Thursday, February 4, 2010

Who do we appreciate?

Two days a year—February 4 and June 8—should be set aside as official days for appreciating people, especially those who we see by chance or infrequently. And other things associated with people. Why those days? Simple:

2/4, 6/8: who do we appreciate?

February 4 cooperated.
I took the subway into Boston for a dental appointment, and found several nominees. It began with a picture I would have taken if I'd remembered that my cell phone has a camera. Two German shepherds, dog guides in training, stood frozen at the bottom steps of a staircase at Alewife Station, not sure how to proceed. Their human guides, in blue windbreakers, stood beside them, amused but encouraging. Finally, the dogs gained their courage, and each stepped up.


So I got on the Red Line, and at some point, maybe Davis Square, a guy got on with a guitar. In his sixties, grizzled beard, black watch cap. I didn't pay attention to him until he loudly explained to a kid (who looked away) that he was going to sing his latest song.

The song was terrible. Something about "the baggage man" and finding someone in fifteen pieces? Not sure. Nor was his voice up to the task. Kind of wavery, striving to find the tune, unsteady volume. But the guy was on the interesting side of annoying. He got comfortable, peeling down to his black McKinnon's Meat Market T-shirt. He was probably about my age, and I studied him as a kind of reflection. Sturdy arms, weathered face. Hard living, kind of a Ramblin' Jack. He launched into an uncertain version of Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" ("Oo-wee...ride me high...tomorrow's the BRIDE's gonna come...") His voice had a nasal Jerry Garcia plaintiveness that was, well, authentic. The guy was not excruciating. He moved on to a ballad, "There was a wealthy merchant/in London he did dwell..." It struck me the guy was a troubadour.

Next came a particularly bad version of "I Fought the Law and the Law Won," completely free of meter or melody. But by now the guy could do no wrong. He was what he was, and he was cool with that. We both got off at Park St., he hastily scooping up all his layers, and I said, "Thanks for the music," even though I suspected a few fellow passengers either thought I was being sarcastic or unwisely encouraging him. He gave me a bleary look. "My entire pleasure," he said.


The dental appointment went better than I'd feared. It was just a cleaning, but I'd already postponed it once because I didn't want to disappoint Helene. She's the hygienist. Tall, calm, methodical, a bit reserved but good-humored, and from Belgium. The fact is, I'm not great about flossing, and my shortcomings do not escape her. So I tend to make Helene into the avatar of my conscience. This is a role she wants no part of. "Don't do it for me! Do it for your teeth!" she has said, in response to my admission. But my teeth cannot look at me solemnly or compare me with other, better, teeth. They, in fact, have become a kind of timepiece of my life, going back many many dentists ago, all the way back to Herb Edelson, with the warmly lit waiting room and wonderful photography annuals, if you know what I mean. My dental entropy, my dentropy, surely began back then. And now it is Helene and the ever-inventive Dr. Rothstein who have taken up the mantle of stewards to what remains. God 'elp 'em.

A Drift of Red Osier Dogwood

I could take this appreciation to day's end, when I sat through a grand two and a half hours of the live Prairie Home Companion cinecast at the Burlington movieplex. Following Garrison Keillor in his Anoka High band jacket ("Gary") through the cold, snowy neighborhood of the Fitzgerald Theater as he buys a popcorn at one shop and pie a la mode at Mickey's Diner...and of course, I just did. But he's almost family and gets appreciated all the time. So, I'll conclude not with a person but with something people did. Passing the Old South Church on Boylston St., I was stopped by an outdoor art installation: several dozen deep red-stained wooden sticks clustered together behind a bed of dry grass. And a sign: "A Winter Stick Garden: A Drift of Red Osier Dogwood." This tableau was meant to bring to mind a familiar setting to beach walkers, a shrub on a salt marsh. To bring the point home on this cold midwinter day was the following text: "Here in the coldest and darkest time of year, we make bold to proclaim that spring and life are on the way." Yes, let's make bold.

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