strangers and although I know it’s probably not good stranger danger advice, I told them that everyone has a story and you need to talk to hear amazing things. Life is richer for those moments.

    Travel safe x

  • Beautiful writing. It stems from openness, kindness, and yes, bravery to witness without judgment.

  • Beautiful story. I know that bar in Union Station well. Thank you for sharing.

  • Tom

    I came here a few weeks back for your cavolo nero and eggs recipe, I made it and enjoyed it massively on a Sunday morning. I came back again, due to how beautiful your photographs are and to find some inspiration for my own blog. I didn’t expect this, truly beautiful writing which like others have said captured a brilliant moment and although sad it may be your situation and realisation, still a very brilliant even beautiful moment. Thank you.

  • Maura

    Gorgeous. Thank you for sharing, I needed to read something like that today. Your prose is beautiful.

  • Stephanie

    Wow. Thank you.

  • stunning piece. thank you for sharing this.

  • Ava

    I walk past that bar everyday on my way to and from work. Never stopped to think about it for a minute. Now, every time I walk past it, I will be thinking of you and Jim, and the stories that everyone around me have to tell. Thank you for this beautiful story.

  • wow. just wow. i am tearing up reading this. its amazing when you have those little random connections that really make an impact. love this.

  • Jen

    I’ve never read your blog before and only found it because Food in Jars linked to your winter greens gallette. I’m so glad I decided to read more! I love when I find someone who can not only write a good recipe but can also WRITE.

  • Michelle

    I was going to respond to the DC/health “establishment”, but now I’ve forgotten what I had wanted to say. This was beautiful. So many of us wander through our days without any sort of human connection. Your encounter was so genuine, raw, and powerfully felt–even through your words. Thank you for sharing.

  • Tammee

    Thank you.

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