"The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer." –Mahatma Gandhi
At age fifteen, I learned something important from a person I had assumed was the least likely to teach me anything about anything. It was summer, 1958, and I was working in my parents’ small, retail, fur garment business in the old commercial district of downtown St. Louis.
My father and mother were kind people; though they had little money, they shared it with others, and when they had more, they shared more. They believed this was the right thing, the kind thing, to do. Another way they expressed their kindness and social concern during all their years in business was by hiring a diverse workforce of part time, full time, and whenever-there’s-something-to-do employees, a number of whom might otherwise have been unemployable. They hired women, men, Jews, Christians, Muslims, blacks, whites, young and old, with a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities, years before “diversity in the workplace” would be accepted and expected, especially in a near-southern city like St. Louis.
By any standard, this workforce was an extraordinary array of uncommon people. A mild-mannered, vulnerable young man in his early thirties sported a flamboyant wardrobe and a shiny bouffant hairdo always set to perfection; he drove a Ford Maverick, but called it a Mustang. Another man in his early twenties often appeared in a suit and tie, and carrying a couple of sociology books to convey the impression he was a college student, and to create “a professional appearance,” although he never had learned to read. And there was man in his sixties who had been declared “legally blind,” an inconvenience that didn’t deter him from driving to and from work, or anywhere else, in his four-door Buick.
A favorite of mine was “Beans”, a traveling salesman in his thirties who regaled me with fanciful stories of his many adventures, one of which had taken place in high school; in front of a large crowd, he decided to vault over a low, wooden barrier on the sidelines in order to race onto the field as a substitute during a football game, but succeeded only in knocking himself unconscious when his hand slipped off the top railing. Somehow, in that same story, he managed to find a way to tell me that in high school and for some years beyond, his daily breakfast consisted of a kosher pickle and a Pepsi.
In addition to the flamboyant, self-absorbed, or dissembling employees, there were others who were exemplars of honesty and trustworthiness. Their contributions might have seemed small to those who didn’t know better, but they never failed to repay loyalty with loyalty. They helped the business thrive, and the business did the same for them. If these gentle souls–I will not call them meek–might not inherit the earth, at least they will have made it worth inhabiting.
The dearest of these people was Lilly, a seamstress in her thirties. Lilly was like a member of the family, often in our home to visit and share a meal. She would smile, and hug, and love and be loved. There were times when the business struggled to meet its payroll, and Lilly would offer, without having been asked, to postpone her pay.
And there was Dave Berger, who came out of retirement to provide needed skills in credit and financial management. His preferred method of locomotion made him seem indefatigable as he leaned forward from the waist, almost trotting from place to place with quick, short steps, holding in both hands a file folder as if it were a serving tray. Because of my parents’ affection for him, and his for them, when he asked them to hire his younger brother, of course they did.
Leo, had a severe, intellectual impairment, but was able to perform tasks that didn’t require perfection or completion, such as sweeping floors, moving lightweight objects from one place to another, and helping seal envelopes. I never asked Leo’s age, but he seemed to be around fifty years old. He was of medium height and build. His clean, pressed slacks were cinched with a leather belt high on his waist so the pants cuffs never touched his shoes. He wore short sleeved, light colored sport shirts that coordinated with his slacks, his hair was always combed, and his shoes were always clean, though not always shined.
In contrast to his older brother’s rapid locomotion, Leo moved his feet about twelve inches at a time in a half-walk-half-shuffle, and took a long time to get to where he was going. Whether still or moving, he kept both arms straight down, palms facing his legs. His middle fingers twitched toward and away from his palms, in rapid repetition.
We would speak only a few words or short sentences to Leo at any one time: “Good morning, Leo,” or “How are you today, Leo?” or “Can you help me with this, Leo?” He would answer with only a word, maybe two: “Hello,” or “Yes,” maybe “Thank you.” He seemed so detached from my reality, and I was so unable to enter his, I can’t remember ever trying to have even the simplest conversation with him. I also can’t remember ever hearing my parents try.
