Samples from "Odd Customers"
This afternoon when I come to work, the place is still doing a brisk late-lunch trade. There are several families eating, including one with a little girl who emits raucous shouts at unpredictable intervals. Other than that she seems to be enjoying her food, eating ravenously between screams. Restaurant owners are painfully aware that unpleasant noises can ruin everyone else’s dining pleasure. And this particular brat’s shouts have such a gruff stridency, they are bound to demoralize anyone unlucky enough to sit nearby. I notice Maarten seating a new party at a neighboring table, so I rush to suggest he put new arrivals in the other room. He agrees, a bit late.
In walks a short, bald man with a couple of flat briefcases. “One for lunch, sir?”
“No, I’d like to speak to the chef.”
“That would be me.” I’m not about to pull Adam out of the kitchen right now. “What can I do for you?”
We pause, being treated to another raucous scream. Next comes his pitch:
“I just finished a trade show, and I’ve got some excellent cook’s knives left-over. Real German quality, made in Solingen. Because the company doesn’t want me to bring them back, I can give you a really good deal.”
“I’m sorry, but we’re very well-supplied with knives.”
Watching him trot on down the street, I recall my very first experience with trade show-leftovers. I hate to date myself, but this happened some fifty years ago. Looking out my parents’ grocery store window, I watched a guy step out of his car and make a beeline for our place. He was carrying a bolt of cloth, which he plunked down on the counter. He had just finished a textile trade show, he confided to my dad, and had some excellent leftovers. The company had told him to dump them at give-away prices. So their loss could be our gain, but he didn’t say that. The best salesmen allow their victims to draw their own conclusions.
My dad was far from a stupid man, but he believed in seizing opportunities. And apparently he had been thinking of getting suits made for my brother and me. In those days, people still employed tailors. After my dad bought the fabric, the guy wasted no time getting back to his car; I watched him speed off.
Next came fitting sessions with a local tailor who worked out of his home. Alas, his efforts came to naught, and I think he knew it but didn’t want to lose the business. After the first church service to which we wore our new outfits, they looked like hell. The jackets were saggy. The pants wouldn’t hold a crease, and the knees had acquired permanent bags. The fabulous trade-show deal seemed to lack any ability to hold its shape. Soon my brother and I were claiming we had outgrown our suits.
Suddenly the noisy little girl’s dad is standing at the cash register; they’re all done, and ready to go. While I give him change I engage in the usual banter, adding as a semi-compliment: “Your little girl seems to have the equipment to become an opera singer!”
“She’s deaf,” he says matter-of-factly. Apparently I look incredulous, because next he snaps: “She’s stone-deaf.”
Through space and time, I’m transported to that scene in Huckleberry Finn in which Jim, the runaway slave, tells Huck of the time he told his little girl repeatedly to close the door, and she never did so. Finally he hit her hard, and then it dawned on him that her recent bout with Scarlet fever must have left her ‘plumb deef en dumb’:
“Shet de do.”
Towards the end of lunch an elderly lady walks in. She’s sprightly, petite and clean, and she wears a colorful nature-woman outfit that might have been quite the thing during a decade that will live in infamy – I’m talking about the ’seventies, when the nation was at serious risk of being buried a foot deep under bell bottoms, Whole Earth Catalogs, and macramé plant hangers. She also wears silver-lamé sandals and a big white sun hat wrapped with a violet scarf. From the hat descend abundant strands of grey-white hair. She may have been pretty cute, once upon a time. And she carries two large department-store shopping bags.
“I’ll have the pan-fried oysters,” she announces after studying the menu, “and a cup of the New England clam chowder.” Seems like a sizable meal for such a tiny person, but she explains that it’s her breakfast. Instead of charging separately for the chowder, which is not included at lunch, I’ll give her the oysters at the dinner price, a better deal because it includes chowder. Adam’s brother Kevin is getting ready to cook them, and I chew him out for not straining his oil first and not breading the oysters properly. This done, when I check how she likes her seafood breakfast she declares it’s just like her mother used to make, in Vermont. Or in Rhode Island, she doesn’t make that very clear.
Because most of the lunch crowd is gone by now, I have time to check if she’s done with her meal, but she takes her time. And every time I look her way she catches my glance. Well, I’m not intruding; just trying to be attentive. After our eyes meet a couple more times I vanish to do some paperwork in my office. Emerging to take care of some new customers I notice that she has finally quit eating, and only one or two oysters are left on her plate. “So, are you traveling north or south from here?” I ask, picking up the plate. North or south are the only directions you can go from Coos Bay, so that’s a very safe conversation-starter.
