The Coffee Man

by Matt Archbold 

Every story answers a question. The good ones do, anyway. In fact, the greatest story there is begins with one young wom­an’s response to the question of love and ultimate sacrifice. Mary, the Blessed Mother, said “yes.”

In the end, it is the same question we all face. Our response is our story.

Threat or non-threat? 

When my kids were smaller, I would often take them to the local donut shop right around the corner from our house on Saturday mornings. Honestly, I didn’t buy the house because of its prox­imity to the circular-arterial-block­ing-tastiness-factory, but it was a nice coincidence.

When we arrived at the donut shop, invariably there was an unusually tall man with gray stubble and wild hair wearing denim overalls sitting in front of the shop. When I poured the kids out of the van, he’d unfold himself out of the chair until he towered over us, waving wildly at us and speaking in an indeci­pherable, high-pitched squeak. I’d hold the kids a bit tighter and walk a bit faster as we passed him. When you’re a dad, ev­eryone gets classified as either a threat or non-threat. And I considered everyone a threat until proven otherwise.

This happened countless times. We’d pass quickly and he’d squeak at us. He made me nervous. Once, after darting past him, my oldest, who was about 10 at the time, said, “Dad, I think he’s asking for coffee.”

I didn’t care. I’m being honest. I wasn’t going to approach a tall, unkempt stranger camped outside a donut shop with my small children and ask him what he wanted. So on many Saturdays I shuf­fled past him quickly, avoiding eye con­tact. My kids, however, began waving at him and saying “hi.”

A better Dad 

On Christmas Eve one year, my wife was wrapping gifts in the bedroom, and I was responsible for distracting children. Technically, I wasn’t the distraction; the donuts were.

It was brutally cold out, and when we pulled into the lot, we saw the store man­ager shooing the unkempt man out of the store, telling him that if he didn’t have coffee or a donut, he couldn’t stay inside the store. The man, wearing a big coat, gloves with no fingers, and a hat with ear flaps, hesitatingly ambled out. He didn’t seem mad — just confused.

My girls felt sorry for him, and they looked to me, their dad, to make it right. Like I said, it was that bru­tal cold that makes it hurt to breathe deep, and my daughters begged me to or­der him a coffee. So I acted like the dad that I wanted to be for them and walked it out to him.

It’s a funny thing about being a dad. You don’t necessarily feel like a dad right away in the maternity ward. But you just start doing dad things for your child, and then you’re a dad. And then you want to be a better dad, so you do things a better dad would do, and soon enough, you’re a little closer to becoming a better dad.

Anyway, the man squeaked something even more high-pitched than usual and smiled a toothless smile. He didn’t need teeth. His eyes smiled enough to light up his face. And then he started dancing. Yup. Right there in front of the donut shop, he danced, arms raised, spinning in slow cir­cles, his breath forming a cloud above his head in the frigid air — all the time smiling that toothless smile. My daughters’ eyes widened, and they clapped. Finally, he raised his cup to show the store manager through the window that he had a coffee and marched back inside the store like he owned the place.

The kids would laugh and cheer

Prayer for the Coffee Man

He was often there in the weeks and months that followed, and I’d typically bring him out a coffee. Sometimes I’d see him inside with two or three coffees lined up from other customers. He’d always squeak and make funny faces at the kids, his face as malleable as Play-Doh. The kids would laugh and cheer and high-five him when they saw him, and he’d hold his hand up to show he was amazed how tall they were getting. This went on for years. I learned that he lived in a nearby home for adults with dis­abilities, most of whom didn’t leave the house. But he did.

My kids are a bit older now and don’t want to wake up for do­nuts, so I don’t go there as often. But I’ve noticed that I don’t see the Coffee Man around anymore, not in front of the shop or walking through the neighborhood. It’s funny, you rarely remember the ex­act time you don’t see someone. It just hits you one day that they’ve been gone.

I asked my kids if they’d seen him re­cently. None of them had. One day while driving past the donut shop, my oldest suggested we say a prayer for the Coffee Man. And we all did. He had become part of our lives.

A “yes” story 

The religious mind is one that sees meaning in seemingly casual events; it sees grace in mistakes and gratitude in joy. One of the secrets people don’t talk about enough is that feeling gratitude along with your joy doubles the pleasure. Joy comes and goes. Gratitude leaves a smile on your face long after the laugh­ter is gone.

The Coffee Man is gone, too, but I am grateful to him. And I’m grateful to my children for pushing me to say “yes” to his question and become a little more like the father I want to be.

Like I said, every story answers a question. I hope my story is a “yes” sto­ry. My answer was “yes” when the baby cried at 3 a.m. and needed to be held. I’m not saying I wasn’t mumbling some other things as well, but I said “yes,” too. I said “yes” when they needed to be driven to volleyball practice, school, or Girl Scouts.

And because of my kids, I said “yes” to the Coffee Man.

But I can’t help but wonder about how many people like him I’ve walked quickly past or avoided eye contact with. How many times was I given the chance to connect with someone and walked on by? How many people are gone that I never noticed were there?

As I pass the donut shop, I see his empty chair and think about his tooth­less smile and his dancing, and I say a prayer for the Coffee Man, wherever he is. Sometime when you have a moment, maybe you could, too.

coffeeMatt ArchboldparentingPrayerworks of mercy
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