"Van" part I

                "Van" part I

               I can’t remember the first day Van came in the store which is unusual because he would have stood out from the other customers.  He came in regularly around 1 p.m. and this time of day is most often filled with professionals who do not want to fight with the noon rush of downtown.  A time reserved for those that have a little more freedom in their day.   
                
                Van was an old man in nearly every sense of the word. He stood about 5’ 6” at the time that I met him. I couldn't guess what height he was before shrinking, but it could not have been much more.  He walked confidently with a cane but it was occasionally interrupted with a flash of anger at his lack of mobility.  He was slender, gaunt and pale with a fair amount of white hair.  His hearing was horrible and the two hearing aids he wore caused him constant aggravation.  They also annoyed those around him when that high pitch piece of feedback would sound off if he had them turned up too high.  He was always dressed in a professional manner (albeit a little dated) and if left alone he conducted himself appropriately.


                When I first noticed him it was obvious he was going to become a regular customer and that he would need a little more assistance than others.  The mistake was to try to treat him like an old man with that “helpful” tone of condensation that is slow and childlike.  All his physical limitations were superseded by his curmudgeonly persona.  He defined the word.  He didn’t want any help from anyone that might appear to be helping him. I didn’t know what he was doing downtown or what, if anything, he did for a living.  After all, this man was well past retirement age and my guess was he had seen eighty a few years back.  

 I recognized these traits in him very quickly and made a point of telling the staff not to treat him like an old man but rather just a regular customer who had a temporary physical issue.  Some young people think they are being nice when they treat people of age like helpless (and often useless) grandparents. We developed a system that worked for most of us, including Van.  When he walked in he would head directly to one of his favorite tables and get himself situated. He would make eye contact with one of us, indicating that he would like his usual.  His usual amounted to a cup of coffee with cream and sugar, a toasted pumpernickel bagel with butter and preserves on the side, and one chocolate chip cookie.  We would fit in his order between customers so he didn't have to stand in line, and bring his food to his table.  We only did this for others if no one else was waiting to be served, but always for Van.  He was a special case. I didn't know just how special until he was an established regular.

                At first I only sat with Van when he planted himself at what was considered “my” table.  He would often pick up the half done crossword I had started and add to the work.  This was not done without his critical looks as my handwriting often blurred the numbers in the corner of the boxes. This weekday routine entertained many onlookers that knew him but were unable to break his outer crusty shell of communication.  When he started showing up on weekends I would join him for a bit wherever he landed.  This is the time he wandered down a more personal path and I often thought of our talks as my “Sunday’s with Van.”  He told me about his family, both current and past, how he used to walk from the north side of the city through downtown to get the University of Rochester for school.  He would walk to work after school and try to study while he was there.  We talked about life but more frequently about death - his death. 

                 Van was a federal court of appeals judge and the highest ranking judge in our area.  So often I would see younger (under 70) attorneys try to approach him at the table to say hello or show him some respect only to be rebuffed with a complete lack of acknowledgement.  Not even a glance.  This would prompt a louder attempt or a general feeling of dejection not often found in attorneys outside the courtroom.  What they did not know was that Van had turned down his hearing aids and just didn't care if it was rude.  It became a running joke of the place when I chose to actually inform people of the realities.  

                Over the years there were many Van stories and not just stemming from my store.  On days when he was not around, customers would come in and tell me tales of Van as though I might be his biographer. This ghostly image of a man and I would sit for an hour or so and he would talk to me as though I was his great confidant.  I couldn't possible fit all the humorous stories into one post here so I plan on writing an occasional piece with Van as a main character.  Where to begin might be the hardest but let’s see how it goes. 

                One cool spring day, the area was going through another example of regional weather that always kept us locals shaking our heads.  This time we had high wind warnings, with gusts up to 70 mph. The older buildings downtown were in for a strain and people were warned to stay off the streets.  This just added to the list of things that would keep customers in their offices for the day.  Not Van, though.  He was not deterred by this warning or he didn't hear about it.  