“I go wherever the Holy Ghost directs me,” she states with a vague smile.
That sounds like a good deal because, unlike the American Automobile Association, the Holy Ghost doesn’t charge for maps and itineraries. “Ah – so, have you seen lots of different places that way?”
“Oh yes, you wouldn’t believe where I’ve been. And in some places I was threatened with guns.”
“Really? I never would have guessed. I mean, you don’t look like a threat to me.”
“They didn’t want to hear my message. But I will go wherever the Holy Ghost sends me.”
Hmm. I wonder if the Holy Ghost had any inkling he was sending her in harm’s way. Regardless, if you get into that kind of a jam it seems best to follow Jesus’ advice and shake the dust off your silver-lamé sandals. But not in the gun-nuts’ faces. And then make tracks for greener pastures.
“So, is the Holy Ghost sending you north or south?”
“I don’t know. But he has told me that eventually I will go to New Zealand.”
“Boy, that’s a long way from here.”
“Everybody needs to hear my message,” she explains, pulling some literature out of her Nordstrom bag. “I preach the message of Christian Science.”
I’m starting to regret asking all these questions. But she continues.
“I started studying to be a doctor. But then I realized those drugs don’t work. But Christian Science does, you see.”
“Ah, well – personally, I believe there needs to be a balance. I certainly agree that people take too many drugs,” I editorialize. “And Christian Science may help people to have a positive attitude.” After a moment’s hesitation I add: “My wife used to be Christian Science.”
“Used to be?” she says, her eyes now getting big.
“Yes, we are Baptists now. Speaking for myself, I never could get my hands around that Christian Science idea that the physical world is not real. I mean, if I trip over this chair and hurt myself, it’s real.”
Again that vague, faraway smile. “That’s not exactly what it says…,” she starts.
“Well, to me it was. And I’m not sure Mrs. Eddy really knew all that much about health. I mean, take longevity. A good part of it must be genes, but lifestyle, too. When I was growing up we walked and biked everywhere, and we didn’t have too much to eat. We never expected to drink sweet fizzy drinks with every meal, either. And I’m in better shape than a lot of people my age.”
“I cheated. I rode horses instead,” she smiles. “And I’m pushing eighty.” And then, admonishingly: “But you smoked and drank.”
“Ah, well, yes, we did.” Everybody smoked back then, although I quit around 1970. But where did she get the drinking part? Well, DUH: I’m wearing my German suspenders, the ones that say “I ♥ BIER”. Excellent suspenders they are, too. Haven’t lost my pants yet. They’re so good, I even wear them to church, covered with a sweater or a jacket. That way I won’t scandalize my fellow-Baptists, many of whom talk as if Jesus changed wine into water.
“Can I get you anything else?”
The answer is no, so I bring her bill. The change for her $20 is four dollars and a nickel, which I put down on the table. “I suppose I need to tip my nice waiter now,” she muses.
“Well,” I say grandly, “that’s entirely up to you. You have places to go.” She promptly scoops up the money and heads for the exit. But she pauses on her way.
“You know, I’m not sure where I’m gonna lay my head tonight. My identity got stolen, in Keizer.”
Keizer is just south of Portland. So that’s why she paid cash. “Did you take steps yet, to get your papers replaced?” I ask.
“Oh no, the Holy Ghost told me not to worry about my identity. But it might be a problem at the motel,” she says dreamily. “So if I can’t find a place, you may see me back later.”
“But you will need identification to get on the plane to New Zealand!”
“No, they don’t give people proper identification. It should be done with fingerprints.” Holding up her hand, she explains: “I know about identification. I used to work in a fingerprint laboratory. Everyone’s fingerprint is different. That’s how it should be done.” And then she leaves, a shopping bag in each hand.
In the evening when I relate this story to Trudi, she asks: “Are you sure that instead of Keizer, she was not talking about Kaiser Hospital? That’s in Portland. Maybe they took away her papers on purpose. At her family’s request.”
Maybe so. But next day’s lunch, who should come in but the Holy Ghost lady, this time carrying only one small bag. She smiles, I smile; Markus seats her, and I overhear her telling him that she could be one of the girls in our 5-foot tall Norman Rockwell poster of the Thanksgiving dinner.