Summertime was the slowest time of the year for our business, so there were days when the only people present were my mother, father, Leo, and I. My own tasks included running errands, helping track inventory, and organizing various business records in the air-conditioned comfort of the front office area and store. Part of every day, I worked in the warmer and stuffier storage and supply rooms in the rear, packing and unpacking boxes of hangers, garments, and pelts, and sweeping the old wooden floor, worn smooth from years of traffic. The dusty wood had a pleasant, almost imperceptible aroma of unscented talcum powder that along with the warm air made it difficult for me to stay awake on those days when I had behaved like a teenager until late the night before.
On most afternoons, I’d take a break and buy cold drinks for us at the nearby Missouri Bar and Grill, a hangout of politicians and police. To get there, I’d walk out the back door and down the ramp to our alley, lined on both sides with loading docks, and paved with the original, reddish brown cobblestones, as were the others in the commercial area of the city. One afternoon, not out of the ordinary, I walked to the Bar and Grill and bought extra-large lemonades “to go, not too much ice, please.” Carrying the cardboard drink tray, I entered our back rooms and continued through the swinging door into the air-conditioned front store.
My mother and I enjoyed our drinks in the small, open alcove which served as an office. My father enjoyed his in another part of the store where he had been taking inventory. In a few minutes, the sound of shuffling feet announced Leo’s approach from the back rooms where I hadn’t noticed him. Using his shoulder to push open the swinging door, he shuffled into the cool air where my mother and I sat. As always, his middle fingers twitched, but this time he was pale and his breathing was labored. A soft moan accompanied each exhale. He placed his right hand over his heart, and made a few more shuffles, twitching only his left middle finger.
“Leo, what’s wrong? What is it?” my mother said, as we both stood and walked toward him.
There was no response save for a twitching finger, a hand over heart, labored breaths, and soft moans on the exhale. We helped him onto the couch where he lay with his torso, left arm and left leg stretched out on the cushions, his right foot resting on the floor, and his head supported by a small pillow.
My mother tried again. “Leo…please…what can we do to help you?” she implored.
After a pause of a few seconds, Leo said to one or both of us. “Get…me…a lemonade.”
The look on my mother’s face said nothing less than, “Thank God, what a relief, I thought he was having a heart attack, but can you believe this?”
Had anyone noticed my own look, they would have seen “This is kind of funny, but not really…and how could I have forgotten Leo?” Seeing that he wasn’t dying, and my mother wouldn’t need to be revived, I rushed through the back room and down the ramp to the cobblestones and
the Bar and Grill, where I ordered a lemonade–the one that would have fit into the empty holder in the four-drink tray I had carried not a half hour earlier.
When I returned, Leo was sitting upright, my mother sitting next to him, and my father standing in front of the couch. Seeing there was no emergency, he returned to his inventory work. I handed Leo his lemonade, and said I was sorry to have forgotten to buy him one. He used both hands to hold his drink, and sipped it through a straw. When he finished, he rose from the couch without assistance, and shuffled back through the swinging door.
Now, in 2017, I look back and there is nothing to obscure the view of that day in 1958–no veil, no haze of any kind. The incident with Leo was the closest we ever came to something like a conversation, and, in what I imagine was the only way he could, he communicated his distress: he was someone who mattered, he was one of our group, and not someone to remain almost unseen and almost unheard.
There is no question that I saw him and I heard him that day. Yet, I should have understood better than I had, the value of Leo’s gift; instead, it was one that I put away in some forgotten drawer. “Get me a lemonade” began to be used in banter among my brothers and me to answer variations of “What do you want?” In most instances, I was the one to quote Leo. As I recall, our parents never participated. Any humor they might have found in what had occurred with Leo, they kept to themselves, as I wish I had done.
Almost sixty years later, there are moments when I’m still tempted to use “Get me a lemonade”. On those few occasions when I allow it to happen in a conversation with one of my brothers, or my wife, no one finds it humorous, nor do I actually intend it to be.
For me, “Get me a lemonade” has become something else: a tribute, perhaps; an admission, certainly. It had been unintentional, but I had hurt gentle Leo.
A simple act of kindness, by far more powerful than a thousand voices saying, “Good morning, Leo” and “How are you, Leo?” Nothing more than a sweet lemonade, not too much ice.