By Karen Kenyon
He stood there, not more than 3 feet from where my friend and I were sitting in the French bakery.
She said later, she thought he was going to sing. We laughed at that afterwards. But at the time it was anything but funny.
Tall, a large build, African American, his clothing was casual and clean. And then you saw the cotton ball taped to the side of his hand, indicating blood withdrawn, or something given intravenously. A hospital bracelet on his left wrist.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he announced. All then turned to look at him. He commanded our attention, and his invitation was offered with some kind of bravado and respect.
His eyes appeared to be squinted shut — almost like a little boy who’d memorized a speech, and now it was time to deliver.
“I have just come from the hospital’s psychiatric ward….”
Now even those who hadn’t noticed the hospital bracelet saw it, I’m sure, and took this into account.
“And I need Lithium.” He paused. “Do you know what Lithium is?”
Then he went on, standing rigidly, eyes still shut, arms straight down beside him, as if it was a performance of sorts, and all carried out with a certain dignity, and as if he didn’t want to alarm us.
But he needed our attention. He needed our help.
“Lithium,” he continued, “costs $21.06. I don’t have that. But I need that. If you can help me….”
The room was stone silent.
His earnestness, politeness, and the precise measured quality of this plea seemed to have us all transfixed.
A man, and then a woman, not from from him began to pull out some bills.
Tears sprung to my eyes. But why? I felt overwhelmed with this Dickensian moment. Both poverty and pain were standing there before us.
And with no apology — just as a witness — perhaps to the pain and poverty inside us all.
And while this description sounds grandiose, there was somewhat of an almost Shakespearian quality to the moment too. And it seemed to transcend space and time.
It seemed all the hurts in the world, the unspoken needs, the pleas we all have inside at times, were now finally given voice.
And all given with no threat, no anger, but with a kind of reverence. This was no rant. This was a soliloquy.
I felt the earth had cracked open and this spirit who incorporated all our unspoken needs, had now pled for us all, for all time.
My friend and I exchanged glances — and both of our eyes, I’m sure, were full of hurt and wonder.
No one spoke in the cafe.
No one urged him to leave.
It was not an unruly or dangerous display.
It was an honest and seemingly brave announcement. The need was clear.
And then the owner moved toward him, and with equal respect, spoke softly to the man, and began to guide him out — no one could hear his words — and all the while taking the bills from his hands and returning them to the cafe’s customers.
My friend and I had begun our coffee talk as two women exchanging news about a recent trip, and a recent retreat.
Now, hollowed out, somehow, and with souls open, our conversation deepened. We seemed to be experiencing the aftershock of his visitation (it felt like that). Our conversation dropped to an even more real level as we exchanged thoughts not shared before.
Could others have experienced this?
In ten or fifteen minutes the owner returned, and merely turned into the bakery area and resumed his work. No words were spoken.
He’d been gone just long enough to have escorted the man back to the nearby hospital — perhaps turned him over to a nurse, attendant, or someone who could help. Perhaps he paid for the prescription.
I don’t know, but it seemed to me such a beautiful expression of quiet compassion.
There was no sense of distress, no condemnation, no condescension, no alarm. Respect reigned for all.
I wonder how the others felt who witnessed this extraordinary event in the little cozy cafe the day a stranger awakened us for a time, when it seemed the earth stood still to hear a cry of humanity.
Karen Kenyon has been published in The Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, British Heritage, Westways, and The Christian Science Monitor. She also has two books Sunshower (Putnam, NY) and The Bronte Family (Lerner Publications, Minnesota) She teaches at MiraCosta College and UCSD-X.
Karen, you recounted this very human moment so beautifully.
Anna Daniels says
Readers may have missed Karen’s essay when we published it back in July, not too long after SDFP started publishing. This is an encore performance.
John Lawrence says
I hope the owner paid for this man’s lithium, but you said he took the money out of the man’s hand and gave it back to the customers. And then you said he had been gone long enough to take him back to the hospital and pay for his prescription. Do you know for a fact that he really did?