                I saw him walking into the store and he stopped as he entered the place to make a crack about the weather indicating that he may have underestimated the warning, if he heard it at all.  He went on with his rituals and I went on with serving the occasional customer that ventured out that day.  While Van was there, one of the federal marshals had come in and noticed him sitting in the corner.  We had a brief conversation about him and his chosen form of transportation to the store. This snowballed into quite a few people worrying about him and taking measures to secure his safe return back to work. The office was only about 200 yards down the street but it was a very windy road that day, and it required to him to cross two intersections.  The marshal went back and informed another judge of our concerns which promoted that judge to call me at the store.   He decided to send another marshal with a car with the intent of convincing him to accept the ride he was instructed to demand.  Now if you knew anything about Van, and both parties did, this was truly a “mission impossible.”  I felt bad for the marshal because he had direct orders to “go get Van” and drive him back from one of his superiors, and no interest in partaking in this plan by another.  

                He walked up to Van at his table and tried making casual conversation with the same luck as the attorneys.  He was more persistent and eventually succeeded in at acknowledgment.  The marshal then introduced himself and his profession and continued on with a description of the weather.  He offered him safe transport back to work, but was uniformly denied with a typical grunt and waft of the hand as Van went right back to reading the paper.

                The marshal shot me a look of “Do you have any ideas for me?” for which I had none.  The marshal hung around for a few minutes trying to come up with a plan or a way to explain to his other boss why he had not come back with the “package” he was sent to retrieve.  

                This is also the day I learned about the high powered camera that had been installed on the federal building just after 9/11, and that it would be pointed at my store until Van made it back safely.  
                I couldn't guess what height Van was before shrinking, but it could not have been much more than he was now.  He walked confidently with a cane but it was occasionally interrupted with a flash of anger at his lack of mobility.  He was slender, gaunt and pale with a fair amount of white hair.  His hearing was horrible and the two hearing aids he wore caused him constant aggravation.  They also annoyed those around him when that high pitch piece of feedback would sound off if he had them turned up too high.  He was always dressed in a professional manner (albeit a little dated) and if left alone he conducted himself appropriately.

                When I first noticed him it was obvious he was going to become a regular customer and that he would need a little more assistance than others.  The mistake was to try to treat him like an old man with that “helpful” tone of condensation that is slow and childlike.  All his physical limitations were superseded by his curmudgeonly persona.  He defined the word.  He didn’t want any help from anyone that might appear to be helping him. I didn’t know what he was doing downtown or what, if anything, he did for a living.  After all, this man was well past retirement age and my guess was he had seen eighty a few years back. 

 I recognized these traits in him very quickly and made a point of telling the staff not to treat him like an old man but rather just a regular customer who had a temporary physical issue.  Some young people think they are being nice when they treat people of age like helpless (and often useless) grandparents. We developed a system that worked for most of us, including Van.  When he walked into the store he would head directly to one of his favorite tables and get himself situated. He would make eye contact with one of us, indicating that he would like his usual.  His usual amounted to a cup of coffee with cream and sugar, a toasted pumpernickel bagel with butter and preserves on the side, and one chocolate chip cookie.  We would fit in his order between customers so he didn't have to stand in line, and bring his food to his table.  We only did this for others if no one else was waiting to be served, but always for Van.  He was a special case. I didn't know just how special until he was an established regular.

                At first I only sat with Van when he planted himself at what was considered “my” table.  He would often pick up the half done crossword I had started and add to the work.  This was not done without his critical looks as my handwriting often blurred the numbers in the corner of the boxes. This weekday routine entertained many onlookers that knew him but were unable to break his outer crusty shell of communication.  When he started showing up on weekends I would join him for a bit wherever he landed.  This is the time he wandered down a more personal path and I often thought of our talks as my “Sunday’s with Van.”  He told me about his family, both current and past, how he used to walk from the north side of the city through downtown to get the University of Rochester for school.  He would walk to work after school and try to study while he was there.  We talked about life but more frequently about death - his death.

                 Van was a federal court of appeals judge and the highest ranking judge in our area.  So often I would see younger (under 70) attorneys try to approach him at the table to say hello or show him some respect only to be rebuffed with a complete lack of acknowledgement.  Not even a glance.  This would prompt a louder attempt or a general feeling of dejection not often found in attorneys outside the courtroom.  What they did not know was that Van had turned down his hearing aids and just didn't care if it was rude.  It became a running joke of the place when I chose to actually inform people of the realities.  

