The encounter had followed a dark period in the man's life, licking his wounds still two years after the six hundred mile move to a different job, a different town, and a completely different culture. He had crossed a birthday milestone a few months before where the only greetings received in the mail were the incessant reminders from the AARP to join their ranks. For a nominal annual fee of course.
He had come to the conclusion after changing jobs for only the fourth time since college that friendship was fleeting. Those who he used to converse with, drink with, and laugh with were becoming more distant. The simple truth was that nobody ever intends to change the status of a friendship due to distance, but it was foolish to think that social relationships would remain as strong when he was never around. People simply move on, as did he when crossing four state lines.
Work seemed to be going well enough, he thought, though he remained a bit of a social outsider. With the cornerstones of his personality mortared by twelve years of Parochial School repression and a mother who became as masterful at guilt management as a fabled Jewish matriarch, he had turned to comedy to help break the ice. But, a bevy of the conservative Christian right, the kind that can't take a joke and won't offer one, didn't care much for the man's humor. Acceptable conversations in the workplace included the wholesome accomplishments of children, the greatness of the Republican party, and the number of charity houses you built with your church group during your only family vacation.
Facebook had become a recent and welcome diversion. He had restricted himself to professional networking websites in the past, testing out Twitter for only three days before coming to the conclusion that nobody should be interested that he had just taken a monster dump the first thing in the morning. "Tweet" - I'm baking muffins. "Tweet" - I'm picking up milk at the gas station. "Tweet" - I forgot to drop my phone bill in the mail. "Tweet" - does anyone apart from your significant other really give a shit? But Facebook had provided him another brief and narrow view into what his former and distant friends were up to. It provoked at least, a brief smile at the end of the day.
Drudgery remained the watch word for the work week. A crappy mattress with no give left in its padding was the culprit this day, forcing his shoulder go numb and waking him at 3:30. Rolling to his other shoulder would afford him another hour but no more. Much work had to be done before the end of the week and it was best just to go in and get the day over with. He skipped packing a lunch or a breakfast sandwich with the expectation that a few extra dollars in his pocket this week could allow him a morning stop at the cafeteria.
The first part of the drive was thankfully uneventful, though the 45 minutes on the mostly barren four lane interstate gave him time to lament his current situation. He wondered if things would ever get better, if he could find his smile again. He thought about events of the last two years and the former employer who had happily handed him his separation papers. This followed by an executive at the company asking him why he was leaving, and if he could stay, only after a new employment offer had been accepted, the moving company called and new housing procured. Feeling mistreated and unappreciated, the word "No" was his first and quickest response. Catholic School and Mother's training forced him to follow with, "But thank you for offering".
Approaching his exit, another vehicle was making a fast move from behind and to his left which he has immediately interpreted as an attempt to cut his car off before the exit ramp. The memories of the previous employer had influenced his right foot. No one would be taking advantage of him this morning. He gripped the wheel firmly and kept his foot on the floor, accelerating up to 95 on the ramp. The second vehicle was behind him now, closely following as a means to convey some sort of message. First sharp turn to the left. Cutting the apex close, he knew what the limitations of his modestly priced sedan would be, complete with well balanced aluminum frame and engine, and continued at speed without braking. The car behind him thought better of the risk and fell back. His small victory was elongated with two more turns off this long, half mile ramp, while topping 125 leading up to the final turn and an eventual stop light.
With heart still pounding, he made a quick left and then a right turn into the parking lot accelerating across the yellow striped and empty tarmac and up to his usual spot. Sitting for a moment, he shook his head wondering "what the fuck am I doing?" It wasn't a battle, a fight or even a minor scuffle, but yet the feeling of fight or flight has enveloped him. His composure lost, he sat for a few moments more, breathing, until the key was turned to unload the weapon. He exited the vehicle and grabbed his brief case, standing outside just long enough to adopt a familiar slumped and defeated posture.
He walked across a small one way street leading to the brick wall of the small, executive parking lot. The wall continued down another darkened street in front of him and led to the entrance to his building on the left. It was at the wall, blocked initially by some landscaped shrubs, that a dose of reality was offered, perhaps at a time when he needed it most. An unshaven man dressed in a dark shirt, looked as if he had just been awakened by something. He was sitting up in his sleeping bag in front of the shrub, hidden well next to the wall, squinting and looking disoriented. He was apparently startled by the man with the briefcase, or perhaps the noise from his tires just a few moments before. The two men exchanged a glance, with the briefest of recognition as to each other's plight and perhaps a silent nod to the most basic accomplishment of living to start another day.
Walking to the entrance now, RFID card in hand, he walked past the card security station where he was greeted by the more senior of the two agents with, "Good morning sir". And that, was a defining moment.
He continued to walk slowly, head down partly in shame but partly reflective. Continuing to the elevator and his office, he counted his blessings and became thankful for his family, and for the fact that he was employed. He remembered the friends and former co-workers who were still looking for work and struggling to keep their homes. He gave a silent nod to the fact that he had a roof over his head, food in the cupboard, and good health. He remembered that his freedoms were assured and protected by many young men and women fighting for us in foreign lands. He acknowledged that save for a small turn of events, that he could be the man in the sleeping bag.
Now at his desk, he felt immediately compelled to write the encounter down before the memory of it was lost, before the emotion of it had faded, and before it had gone through a single edit. He was thankful and appreciative for all that he did have, including the ability to see and to use his hands to write. He acknowledged the importance of making this the best day he could, regardless of outcomes that he couldn't control. He would find a way to tell others that they are not taken for granted. Finally, he vowed to remember to be happy for the things he does have, rather than focused on the things he doesn't.