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A Karma Carol

‘Twas the night before last,

and there at the counter.

right in the deli,

a Karmic encounter.

Hot, sweaty, and tired,

a frazzled mess of red hair.

If my hours were shorter,

I wouldn’t be there.

It’s late and it’s hot,

just doesn’t feel fair.

To be standing in line,

Behind a man in his chair.

I smile and I wait,

though my patience is thin.

All I want is some turkey,

So I can go home and turn in.

His tracksuit is red,

a brace on one wrist.

Useless legs being driven

by a stick in his fist.

The top of the counter,

so far up he can’t see.

I pass him his lunch meat,

and he smiles at me.

It doesn’t seem to matter

that he can’t stand up and get it.

Then he looks at me oddly

and says, “Are you a medic?”

I nod, and the polite mask

slips safely into place.

Decades of service,

worn into my face.

Tonight I wear no patches,

few markers at all.

He must have seen my ID,

my pants or boots made that call.

Now he is animated,

“Do you work around here?”

“No sir, in Newark.

In my 26th year.”

“I knew it!” he cries,

good hand slapping his chair.

“I’ve seen you before.”

I say, “It must be the hair.”

“You and your friends,

twice saved my life.”

“Once from a gun,

the second a knife.”

I smile at the words,

“Are you sure it was me?”

“Yes ma’am I am,

a drive-by in '93.”

“It was a hot summer night,

two blocks from your lot.

I remember your face (and hair),

the night I got shot.”

“That night took my legs,

but I got shiny new wheels.

I’d fly down 12th Avenue,

just to see how it feels.”

“A couple of years later,

you know the Divine?

I got robbed with a knife,

right under the sign.”

“I didn’t have much,

I was kind of a wreck.

Still he took my few things,

left a blade in my neck.”

“Again came your friends,

down the street in the night.

I lost one good arm,

but still kept my life.”

His voice held no hate,

or bitter remorse.

He laughed at himself,

on his motorized horse.

Our orders were sliced,

but the clerks were distracted.

By this very real talk

of events that were tragic.

We talked for a while,

a mutual history.

About real life and real danger

and real love of one city.

See we both came from a time,

before gangs and franchises.

Each night made better,

only when the sun rises.

We knew the same streets,

shopped the same stores.

He knew the *real* Prince Street,

when he lived on the 8th floor.

“Night after night.

Kids shot in the head.

You and your friends drag them out,

a chance at life in its stead.”

“The politics are a sham,

the city strangled and hacked.

Yet as bad as it was,

you always came back.”

Before I knew it,

it was time to move on.

The hour was late,

my list was still long.

I expressed my condolences,

he waved off the rest.

“I have my life and my family,

I feel very blessed.”

“We don’t get to know

how our story ends.

Mine goes a bit longer,

thanks to you and your friends.”

“My name is Darin,”

using his good hand to shake mine.

“You will always be welcome,

by my family on South 9th.”

His companion arrived

and they continued their errands.

I was left at the counter,

not quite sure what just happened.

It’s hard to explain,

the war against Death.

Our anonymous life,

revolves around that last breath.

Years of thankless service,

done in nameless grace.

All of a sudden,

I’m given a face.

Nobody notices,

nobody cares.

Until that one day,

by a man in a chair.

I was still tired,

sweaty and hot.

But I was less hopeless,

See I’d almost forgot.

That in the middle of it all,

our jobs do have meaning.

Even if just to one man, one family,

one child still dreaming.

That the reason we return,

time and time again,

Is not for the thanks,

it’s the love of the win.

The violence, disease,

the pain and the rage.

Is made a little less,

and that is our wage.

It’s self-destructive, I know

a relentless tenacity.

But there’s a reason that none of us

ever truly leaves the Brick City.

I paid for my items,

lost in my head for a time.

When I again heard his chair,

zoom by with a whine.

And I heard him exclaim,

as he drove out of sight.

“Thanks again Red,

keep up the good fight!”

2014: This is based on a real interaction I had a couple of nights ago in my local grocery store late in the evening. While the sentences are paraphrased they contain the actual content of the conversation. I was completely astounded that this person would remember me 21 years later, a state away - but he did, and he was so sincerely thankful to me "and my friends" that it made a very significant difference not only in my day but regarding some other career things as well. The picture above is circa 1993.

So Darin, thank you as well.

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