                Over the years there were many Van stories and not just stemming from my store.  On days when he was not around, customers would come in and tell me tales of Van as though I might be his biographer. This ghostly image of a man and I would sit for an hour or so and he would talk to me as though I was his great confidant.  I couldn't possible fit all the humorous stories into one post here so I plan on writing an occasional piece with Van as a main character.  Where to begin might be the hardest but let’s see how it goes. 

                One cool spring day, the area was going through another example of regional weather that always kept us locals shaking our heads.  This time we had high wind warnings, with gusts up to 70 mph. The older buildings downtown were in for a strain and people were warned to stay off the streets.  This just added to the list of things that would keep customers in their offices for the day.  Not Van, though.  He was not deterred by this warning or he didn't hear about it. 

                I saw him walking into the store and he stopped as he entered the place to make a crack about the weather indicating that he may have underestimated the warning, if he heard it at all.  He went on with his rituals and I went on with serving the occasional customer that ventured out that day.  While Van was there, one of the federal marshals had come in and noticed him sitting in the corner.  We had a brief conversation about him and his chosen form of transportation to the store. This snowballed into quite a few people worrying about him and taking measures to secure his safe return back to work. The office was only about 200 yards down the street but it was a very windy road that day, and it required him to cross two intersections.  The marshal went back and informed another judge of our concerns which promoted that judge to call me at the store.   He decided to send another marshal with a car with the intent of convincing him to accept the ride he was instructed to demand.  Now if you knew anything about Van, and both parties did, this was truly a “mission impossible.”  I felt bad for the marshal because he had direct orders to “go get Van” and drive him back from one of his superiors, but Van had no interest in partaking in this plan by another.  

                He walked up to Van at his table and tried making casual conversation with the same luck as the attorneys.  He was more persistent and eventually succeeded in at acknowledgment.  The marshal then introduced himself and his profession and continued on with a description of the weather.  He offered him safe transport back to work, but was uniformly denied with a typical grunt and waft of the hand as Van went right back to reading the paper.

                The marshal shot me a look of “Do you have any ideas for me?” for which I had none.  The marshal hung around for a few minutes trying to come up with a plan or a way to explain to his other boss why he had not come back with the “package” he was sent to retrieve. 

                This is also the day I learned about the high powered camera that had been installed on the federal building just after 9/11, and that it would be pointed at my store until Van made it back safely.  
  
                What I find interesting about all this is that every party involved was probably in agreement about the dangers of the current weather and the possible need for some assistance.  However the oldest and frailest party had no interest in accepting his physical limitations, the weather, or any help.
        
                The marshal finally left and I told him I would see what I could do and would call him if I had any bright ideas.  The store started to slow down a bit and I was taking a break. I knew that Van had not paid for his lunch yet and I was near the register waiting.  When he came up to pay and give me his parting sarcastic comments for the day (as was his custom), he saw me putting on my coat as if I was also leaving.

                He immediately gave me a sharp and accusatory look of “No Chance” and he asked me where I thought I was heading.  He knew exactly what was going on but he was still determined that it wasn't going to happen.  This is where I have no shame about tooting my own horn.  The first thing that came to mind and then out of my mouth was enough for him.  It offered Van an acceptable form of passive assistance that would get him safely back to work, and frankly I am still surprised it worked. 

                I grabbed three cookies off the counter and slipped them in a bag.   “I am bringing some cookies to a few of the girls at my friend’s office. “  His look immediately changed from suspicion to that sly look men get when they know one of them might be out hunting. “Always schmoozing the pretty girls, huh? “ I just smiled and we both headed out the door.  On the walk he asked me where these girls were located and I told him in the federal building.  He looked away and smirked and we headed down the road and finished our journey with nothing but small talk.  When we arrived at the doors with the security guards and scanners, Van walked right through as though they didn't exist, as I waited for the guard’s approval.  One of the guards got on his radio and let some higher power know that the “package” was back.  I caught up to Van in the hallway on the way to the elevator (he didn't move that fast) to complete the ruse.  We departed with very few words and I went to the office of my friend and dropped off the cookies.  They were pleased to see me, or at least the cookies, and I gave them a brief description of their good fortune on that day. 

                I couldn't say for sure, but I think that day brought my relationship with Van to a new level of understanding for both of us.  He was more willing to open up about personal things and I was more open to listening.  Although we never spoke of that windy day, I have no problem patting myself on the back regarding my part and have retold it many times.

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