“Does this mean you're no longer at Jimmy John's?”
“Ha! Feels good to be outta there?”
He was a mixed-race man my age with Latino heritage, stocky, with long frizz-wavy jet black hair, the sort that wouldn’t be out of place on the front of a romance novel. He spoke the chaotic vernacular of 21st-century America, but exuded a kindness that radiated. Certain personalities seem generous with their goodwill even when they're not doing anything. I felt like my people were near when him and his lady would get on late at night in the southlands.
“Yeah, and I'm ‘bout to be a prep cook, they're gonna pay me fifteen an hour.”
“Awesome! You know I was just thinking about you the other day, cause I was in that Jimmy John’s. I thought okay, he musta found something else...”
“Yup. And we're living in Bothell now.” Standing at the front by me, excited.
I said, “What???”
“Yeah, and– hey, did I…? Lemme show you. I'm a father now.”
“Yeah, it’s a daughter."
“When, how old is she? When did this happen?”
“She's five months. Here, hang on.”
“Yeah yeah, lemme find a red light. Oh she's beautiful.”
I let the big news sink in. “Man, being a father, they say it just transforms your mental, your headspace, you know?”
“You're not a father?”
“No I got nothing. But I hear people talk about like, on a fundamental level–”
“Yeah. It changes your whole…”
“Yeah, what's important, your priorities. Cause even if my girl and I aren't always together, I know I'm always gonna raise this kid.”
“That's real deal. That's beautiful too though. Five months old, that must be some real 24-hour type stuff.”
“Yeah. 'Cause I take class in the day, go to work at night–”
“Oh what type a class? Like parenting stuff?”
“Yeah parenting stuff, and also uh, some drug stuff, cause I had some run-ins with the law when I was younger.”
“Right on. We all do. I feel like, the two hardest things to do in life are, getting offa hard drugs, and raising a child.”
“And man, you're totally doing both!”
The conversation could've taken either fork in the road: superficial and comedic, or truthful. He was feeling truthful. After a moment of reflection watching me work he said, “You really love this job, I could tell.”
I smiled. Most people stick to talking about themselves. He was beyond that, open to the world outside of himself, the concerns even of strangers like myself. Soon I would know why. “Yeah man," I said. "I'm thankful to have the job, but I'm also thankful that I like it, you know?” Two completely different things, both of which I'm mystified and thankful to possess; but his mind was on a larger plane.
His truthful urge fulfilled itself, spilling out unbidden, the way it only can when you know you’re in a safe space: “Actually,” he said, “I just found out I have diabetes.”
It was the sort of statement that makes you to replay the entire conversation in your head. New jobs, fatherhood, self-improvement... the connecting tissue revealed itself. We were talking about Death, and all the ways us tiny humans try to stand up and face it. When you've been diagnosed with the seventh-leading killer of Americans today and the number one cause of kidney failure, adult blindness and lower-limb amputations...
Photographs of your daughter need to be shown to strangers. Proof of life. Proof of cyclical recurring goodness and existence. The drug class, the efforts toward being one's best self. When the Void shows you its face, a new urgency courses through you, makes you better than you ever were before. My solution has been a headlong rush of creating, as heedlessly best as I know how– the film, the book, the darkroom photography, the desire to solidify this blog as a complete and finished entity, a thing made. His solution wasn't so different: creating, growing, nurturing. It is what we do.
“What??? I am so sorry.”
“Yeah man,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
Our pauses weren't awkward. They were fraught with recognition, silent comforts. You go through your pain so you know how to listen to someone else, someday, when they go through theirs.
“Yeah dude," he said. "I got diagnosed earlier today. I mean I kinda knew I had it though.”
“Bro. Check out this documentary, it's called What the Health.”
“Dude, I seen that! That's my favorite type a thing, stuff like that. I watch all them shows, like Food Inc…”
“Chicken, sugar, hospitals, it’s so interesting!”
“I'm gonna watch that one one more time and take notes!”
Diabetes, today. The weight of it, to look about yourself and know everything is different now, everything has the slant of this changing things. You pretend it isn't a big deal, and in many ways it isn't. You necessarily downplay it so you don't have to stare into the gaping void all the time.
Except it's still there. An asterisk would now follow him, trailing his decisions; shaping differently what he called freedom. The diagnosis must have been overflowing his mind. I’m so glad he let it out. We do what we can in this short life, humbled ever further by age and time.
But I know if he read this he would laugh at my heaviness. "Ease up, bro!" I can hear him saying, with a grin. And I would admire him for it, because that cavalier optimism is exactly what we need mixed into our sorrows if we are to flourish. Laughter is magic precisely because it lacks logic; it is beyond reason. I will smile now, regardless of my futures. The void can wait. This is what is real and true, right now, and it is fabulous:
Making friends on the bus ride home.