The Kindness of Strangers

I met Richard one morning early in 2016 at the Bath Y. He was a regular and I’d see him per my routine early swims, usually Tuesdays and Fridays (or sometimes Thursday, if I couldn’t swim on Friday).

The Y is similar to other places where I’ve worked out in the past (like Auburn’s Planet Fitness)—the early AM workout crowd tend to be creatures of habit and generally, a little older. We’re there to get our reps/laps/miles done and then, it’s off to whatever the day throws at us. Across the context of two strangers’ paths crossing, a bond sometimes develops. You see the same person week after week. Unless you’re a misanthrope, you’ll have a conversation or two. Before long, seeing that person becomes part of the routine.

Richard’s 14 years older than me. That means he fought in Vietnam, is nearing retirement, and has accumulated a bit more life experience translating into wisdom. He’s solidly middle-class, probably a tad more conservative than I am, but I know he didn’t vote for Trump, either based the accumulation of our AM conversations.

There was something inherently likable about him. He was a no BS type of guy, and I have always had an affinity for males of that stripe. As the months passed, I found out he was working part-time at The Home Depot in Topsham. He’s “retired,” but like many seniors, retirement now means holding a job to supplement retirement savings—Americans are living longer and longer and staying topside costs slightly more than chump-change.

Last fall, we were in the midst of selling our house of 26 years, not knowing that the floor below our lives was about to open up and try to swallow us. I’d also see him at work, as I made numerous runs to Topsham to pick-up home improvement supplies like mulch, landscaping fabric, spikes to repair my sagging retaining wall, patio stones, and a host of other things for sprucing up the house for what would be a future sale.

Interestingly, Richard was also in the middle of his own home improvement project. He’d bought a foreclosure a block from the Y that he was renovating. He kept me apprised of its progress in that guy sort of way, and we’d talk about wiring, heating systems and other building infrastructure.

Being so close, he’s now able to walk to the locker room in the morning. Richard also shared his penchant for ambles downtown to Bath’s vibrant Front Street at night and having an ice cream cone at Dot’s. He justified caloric excess with the quip, because “it’s all uphill back home,” and his trademark wry smile.

Richard’s only one of a two Y acquaintances that know anything about my year from hell and Mark’s story. When he now asks “how are you doing,” I know it’s something more than the usual perfunctory greeting.

My twice-weekly swims are an essential part of keeping me somewhat sane—a form of grief self-care.  Being greeted in the morning by Richard, his face red from working out, as he’s usually on the way out as I’m coming in, is equally welcome.

I doubt that we’ll ever be fast friends, but he’s been a reminder of the many salt-of-the-earth people in the world that we often never know very well. They also help offset the evil in the world, infusing it with goodness and grace.