First, let us say it simply – I am worried about them. Valerie and Luis. I say this to get the notion out of the way. They do not need me to worry about them. They are sturdy survivors. They have jobs in an era of pervasive unemployment among young people. True, they are working long hours, performing big tasks for small wages…not that I actually know what they make. And my worry? In many ways, it is simply that. More to the point, I have gotten through my life with help from key people at key moments. And I feel like returning the favor. That is to say, I can see opportunities. Two bright kids with much promise. It’s up to them, of course. But it’s also up to me to be there for them, I have decided. So whatever my worry response, forget it. We seem to have developed a joint project. And what does this project involve? Specifically? No prob in finding out. Join us for lunch at Hamano Sushi.
With Leo, our table becomes a foursome. Nice to be in Noe Valley, once my home, a favorite San Francisco neighborhood defined by the sharp fold between hills. Having had my teeth cleaned, this is where Luis and Valerie and I head, Leo wandering in moments later. Our worlds differ so that common ground is difficult to define. Yet I sense it, having made this luncheon date on that premise. I have brought Leo’s latest book and ask him to sign. But no, we are heavy into menu reading. Still, the book and, in fact, books in general, are in the air. Valerie asks the most honest and direct question of all. Why did you write the book?
I wonder…but do not worry about…what Leo will say. He tells them that Detroit is his home place, the setting for his youth. We are drawn to the original ground, he explains. He goes on to talk about the changes in Detroit. How an essentially white city became a black city. How manufacturing came and went. How much of this occurred within his own lifetime. Leo talks about his father. In so doing, he lays out the fact and fiction, presenting them side by side for comparison. He doesn’t lecture. Leo guides. In this way, I see that he has already taken the measure of these bright young people. ‘Why did you write the book’ has gradually morphed into ‘how.’ What was the question? No one cares. For this is our common ground, the fact that none of us cares about…well, he’s not worth caring about.
I sketch how Leo taught me creative writing, 40 years ago. Find the characters, then let the characters find the story. I do not even check Luis’ expression or Valerie’s. They understand this well enough. Besides, as lunch progresses, we also find Leo’s story. He has new health problems. His wife has old ones. Leo brings our lunch to an early close. He has medical appointments that very afternoon. I remember to have him sign my book. I will read the inscription later. Will I treasure it as much as I treasure this lunch?
For I am outside the restaurant, waiting while the driver readies my wheelchair cab. By now, Valerie and Luis are well schooled in this matter of vans and ramps. They actually help the driver buckle me and my chair into place. They are hard workers. Leo has invited them to meet the Filipina crew that now assist him and his wife. They are like family, he tells us. And Leo is like me in that we turn our helpers into an informal domestic unit. He is also like me in this impulse to be concerned about a future for Luis and Valerie. Leo has explained that his helpers once worked for agencies, went out on their own and now freelance quite successfully. It’s hard to say if this remark sinks in, provides any hope or glimmer of a brighter future for either of them. Besides, it’s what they say next that sinks into me.
Both kids are concerned about Leo. They complain about their jobs, they say, but life could be so much more difficult. Leo faces illness. His wife is sick. Luis and Valerie appreciate what they have. And at this moment, I appreciate them. I need to be reminded of the same sort of thing in the same sort of way. My life has been difficult, but others also follow a hard road. We share this world. There is no forgetting each other. These kids seem to know this. Leo knows it. And having just had a good reminder, I know it too. The cab lurches us toward a hotel, and later North Beach. I feel like showing them the sights. Problem is, I have had plenty of sights already. I return to the suburbs, they stay in the city…and the afternoon stays with me well into the evening.