We are in the middle of a string of beautiful early autumn days in New England. I have the day off and I’m sitting at my MacBook in the Kiskadee Coffee Company in downtown Plymouth relishing the afternoon. My mother-in-law is continuing her good progress: it looks like she’ll go home tomorrow. Amazing.
I got out of the house because I wanted to write at some other time than midnight and the Nap Monster was lurking behind the couch, with the two Schnauzers acting as his minions, determined to put me to sleep beneath the soft sea breeze. Once I finish writing, I plan to go home and allow myself to fall prey to their devious plot.
One of my favorite things about working at the Red Lion Inn is the variety of people with whom I get to interact. The staff in the function kitchen is from El Salvador, the dishwashers and some of the restaurant staff are from Brazil, the manager is French, the owner is German, and the servers are an interesting collection of twenty-something white people. Together we make a good team. Life in the kitchen is often hectic, yet also offers room for conversation. Two such moments caught me by surprise last week. The first was finding out that one of the Salvadorians, a gentle good-humored guy who is among the most helpful people I know, fought against the rebels in his country years ago. His brother told us about it with a great deal of admiration. Now, he strikes me as a kind and peaceful guy, but in another time and another place, he was different.
The second surprise was similar: I was talking to one of our servers, a twenty-one year old white woman who weighs about a hundred pounds soaking wet, and found out she was in the National Guard and had served a year in Iraq as an Army aircraft gunner (I’m not sure my military terminology is precise). She will probably have to go back to the Middle East after the first of the year. I still can’t picture her in a plane strafing the desert for insurgents.
We live much of our lives like billiard balls, bouncing around and grazing each other on the way to whatever the pocket is. My encounters last week remind me of how quickly I allow myself to decide I know who someone is, when all I know comes from brief contact or my own preconceived notions drawn from external circumstances.
In the first restaurant where I cooked, I came out from the kitchen late one afternoon with a carry out order. The man who came to pick it up said to me, “You look familiar. You a cop?” When I said no, he responded confidently, “Hockey player.” I said yes so he could get going. My large frame and shaved head had led him to his own conclusions. He wasn’t looking for his mind to be changed.
My friend Doug is a painter. He and his wife were in Maine a couple of weeks ago and he took the opportunity to paint some wonderful landscapes. One of them was of the bay at sunrise. He talked about how they got up early, made a pot of coffee, and drove in the dark to the site from which he wanted to paint. In the early morning twilight, he set up his easel so he could be ready to catch the moment. “You only have a few minutes to get it down on canvas,” he told me. And he got it; the painting is beautiful.
What works for the painter is not a good metaphor when it comes to dealing with one another. Too often we do a quick study and then paint the portrait of someone, frame it, and hang it on the wall in our minds as if we have captured the essence of that person the way Doug captured the sunrise on the water. Such a two-dimensional glimpse is not good art when it comes to friendship. In the late ninties, a movie called Smoke told the story of Auggie (Harvey Kietel) who owned a smoke shop in Brooklyn. Every morning at eight o’clock, he walked across the intersection from his store and took a picture of his shop. He kept each and every photograph in albums behind the counter. When one of the other characters asked him why he took the same picture everyday, he was quick to point out it was not the same picture. He was taking a picture of the same store at the same time everyday, but the details were always different: the weather, the people walking by, the traffic. The art of friendship requires us, as artists, to commit ourselves to picture after picture, offering a more complete image of our subjects by learning from the details and the differences.
My Salvadorian co-worker is more than a soldier or a prep cook; the Italian-American woman is more than a server or a tail gunner. I have to be willing to keep taking pictures if I want my friendship to be good art.