Friday, August 01, 2008

Sometimes, when you least expect it, someone amazing will appear before your very eyes.

I met the most extraordinary man at lunch yesterday at Mama's Daughters' Diner on Irving Boulevard. I walked in and was seated in my usual section at a table for 8 and across from an older gentleman.

We exchanged hellos and I asked how he was doing. He said fine and asked me how I was, and I said I have a new puppy. Then the convo was off and running. He asked about Praline, and then reminisced about a particularly fine little terrier his family had some decades before. He said the terrier figured out how to do flips for treats with absolutely no training. Smart little scamp, he was. Then he talked about a boxer they'd had for years named Smudgy for the black area around his face.

I noticed his disabled veterans cap, and wondered if he'd served in WWII, but didn't ask. He said he used to eat at MDs' every day for breakfast and lunch, but now he only goes to his company once a week since he retired and comes in to the diner slightly less frequently than that. I asked what line of work he was in, and he said he had a graphic design/typesetting company.

He told me he once worked for a company that moved his family around frequently, and they rented an old house on Saranac street in Rochester NY. He said the house was from the late 1800s and was immaculately kept, stately and quite grand. The family told him they hadn't really figured out what to do with all their mother's stuff in the house, so he and his family were free to keep whatever they wanted there. He called them up and told them they surely would want to keep all their mothers' gold and diamond jewelry, and oh, but could they keep the one nice chair in the living room. He told his wife to check the underside of the cushion and make sure it was in good shape. She pulled it out and beneath it was an envelope stuffed full of a lot of cash and stock certificates and such. Again, he called them up and said what he'd found, and they said "oh, we were wondering where that was!" His wife and her friend put on some satin movie-star style gowns they found from the 30s or 20s, and they strapped on their kids' toy pistols and holsters and he took photos. His eyes twinkled when he remembered that. He said they've been married 62 years.

They'd bought and sold 8 houses over the years, but he and his wife moved into an apartment where they've been happy as clams ever since. I mused there's a whole lot to be said for being able to call someone else and tell them it's their problem if your toilet is malfunctioning. Again, the grin, the twinkling eyes at the joy of not having to either do the plumbing himself or pay a technician for same. He said there were only a few older people living at these apartments, but that the management took really good care of them, being on the spot with repairs and response to any concerns they had. I told him that was how I try to do my job, and he said he could tell I was good at it, that I am personable and communicate well, and that I could probably do any of a great many number of jobs well. He talked about an MIT study which developed a vocational aptitude test. At some point, he mentioned he'd had more than 600 people working for him, and that the ability to relate to people was essential to motivate people and help them stay on track. I think (if I may flatter myself) he's someone who has the kind of varied interests and natural curiosity I have, although I'd not place myself in the same league intelligence-wise. He was completely unpretentious and unassuming and yet here I knew right away he's one of the most remarkable people I'd ever met. I didn't want the lunch to end.

He told me his name is Potthoff, and once his wife met someone and told them it was pronounced like "take the pot off the stove," and when she parted company from that person, they said "it was nice to meet you, Mrs. Stove."


Anyway, the conversation was lively, and most engaging, and for once I really listened and stifled the urge to interject or chase rabbits. I learned some things.

I at last asked what branch he'd served in, and he said he was in the Seabees with the Navy, and joined in late '45, and was due to be in the first wave to invade Japan. (Mental calculation told me he must have just married before he went into the service and to an uncertain future). He said those bombs saved his life. He said they had their chops all set for the loss of a million Americans in that effort. Staggering. I said those bombs saved countless Japanese lives, too. He said indeed they had, that the Japanese would have fought down to the last man. We talked about adapting and he mentioned the Japanese idea of rather than being rigid and inflexible like the oak, they aspired to be like the willow and achieve strength in their ability to bend with the stressors of life. He mentioned the impeccable quality of their cars and electronics. We agreed that it's a great thing to learn from mistakes and move forward from them.

Anyway, it was a great conversation, and I felt so energized by having met him. He suggested if I want to change careers, that I might look into advertising. I'm going to give that serious thought. Anyway, as we'd wrapped up the meal, I noted where Barbara had placed his check on the table. I picked up mine, and when his hand was not near his check, I picked it up and said "I am buying your lunch." He said "oh, my, I can't let you do that" and I said "I insist. This lunch is a very small thing and I am in your debt. Thank you for serving our country." I gave him my card, and took his email address, and I said I hope we can have lunch again sometime. We smiled warmly, shook hands again.

I've got a lot more to learn.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

You do have the most incredible encounters in restaurants. It sounds like a delightful lunch, made even better by your generosity.

The Captain said...

We can learn an awful lot if we but listen. What a fun time you had! You never know who you might meet in the most routine of situations.

Bonnie said...

My grandfather was on the wave of folks headed to Japan when the bomb dropped, too.

It's nice when you can meet new people and find some sort of common ground. It's especially nice when both parties get something out of the conversation - you found new things to learn, and he likely did, too. :-)

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful experience. And I'm so proud of you for not chasin' rabbits LOL

Christina RN LMT said...

Listening is an important skill that not many people have...but YOU do!

What a wonderful encounter, wish I'd been a fly on the wall there.

NotClauswitz said...

Yours sounds like a most excellent Lunch! My Uncle was a Seebee, after the War he went into Marine Engineering and worked on some really-really humongous things.

Buck said...

Ah... like the others said, a most-excellent encounter. And don't be so self-deprecating, Phlegmmy ("although I'd not place myself in the same league intelligence-wise").

I don't know you personally, but I DO know from reading you that you have those "key marks" of an advanced intellect: curiosity, wide-ranging interests, and the ability to communicate extraordinarily well. And those are just three items right off the top of my head.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm a little late but just read your comments on Jim Reeves. My parents had all his records and we loved him, but my favorite was a recording he made of poetry. It was wonderful and some of it makes you cry everytime you hear it. Lots of folks don't know about that record. My brother knew how much I loved it and he actually found a copy and made me a tape of it. Hope you get to hear it someday.

breda said...

this story reminds me of the wonderful gentlemen I meet at the library. They love it when someone takes the time to listen - even more when it's a beautiful woman like yourself.

Kevin said...

Very cool. There's a lot to be learned from the older generations. I love hearing the stories they have.

Unknown said...

I'm sure he really appreciated someone that listened to him -- and actually cared.