“You must have found a place to lay your head last night!” I say when I come to take her order. I did wonder about her.
“Oh yes, I stayed at one of the small motels on the edge of town. The Southsider. They trusted me.”
This time she orders fish & chips. At least in her food choices she’s conventional. When I bring the order slip to the kitchen, Markus reports that according to her Norman Rockwell never died, and is presently living in New Zealand. I suppose Rockwell would like New Zealand; he seemed to take to rural places. But I thought he died about thirty years ago, of emphysema. Maybe the Holy Ghost gave him a second chance, provided he quit the pipe-smoking, but I have my doubts. I bring her food, she eats heartily as before, and when she reaches a pause I stop by her table. “I hear that you knew Norman Rockwell,” I say.
A PACKAGE FROM AMERICA!
Back in 1950 the post-war German economic miracle had not born much fruit yet, and many people were still on the edge of starvation. An organization called CARE (Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe) had started emergency food deliveries to Europe and to occupied Germany, at first with unused military food kits prepared for the American invasion of Japan. This campaign continued many years; for ten dollars, individual Americans could have a CARE food parcel made up and delivered, and many such food drives were organized by churches. In the end a CARE package became a household word, like aspirin. Today still, parcels sent by American parents to their college children are called “care packages”.
Frieda Kunkel’s CARE package had been sent by the Christian Science Church of Coos Bay, the clerk of which was Gladys Lyon; the mailing had been handled by the Church’s headquarters in Boston. No doubt it was more economical to send a load of standard parcels from the East Coast than from churches spread all over the country. CARE parcels contained what we'd consider run-of-the-mill staples: rice, beans, coffee, tea, flour, sugar, rice, lard, various canned meats and canned fish, and chocolate. And after so many years, Gladys Lyon didn’t even recall her involvement.
“Berlin has about as much vitality as a mass of putty. The very grass has grown over the streetcar tracks on Kurfürstendamm. People walk slowly, with hunched and sagging shoulders; an almost suffocating dreariness hangs over the community; the food shops are scraped bare; except for the pulsating throw of air lift planes overhead, the city is almost soundless.”1
But Frieda Kunkel’s spirit was not filled with “suffocating dreariness”. To preserve the flavor of her letter in my translation below, I stuck closely to the formal ways of the German of those days, which were in fact similar to Dutch customs of the time:
Berlin, February 1, 1950
Esteemed, kindhearted Mrs. Gladys E. Lyon!
On Thursday, January 26, with great joy and gratitude, we received your dear parcel. We only received your dear letter today, but I have to write you immediately how happy you made us. To truly understand how much love you brought us, I would like to tell you briefly our life history so that you, our goodhearted benefactor, can imagine how much joy we experienced thanks to you, and what it meant to us to receive such a loving present. I am the daughter of a poor working man's family, out of 13 children I was the only girl. Eight of the children died when they were small. My father was a drinker, he died in 1920. My dear mother was left alone, her entire life was trouble, work, worry, suffering and want. I myself was ill for many years due to malnourishment and became an invalid, and so Mother and I have had to run our household with very little money. We never experienced so much goodness as we received through your love, we can pamper ourselves, oh how wonderful it is! . . .
If the cruel war had not come, with all of its horrors and suffering, we might have started having a better life, but the suffering was not over, two dear brothers I lost through death in this war, another brother with a family lost his entire home, only ruins were left. Our road in this life was hard and sad. But now we have our church back, she is our only joy, God our only comfort and help! . . . Right now there is a lot of unemployment here, but I have found a small cleaning job.2
Our dear, goodhearted benefactor!
What the mouth cannot say, what only the heart experiences, we felt your presence, - God the father alone can give you what you gave us – LOVE, the love that is so comforting and merciful!
When it was announced in church that we could expect a parcel from America! There was a shout for joy, and sleepless nights of gladness, what beautiful things might be in it, and all for us? Oh, too wonderful! Receiving parcels is not just rare in our lives, but it has never happened. The first parcel! And from America! We were completely beside ourselves and could hardly eat anything from excitement, when the day to receive it finally came ... an entire parcel. Mother and I stood before our table rich with presents, quietly flowed tears of joy, melancholy and gratitude. My thoughts went into the wide, far world, where the generous hand was that made it all ready for us. Oh, if only we could embrace you and press your dear hands, Thank You, Thank You so very kindly!!!...
For those who know German, and to give wider circulation to this historic piece, I reproduce it in full on the next pages.