Thursday, May 24, 2007

Robert's Story

Robert showed up out of nowhere, in a shipyard, emerging out of the storage unit next to BoathouseBooks' unit. In over a decade I had never seen him anywhere around there. The only person I had ever seen was a homeless man who lived in his car, and regularly visited his unit across the yard where he kept his clothes, but mostly mountains of newspapers and magazines - "to prove his point" it seemed. He had that "it's all a conspiracy" look about him. His car was full of literature and notepads, too.
Robert didn't look crazy, just big, and irritable. His car was blocking our unit and we were expecting a gigantic truck with the book delivery. He moved the car, at which point an even taller, bigger, and grumpier guy emerges from their storage container. No words, just looks and grunts.
Our truck pulls in and we soon realize that I ordered a lift-bed truck, instead of a truck and a forklift. Not realizing that there was such a thing as a lift-bed truck, I had assumed that what my friend Fergus in China called a lift-bed truck was what I called a forklift. There was a moment of silence...and realization...that we were in big trouble. A bad case of a native German and a native Chinese making arrangements in English.
Then Robert reappears from somewhere and announces that there are two forklifts around the corner in that shipyard and he'll ask one of his buddies if we can borrow one. He walks off, head down, as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. I start wondering who is going to be the one trying to use this forklift. Back comes Robert, and before we know it, he is gingerly and with utmost precision lifting pallet after pallet off the truck and into our storage unit. It was the same sophisticated dance I have so often watched big, burly guys perform with their earth movers or cranes, that leaves you in awe as to the coordination, sensitivity, skill, beauty and balance of it all. Robert knew what he was doing. This wasn't just a regular forklift either, but a kind of magical instrument constantly adjusting its blades to what it had to do.
I still felt a little intimidated by Robert and decided to get to know him better. I wondered whether I could give him a book or two for a kid in his life and ask him if he had kids. "Oh, boy", he says", shaking his head in disbelief, "You just struck a cord there lady", "I don't. But me and my friend, we go to the Children's Hospital in Oakland. Last weekend we took hundreds of Beanie Babies from a lady who used to collect them. But the market has fallen out of Beanie Babies and she donated them. They were all brand new. The kids loved them." He looked sad, and mad, like he had seen a lot of suffering.
"Well', I said, "all those pallets you just moved for us, they are children's books. I'd love to give you a box for the kids. Would you like me to? "Sure, I'll take it. They'd love 'em", he said. "Just leave'em in the trailer. Sorry for the mess in there." And off he went. He had refused a cash tip for his efforts earlier and I was happy he accepted the box. This was a good soul of a man. He was mad at, and at the same time surrendered, to the suffering and injustice in the world. And he had decided to make a difference where he could. Maybe he had lost a child.
I put a box into his unit, and also left a signed copy for him on top of it. I felt sorry that I never asked his name. It turns out that the storage unit next to ours is used for tools by several of the shipyard storage workers. The icing on my cake that morning was when a third "big guy" shows up to get some tools from the trailer. I follow him in to find out if he can tell me Robert's name, which he can. He sees the book on top of the box, likes it after going through it, and asks how much it is. I tell him, he pulls $13 out of his jeans and asks me to sign the book for his son.

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