A Stranger No More

The restaurant was crowded with people on their lunch break. I found a table in the back and claimed it while my son, Mathew, got our drinks and food. There was a black man sitting at the table next to us. He nodded as I sat down and I returned the greeting. I was a little uncomfortable. He looked like he might be high and we were on one of the border areas where Colfax Avenue in Denver turns from cheap commercial property into disputed gang territory. Bloods, Crips, Sureños, and a host of smaller gangs fought constant wars over different parts of the city’s thoroughfare. Nothing was likely to happen in daylight, but it pays to be cautious. I was glad both Mathew and I were carrying. I stood up when he came with the food and helped him unload the tray.

The man next to us suddenly became quite animated.

“It’s you,” he said.

“Yes,” I answered quizzically.

“It’s been a long time,” he said. He stood up and shook my hand. “It’s me, Paul. I knew you looked familiar. Is this your son?”

I answered affirmatively. He did look vaguely familiar.

At this point it might help the reader to understand the cause of my uncertainty. I have been a classroom teacher in Colorado for 31 years, and adjunct professor for 12 years and a GED instructor at a medium security prison for 9 years. It is not unusual for me to run into one of my thousands of former students or their parents anywhere along the Front Range. It doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen a couple of times a year.

It is also, at this point, that both the racism of the criminal justice system and my own genetic limitations rear their ugly heads. There are a ton of black men in DOC. And all humans are hardwired to more easily recognize subtle differences in the faces of their own race while being blind to the differences in others. Thus, I have a harder time differentiating the faces of hundreds of the black and Latino men who come through my facility every year. Add these limitations to the fact that I am half-blind even with glasses and you have a recipe for lots conversations with people who know who I am while I haven’t a clue. Exhibit A was right in front of me. If necessary, I admit to recognizing a face while not remembering a name. But often it doesn’t become a problem.

“You play sports?” Paul asked.

“No,” Mathew answered.

“Oh, you outta play football. You’re built like a linebacker.”

Paul turned to me.

“You gotta get him on the team. He could be a star, just like his daddy.”

Now I was more confused. I never played football or any other sport.

“I ran cross country when I was in high school,” Mathew said.

“You mean you’re not in high school now?”

“No,” Mathew said.

“You don’t look old enough to be out of high school. So what are your goals in life? What do you want to be.”

Mathew and I looked at each other. He wanted direction from me since he was unsure of the situation. I gave him a slight nod. Out of the mouth of a stranger had come the question that Mathew and I had been struggling with all morning.

“Well,” Mathew began, “I spent eight years in the navy and the last five as an oil field engineer.”

“An engineer! Oh you a smart one, just like your daddy,” Paul said. Then he noticed my hat. “Glenwood Springs . . . that was my favorite truck route I ever drove. Remember when I ran into you there?”

“No,” I said. But more confusion arose for me. The day I had bought the tourist cap I was wearing, I had, in fact, run into one of my ex-students. It was pouring rain as I ran into a convenience store to buy a newspaper. My glasses were so covered with rain drops and fog that I could barely see. And so I missed identifying the black face by the candy bar aisle. He playfully chided me for ignoring him until I took off my glasses and wiped them off. I explained to Joe why I hadn’t seen him. We shook hands while he caught me up on his life. He and his girl friend were just passing through Glenwood. What are the odds that we would bump into each other? But that was Joe and definitely not Paul.

“Sure you do. I was broke down and you helped me out,” he said, ignoring my protests to the contrary.

He turned back to Mathew. “So are you gonna keep being an engineer?”

“I don’t know,” Mathew answered. “I’m still trying to decide.”

“Oh you gotta have a plan,” Paul said as he looked at Mathew. “You gotta know where you’re going or you’ll never know when you get there. Your daddy taught me that.”

Mathew met Paul’s gaze for a long moment.

“I’m working on it,“ he finally said. It was true. We had spent the better part of the day discussing his future. The oil market had crumbled, and with it his career.

Paul looked down at his phone. “Shit,” he said. “I gotta run catch the bus. I’m living in Aurora now, but I’m trying to get back to Longmont so I can be nearer to the mountains.”

Paul stood up and reached out to shake Mathew’s hand.

“”You just listen to your daddy and you’ll be all right. He’s a good man.”

He then turned to me and reached out. I took his hand and shook it. His grip was warm and firm.

“I’ll never forget you,” he said. “You kept me from going down the wrong path. I’ll look you up next time I get to Glenwood.”

I nodded, and then he disappeared into the lunch time rush.

“Did you know him?” Mathew asked.

“No,” I said. “But he sure seemed to know me.”

We both laughed.

“I just wasn’t sure if you knew him or not. At first I thought he was a homeless drug addict.”

“Me too,” I said. “But his clothes were too clean and expensive.”

“He sure seemed friendly and nice.”

“Yes he did,” I agreed.

Although it was a bit awkward hearing praise that had actually been meant for someone else, it sort of comes with the territory as a teacher. Every student who has ever walked into my classroom has already been shaped and educated by parents, teachers, and the world. I just add my bit; call it the Stone Soup theory of education. Paul had shared his gratitude for an important relationship with me and that made him feel better. It was a valuable service for him that I had performed. Sort of a scapegoat or confessional. And, in turn, he gave my son a message from the universe. “Quit feeling sorry for yourself and get it together.” After lunch, we came up with a plan for his life on that rainy April day in Denver. Whether it works or not, only time will tell. But after weeks of paralysis, Mathew was moving forward with his life. A gift from a stranger who wasn’t.