The sign said, "Book Sale $1.00 Each." I had left home to run a few errands and one of them was a stop at the library to return some audio books. The sign drew me from my purpose like an ice cream parlour on a hot day. If I never buy another book as long as I live I will not run out of reading material, but I couldn't pass by without looking.
As I picked up a book to leaf through, a man on the opposite side of the table said, "These are mine." He patted a pile of 8 or 10 books that he had collected to establish that they were taken. I smiled and said that I wouldn't touch them. "Isn't this great though?" I said, "What a good opportunity."
He said, "Yes, I'm retired since March, with lots of time to read. I used to work--too much." And he laughed as if I might know what he meant by that.
His voice was cultured, with a hint of the Caribbean; warm and charming. He wore a knitted Nordic style hat and a thick coat. I was curious and asked what kind of work he had done before he retired.
"Well, I'd be happy to sit down and talk to you about that some time," he said.
He told me that he was staying at a local seniors residence while he sorted his life out, that he had a daughter of 51 and a son of 49. He seemed lonely, like someone who had lost their moorings somewhere along the way, and my curiosity deepened. I love listening to people's stories.
I suggested meeting at the library sometime or in the lounge at the seniors residence, but he said he'd found a coffee shop in town where he loved to go, and would I like to meet there for coffee? Before I knew it he was writing his name in my notebook; I gave him my number, and we had a date for the next morning.
When I told Susan, Brenda and Paul that I was having coffee with a man I'd met in the library, their responses made me think twice. Was I giving him the wrong impression? Possibly; and I reconsidered the wisdom of being so impulsive, but wise or not, I had made a commitment and it didn't feel right to go back on it.
So, the next day I arrived at the coffee shop ready to listen. The place is a popular meeting place in town and it was bustling with people. I scanned the booths and comfortable armchairs looking for the man but couldn't see him so I bought a tea and found a vacant table to wait at.
We spotted each other at the same time and waved. He made his way over to me and sat down. He had made been in the thrift shop across the road, which made him a few minutes late.
I bought a bowl of soup and he bought an egg and cheese bagel. I said, "It seems like you might be a regular here," and he laughed and admitted that he was.
Along with his coat he carried a dusty, hard sided black briefcase, which he laid on the seat beside him. As we began our lunch, I asked him about himself and how he came to be in town.
I noticed that this time he told me he had a son of 51 and a daughter of 49; the ages he'd told me the day before were reversed. Neither of them lived close by. His wife and he had divorced, "amicably" he said, after being married for 27 years--he told me that he had "succumbed" to his work. He was 78 and had worked in his own business until the spring of this year when he said that the recession forced him to wind it down, but I guessed that there may have been other factors that contributed.
He had closed up his home and put his library and other belongings into storage lockers just outside of our town and it was after travelling up and down to spend time at the storage lockers with his books and other stuff that he decided to check out the town and consider whether he might like to live here. And that is how he came to be here; he moved to be near his storage lockers.
"Where did you live before?" I asked.
The answer evaded him. He reached for his briefcase and said, "I will give you something to look at. It should have an address on it." He rummaged through the briefcase and handed me a plastic covered collection of yellow edged letters written by him when a project manager in the field of industrial lighting, 18 years ago.
As I leafed through the pages I admitted that the technical language was foreign to me. Some were proposals for projects. But they told me things about him--what he had done and where he had lived, for we found an address in the letterhead of one document.
He was a man of innate dignity and courtesy with wiry grey hair and beard and eyes that were slightly clouded. Although he was a healthy 78, age was showing in subtle ways that became more evident as we talked although he was a good listener and conversationalist.
I thought about the importance of what people give their lives to. My friend from the library had the gifts of skill, intelligence and education and had given life to his to his work, a choice that he admitted and didn't seem to regret. But here he was in a strange town with a only a storage locker of belongings and a briefcase that held his life's story.
I looked at my watch and realized that the time was slipping by. I needed to get home.
"Maybe we could do this again sometime?" he said.
I thought of Paul's caution and said, "Well, maybe we will meet again in the library."
I left considering what holds value and is worth investing in. Because no matter how vigorous our health, life winds down, and what we invested in is what will be there in the end.