(By Jay Ambrose, Centennial Fellow)
The way to discover America is to discover Americans, as Walt Whitman intimated in his poem, “I Hear America Singing.” Listen to the mason, mechanics and shoemakers, he said, and thereby listen to the democratic spirit. I think he’s right, although I haven’t encountered any shoemakers lately.
My own focus is on conversations with clerks, barbers and all the blue collar workers I run into in my daily life. It’s good, I think, to say boo to impersonal transactions and it’s amazing how the learning experience can lift your spirits, although the stories you encounter are not always cheery.
That brings me to a Walmart store and this happily helpful fellow who used to stand over with the push carts in the glass-door area of entering and exiting. He would make sure you got a cart when you were coming in and that you had purchased all your Walmart possessions when leaving.
At the time, I owned a horse – Sunny was her name. She was what I had wanted since I was a kid loving cowboy movies and this Walmart guy was a former cowboy who noticed when I kept leaving with horse food in my cart. We talked and I learned he owned a horse and had in fact been in rodeos. He had been a champ. But then he lost a portion of his brains, his wife, his money and his trophies.
As we continued to bump into each other, the story unfolded. The most dramatic moment was when he pointed to his forehead and I took notice of the outline of where his skull had been surgically opened. He had been thrown by a bull and landed on his head and the injuries were dramatic. He was through with his rodeo career and, at some point I am unsure of, with a wife who divorced him, getting most of the winnings he had accumulated over the years.
But you still have your trophies, I said to him on maybe our sixth or seventh Walmart confab. Well, no, he said while showing no pain. There had been a fire. They were destroyed. He was now living with his mother and, thank heavens, he told me, he had finally found a job, this position at Walmart’s. He seemed to really like it, especially the interaction with customers, but then disappeared. I made inquiries. It seems Walmart’s had eliminated all positions of the kind he held.
Coincidence, somebody once said, is God’s way of staying anonymous, and it seemed that kind of coincidence when I met him again at an Evergreen area rodeo. I say that because I do not go to rodeos, just got the urge out of nowhere one day and drove over. As I was walking around the benches, there he was, absorbed in the bucking broncos and cattle roping. We sat together and talked for a bit. He did not say much about what he had been up to except that he had some sort of role at this function – he was still clinging to his passion.
I did not stay long, but I sensed courage in him thought of how much he had gone through and prayed that opportunity was joining his efforts at self-reliance.
I am going to leave out some other interesting tales, such as one about an auto mechanic who writes books or another about a single-parent barber – hair stylist?—who was making things work out for her kid through a dedication that made me want to hug her. I will move on to a clerk in a convenience store before talking about a coffee house clerk and ending up with a deep bow to a handyman.
It was night, we had run out of milk and I was securing a couple of gallons at the store as the clerk apologized for a cash register malfunctioning in peculiar ways and mumbled something about how greater efficiencies could be accomplished. Then, faced with a questioning style I acquired early in my reportorial career, he told me of how he wanted to be a business owner himself some day.
He was not talking about a convenience store. He was talking about a diesel shop that fixes diesel vehicles. He had spent six years in the Army learning the mechanics of the thing and had been trying to save money to make the wish a reality. A few days later, I saw him again, asked if he had more than one job and was told that, at the moment, no. He was going to Metro State to learn business. He was a smiley guy and here is something else: He is going to be an entrepreneur of the kind that helps make this country the exceptional place it has been.
Now I will mention the coffee shop where I meet once a week with a friend to talk about politics and other disheartening topics. A clerk there had been sweet and helpful, had also been pregnant, disappeared for a while, and then came back with two children at home instead of just one. I am of an age where tattoos such as hers puzzle me but do not chase me off, thank heavens, because the other day I found that she may save the world.
Well, that’s overreaching, maybe, but I did learn, for starters, that she was going to college. Her major? Both math and philosophy, she said, and I asked what she was studying in philosophy at the moment. Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century nihilist, she told me, and the next thing you know this clerk and I were talking about how he saw a man beating his horse, put his arms around the horse, cried and never again had a sane moment.
I then asked what part the math classes played in her ambitions. She wanted to be an astrophysicist, she said, and the math would help her get her Ph.D. The next step would be to combine the science with the philosophy and to come up with concepts this old planet had never seen before.
That’s what you call thinking big, and if she should somehow fall short of that aspiration, I still believe she will still reach beyond providing me with decaffeinated café latte to contributing to the intellectual welfare of us all.
My last exposition is about Joaquin, an assistant of a great maintenance guy who time and again has come to the rescue my wife and me when ceilings were leaking, furnaces were misbehaving or you name it. Joaquin is a chipper fellow with serious thoughts he has shared when asked, as in telling me once how he also worked as a basketball coach in an alternative, charter school for students kicked out of other schools.
Some were suicidal, he said, and he thought the Gospel was the way to raise them up. He could not offer religious counseling in a public school – he got in trouble just for keeping a Bible on his desk – and would meet with them after school. He is convinced the Christian message saved lives, but he began to have doubts about the school – whether it was spending its money the right way – and left.
He still coaches basketball at a local YMCA and he and his wife do something extraordinary. Every Saturday they go to downtown Denver and sit and talk to homeless people. These wanderers are lost in their own minds, he said. They are doing battle with themselves. He and his wife try to help by bringing them to God. He also takes food to them, buys needed merchandise for them at a dollar store and gives them Christmas presents.
For 25 years, Joaquin has told me, he helped build houses and found that he also needed to build a better life. This was especially the case years ago after he found a girlfriend with another man, got in a fight with him and thereby managed to get into legal trouble. He had a major setback through loss of property, but he had had an evangelical grandmother who had pointed him in right directions and understood that changing what’s wrong out there starts with changing one’s self. One lesson was that it is love instead of lust that ought to direct relationships.
He has children, and I have met one – an obviously outstanding young man. Joaquin is a Hispanic who fits no stereotype. He thinks illegal immigration should be stopped and voted for Donald Trump. The inspiring thing to me is that he has purpose in life that flows from his Christian faith and enables him to help inject purpose in other lives.
So, for all of its problems, what America have I discovered? It’s one in which you find strength in adversity, people making the most of what comes their way, a capacity to dream big and people loving their neighbors as they love themselves.