Yesterday– Monday– was my birthday. Many lovely things happened over the weekend in celebration. On Sunday, I did what I’ve done a few times in the past few years. We invited a handful of people to meet me anytime they wanted over the course of two and a half hours– at my very favorite neighborhood coffee shop and we reserved the big table up front, reservation being a thing allowed only to old regulars like myself– and we sat for hours with different friends who came and went and talked to me and to my daughter and partner and to each other. I drank two great iced decaf Americanos with half and half and talked to people I love. If you are someone I love and weren’t invited, please don’t take offense– I didn’t do a thorough job with the guest list. I invited people I don’t see enough, people who live really, really close by– and a few people who are really special to me, but not my regulars.
Later, Sunday night, one of my oldest and best friends and her partner and son cooked a truly incredible dinner for me and we all talked and caught up after many months out of touch.
Monday, on my birthday, for whatever reasons, I woke up too early, feeling so sad and needing a big cleansing cry. I got a small cleansing cry a little later in the morning and I went to work. I felt instantly better at work, in the nice cool air conditioning and with a purpose (work) and time to get organized. It was far from my most productive day work-wise, but, I got a few things done in spite of myself.
At work no one knew it was my birthday. My job is still relatively new. And I’m a woman past 50 with an 11-year-old child, and even when I was younger without an 11-year-old child, I wasn’t someone– and I am definitely not now someone, to go to work in a fancy dress, saying, things like “oh, why am I dressed up? it’s just my partner is taking me out to (name chic restaurant) for my birthday.” I like other people to know it’s my birthday– but I had no natural lead-in and I couldn’t quite bring myself to just announce it to my colleagues. So I enjoyed my birthday at work, in silence.
Elsewhere there was plenty of fuss. My daughter baked an incredibly fabulous chocolate cake all by herself. My partner spent three days making me feel so special and gave me a card with a beautiful note that she wrote. People I love called and texted and emailed and even sent a card or two through the regular old-fashioned mail. And then last night our neighbors who are two of our closest parent buddies, just back from two weeks vacation, invited us to join them and their four daughters for dinner and my daughter contributed her delicious cake. So there was plenty of celebration.
At lunch time I walked over to an office building about 5 blocks away with the crashed hard drive from our old computer where there is a document recovery place. (Now keep a positive attitude and maybe I’ll get my lost data back. For 200 and not 700 bucks.)
Even though there was plenty of fuss, it turns out that sometimes, as you get older–the real gift is not the fuss, or the gift in a box, but the connection. While I was out on my lunchtime walk, two things happened that touched my heart and with them, I was certain my birthday was complete. First while walking back from the document recovery place, one of my best friends, out-of-town because her father was dying, called me and cried and cried into the phone. For a long, long time. Her mother began years ago, and now continues to torment my friend about her being a lesbian and this harshness and meanness continues through my friend’s father’s final days.
My friend apologized to me several times for calling me on my birthday and needing me to listen to her. But mostly she just really needed someone to listen while she cried and I was really happy and honored to listen. I’d been out walking in the heat and stepped into a Payless Shoe store into their air conditioning– and sat down on a stool meant for sitting while you try on shoes and we talked for 20 or maybe 30 minutes. Or mostly she talked and I listened. It felt like a real gift to me.
Then, I headed back to the office. I stopped in Starbucks, bypassing a man outside on the sidewalk selling our town’s newspaper of the homeless. He had made eye contact with me on my way in, and I had nodded that yes, I’d buy a paper when I came out. So when I left with iced Americano in hand, I was already committed. I walked up to him and asked him to hold my coffee while I fumbled for my wallet. He asked me how was my day going and I said, slowly, thinking it over, it’s a good day. It’s actually my birthday. For real?– he asked me. Yeah, for real. Really? he asked again, a little disbelieving. Yes, really it is. Well, happy birthday, he said. I mean really, happy birthday. We talked a little. I told him that I was working and glad to be working again after having been unemployed for some time. He told me a little bit about himself.
He showed me an article about him in the newspaper he was selling. The article says he was recently reunited with his children and thanks the people who helped him along the way. He offers encouragement to other homeless people to work hard and that they can get their own place and get off the street. He writes about homeless people who have reunited with their own children as he did.
Somehow he managed during the course of a short interaction to say, happy birthday about four times. And he said to me, maybe three times– Hey– you’re real pretty– you really are. (A comment that was and felt sexist when I was younger and now, at the age that I am, feels or at least from him, felt, like something different– an affirmation of the beauty of women with gray hair and some pounds to lose?) There was a kindness there on both sides–him toward me and me toward him.
I know that with this story, I tread dangerously close to all the white middle class racist stereotypes that would hold onto the lie that a white middle class working woman in the middle of a busy workday, stopping for a kind, human exchange with a black (formerly) homeless man is something for him to be grateful for. Or even the racist notion that the same white middle class woman, mingling with a poor black man is enriching to us white people in a strange, distorted patronizing way– like being a tourist in a foreign land.
But for me, it was a small moment where two strangers dropped that stuff about class and race and gender that divides us– the stuff that cannot really be dropped at all– but was dropped anyway, for a just a minute– and connected. He stopped me because he wanted me to buy his paper. I told him it was my birthday because I wanted him to wish me a happy birthday. I wanted to talk to him as myself and not as another passing white woman. And then we talked for real for just a minute.
I paid for the paper and wished him good luck and I walked away. Then a few steps up the block, I circled back and asked if I could take his picture and post it on my blog so I could remember him and my birthday wishes from him. So here he is– my one-time birthday friend. Thank you, Mr. Phillip Black. I forgot to ask, but Mr. Black, Happy Birthday to you too– whenever it comes around.