September 25th, 2003

Different Day

Every morning on my way to work, I see the same kid walking in the direction I’ve just come from. He looks like a typical heavy metal-obsessed teenager, with jet-black stringy hair hanging down in front of his face. He’s always walking at the same speed, kind of a shuffle with a side-to-side head bob. There seems to be a permanent scowl etched on his face, not necessarily an angry scowl – more of a disinterested scowl, really. It could be the stereotypical “I hate to go to school” scowl or the “I didn’t get enough sleep” scowl or a different type of scowl altogether.

I don’t think about him before I see him, but when I see him, I’m reminded that I see him every day. I can even get a general sense for how late I’m running by where I meet him on the trip. I’ve seen him as early as at the bridge and as late as up by the Walgreens. Today was a Walgreens day.

It was pouring down rain this morning, heavy enough that the windshield wipers at full speed were making it just barely able to see through the windshield. My mind was heavy with thoughts of the day already, and I hadn’t even thought of The Kid. I pulled up to the light by Walgreens, and there he was. Same scowl, same shuffling walk, but soaking wet. His hair, strangely, didn’t look any different than normal.

My first thought was, “There he is.”
My second thought was, “Man, he is wet!”
My third thought was, “If I were headed his direction and he’d take me up on it, I’d give him a ride.”
My fourth thought was, “Is that a violin case he’s carrying?”

Sure enough, today he had an extra piece to his ensemble. He was carrying a violin case. It looked weatherproof – it was one of those hard plastic shell cases – so I’m guessing the instrument was okay. But he was carrying a violin case.

I don’t want to look for life lessons where there aren’t any, but it struck me that I had formed an opinion of this kid based on his appearance and his seeming demeanor. I figured he was the typical bad-attitude, heavy-metal listening, parent-hating teenager. I never once considered he might play the violin.

Of course, that shows that I have formed an opinion about those who play the violin, too.

Maybe this kid dresses and walks the way he does so he can fit in with a certain group, but he secretly longs to be the next Jascha Heifetz or Itzhak Perlman. Maybe he has written a beautiful song for his dying mother. Maybe he is just starting out and he’s unsure of himself, but he knows that to give up on the violin is to give up a part of his life that he can never get back. Maybe he’s using the violin as a way to test himself, to prove he can do anything he sets his mind to – today the violin, tomorrow the world!

As I mentioned, I don’t want to create life lessons where there aren’t any. It’s possible that the violin wasn’t even his. Maybe he found it and he’s taking it back to school to put in the lost and found. Maybe he stole it and he’s going to fence it so he can buy another Metallica CD or two. Maybe he beat up the music geek who owns it, and he’s going to hold it for ransom until the music geek does his homework for him. Maybe he stole it from a girl he likes as an ungainly effort to win her heart.

It might be that there wasn’t even a violin in the case. Maybe he saw the rain and decided to put his lunch in the first waterproof thing he could find.

Do you suppose I’ll ever stop and ask The Kid what his name is and how he’s doing on the violin? I doubt it. I don’t talk to strangers much, even when I’m dying to know their story. Once, when I was in high school (a Senior, I think), I got out of my car at the bank and I noticed the motorcycle in the space next to me had a bumper sticker on it that said “Vietnam Vet.” I was really “into” the Vietnam War at that point in my life. I had read several books about conditions there and the life of a military man both in Vietnam and back here in the US when he returned. It sickened me to think of how our troops were treated by so-called “peace lovers” when they returned from a horrific experience in the jungle. The most moving monument I’ve ever been to is the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. I walked slowly in front of The Wall, reading name after name of soldiers who died or went missing in the war, and it grieved me deeply. My girlfriend’s father had been in Vietnam, and when the subject came up, he only vaguely hinted at some of the things he had been through – though he was not silent about his feelings on hippies! When I saw this bumper sticker on the motorcycle, all these thoughts came to me. I turned to walk into the bank, and couple was coming out and headed towards the bike. I don’t remember what she looked like, but I can still see his face – it was the kind of face you’d expect to find on a Harley-ridin’ Vietnam Vet. Something compelled me to stop and ask him, “Are you a Vietnam vet?” He looked at me with a look that told me he had heard that question before, and didn’t like hearing it. “Yeah,” he said, and the “wanna make something of it?” though unsaid, still hung their in the air between us. I remember the woman with him also got a strange look on her face. I said to him, “I want to thank you for serving your country. I want you to know that I appreciate it.” His look changed as he said back to me, “I don’t hear that much…thank you.” And he stuck out his hand and I shook it. Then I went into the bank, and he went on his way.

I wonder sometimes if he remembers that. I don’t think I’m the World’s Best Person because I did that, and I still to this day don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I remember being glad I had the opportunity to thank a veteran. That’s one of those moments I’ll remember for a long time.

So whattya got in that case, kid?

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