“. . . You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city. . .” (Alberto Rios)

The secret of my happiness

The secret of my happiness

Five years ago I wrote about one of my most formative experiences. I’m writing about it again today because I’ve been thinking about “my last lecture” (everyone remembers the famous one by Professor Randy Pausch at Carnegie-Mellon University—also about five years ago). As I said this morning on Facebook, I ain’t no Randy Pausch, and I ain’t dying (that I know of).

But I have to mark the end of this important part of my life. My “career” if I can call it that. My gainful full-time employment.

If genetics have anything to do with longevity, I’m far from marking the end of my life (my mother died at 92—having survived colon cancer—and my father died at 97—having survived much, including being my father).

Perhaps this will be my last lecture. Probably the only time in my life I will get to deliver the valedictory address. “The secret of happiness?”

Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests,

I have a deep dark secret (except for writing about it in my other blog, of course).

Secretively, I carry a folded twenty dollar bill in my wallet at all times. I cannot, on pain of severe punishment, spend it. It’ is not mine.

It’s not my last hedge against being broke. It is not “mad money.” It is not for emergencies. It is not mine. I cannot, may not, will not ever spend it.

The secret began in Oakland a few years back. I was there for a family visit, staying in a hotel because other out-of-town family filled all the relatives’ spare beds.

I was up at my usual hour (about three hours before anyone else). After the necessary writing time, I needed breakfast and went out. I approached a Denny’s where under normal circumstances I wouldn’t stop. I don’t have elegant or particularly healthy eating habits, but there are limits.

I'll probably always need them, too

I’ll probably always need them, too

I sat in a booth where I could see the waitress’s station—where they poured coffee and did what waitresses do behind the scenes (they were not a mixed-gender “wait staff”—they were waitresses being bossed by the male manager).

My waitress was a small frail woman, apparently the oldest of the group and the shortest, of Asian heritage (obvious both by her appearance and her speech). I watched the other waitresses abuse her. Catty remarks, picking up cups of coffee she had poured for her tables, actually bumping into her trying to make her spill things. She was too old and frail (I suppose she was close to 60—not too old for anything except taking abuse) or gracious to fight back.

Here’s where the story gets tricky. I said the title is “The secret of happiness?” I’m afraid I’ll seem to be looking for praise. I’m afraid someone will think I’m such a nice guy. I’m afraid I’ll seem to be thinking more highly of myself than I ought to think. None of that is true. This is a story about my selfishness, about my desire to be happy—even for five minutes.

When I finished my breakfast, I counted out the exact amount of the check and left it on the table. And then, weighted down a little by my empty coffee cup, I left a $20 bill as a tip—three times the amount of the check. I simply got up and walked out.

I was halfway across the parking lot when I heard, “O Sir, O Sir!” I turned around, and there was the waitress running toward me, frantic. “O Sir, you make mistake. Not twenty dollars.”

“No,” I said, “it’s not a mistake. It’s for you.” “Too much, too much.”

She burst into tears and threw her arms around my neck. She could barely speak but managed “thank you.” I told her she was welcome and simply continued walking. I could not believe how happy I was.

I quote myself from my previous writing about this moment. “At that moment, I decided if that’s all it takes to make me happy, $20 is little enough.”

Since that time I don’t have any idea how many $20 bills I have given to their rightful owners. About one a month I suppose. When I hear people talking about how foolish it is to give panhandlers money, I shrug. Maybe. Probably. I don’t give panhandlers money. I can tell if I pay attention which people asking for money at the 7-11—or at the corner of Ervay and Main or while I’m waiting for the train at Mockingbird Station or anywhere else—probably really need it. Or can I? Is it any of my business? So what if a guy takes my money and buys booze? If he’s an alcoholic, the cruelest thing I can do to him at the moment is to refuse him a drink. If it’s a little lady panhandling for the two or three men across the parking lot, she needs the money to keep them from beating her up.

Most of the time the homeless people I pass on the $20 to need psychiatric care. We force the mentally ill onto the streets and then blame them for the massive gun violence we are willing to put up with in this country to protect our right to carry a gun. They’re not carrying guns.

If a scroungy guy talking to himself in the parking lot of Kroger on Cedar Springs asks for a buck and I give him his twenty and he sits down on the curb and cries, I know pretty much for sure he’s hungry.

I’ve gotten used to getting hugs from dirty, smelly, unsavory characters (and some desperate little old ladies).

I need to be hugged. If I have to pass along a $20 bill that isn’t even mine for a hug, it hardly seems fair. I’m getting the better end of the deal. The secret of my (often momentary in the midst of severe depression) happiness.

“The Cities Inside Us,” by Alberto Ríos, 1952

For a good time. . . .

For a good time. . . .

We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.

We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.

They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us

There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people

We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are

But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.

We each take a piece

Alberto Alvaro Ríos was born on September 18, 1952, in Nogales, Arizona. He received a BA degree in 1974 and an MFA in creative writing in 1979, both from the University of Arizona. He holds numerous awards, including six Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction, the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 1994 he has been Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he has taught since 1982. In 2013, Ríos was named the inaugural state poet laureate of Arizona. In 2014.

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