Friday, August 22, 2008

The Park Custodian

Work’s been pretty rough the past three weeks. I won’t go into details, but one thing that happened is that my overtime has been stopped. Normally, after dropping my daughter off at her daycare, I get to work around 7:40 or 7:45, so I’d punch in, get to my desk, and start working. Well, no more. I’m not to punch in until 8. That leaves me with fifteen or twenty minutes free every morning. I started reading for a little bit in my car in the parking lot, but since it’s been absolutely gorgeous out – September cool with that tiny bite in the air – I’ve taken to driving to a park a few blocks from the office to pray and meditate.

The park is beautiful. It overlooks the Hudson River with a spectacular view of New York City in the distance. There are meandering paths, benches, and plenty of privacy. I’ve come here six times in the past two weeks. It’s wonderful. My prayer and meditation puts me in a calm frame of mind (at least until 10 or 10:30 or so, heh-heh), I get some fresh air, I get to walk, and I’m absolutely alone, physically as well as with my innermost thoughts.

Yesterday I was sitting on a bench, eyes closed, feeling quite at peace, when suddenly I heard an approaching noise. Glancing up, I spotted the park custodian walking up the gentle grade towards me. He had one of those poles with a spike on the end, picking up random bits of trash. He saw me, waved, and said, “Good morning!” I thought: Oh, damn.

I’ve seen him before when I’ve taken lunches at the park. Usually he keeps very busy, carrying wheelbarrow-loads of branches or dirt here and there, emptying trashcans, cutting hedges, cleaning the rest rooms. He’s special in some way. I’ve said hello when he passed by me a few times, but never having a handicapped person in my acquaintance, I always felt a little uncomfortable around him.

So, as he stopped in front of me, I agreed. “It is a beautiful morning.” Uncertain whether he would nod and walk on or continue the dance of meaningless pleasantries, I fidgeted. He looked at the ground and then at me, and said, in one breath,

“My name is John. In 1970, just before my eleventh birthday, which is July 26, I was riding my bicycle down Hillside Avenue. I was with my friends. I was going down a hill and a car ran right through a stop sign. My bike had those brakes where you push back on the pedals, and that’s what I did, but my bike didn’t stop. The driver didn’t stop either. He ran over me. Because my brakes didn’t stop my bicycle, and the driver of the car ran through the stop sign. I was in a coma for six weeks. They never found the driver, because he didn’t stop. So I was in a coma. For six weeks. Later on, when I was older, they got me a job working in the park. At first they said they weren’t going to leave me alone. That’s what they said. Then they left me alone. I like it, though. I like taking care of the park. It’s my job.”

What do I say to this? The only thing that came to my mind was, “Well, you do an excellent job. The park is always clean and beautiful.”

He nodded, then looked out at the Hudson, squinting as the morning sun was shining fiercely off the water. “I like taking care of the park. It’s my job.”

There was an awkward silence for a moment, then he reached into his shirt pocket. “Oh! I forgot!” He pulled out a sheet of paper and showed me. It was a form. I couldn’t make out the writing at first. “Would you like to contribute to a walk-a-thon to find cures for people with brain damage? It’s in October.” He held this list out to me. One person had signed her name and address on it. The rest of the page was blank.

My family gives what we can through our Church. That’s my policy. We’re strapped financially, and I try to give as generously as possible to support my Church and the charities the Catholic Church supports. I never give over the phone or when solicited in person. It’s just policy. But …

I admit, I squirmed. What should I do? Am I a coward for not doing anything? Why was this man sent to me during my prayer session at the park? Stuttering, the first thought I had stumbled out: “Uh, I don’t have a pen or any money on me right now. But I’m always here. Next time I see you I’ll give you something.”

He was nonchalant, unconcerned. “Okay. Well, have a great day!” And he walked off, spearing some gum wrappers just off the path. In a minute he rounded a bend and was gone.

I have no money and my family is about to grow. My job and the economy are squeezing me. I feel like I’m in a financial vice. I can’t help thinking: Why was this man sent to me? There is something here beyond my ability to grasp, but I admit sometimes I need to be hit over the head hard to get the message. Why? There’s something more than the ability to give money to a worthy cause.

But I will send a few dollars to a good charity that deals with brain damaged people.

And think. And visit the park again.

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