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Adam Fisher: The ties that really do bind



Saturday, August 08, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — On Saturday, as I was weeding around a decorative rock that sits on what passes for a front yard here, I heard a woman’s voice behind me saying, “Good morning.” It was a tentative, polite voice and I turned to search out its owner.

“Do you have any old metal stuff you want to get rid of?” the woman asked calmly. “My son and I are scrapping.”

I answered that in fact I probably did have some worn-out metal odds and ends, but added the truth, which was that it had cost me something to get down on my knees to do the weeding and if I got up, I was afraid I would not have what it took to finish the small chore I had set myself. Old age has its limitations.

The woman, in her 50s perhaps, or a frazzled 40s, understood completely. “Would you mind if we came back at another time?” she asked. And I replied that I would not mind at all.

It was a small event, an unexceptional exchange, but somehow it caught my attention.

At any other time, I would have been off my knees in a shot. Begging is not easy and I don’t like to see anyone in tightened straits. I seem to be programmed to lend a hand where I can, but at the moment I simply didn’t have what it took to meet the obvious and touching need. At any other time, I would have felt a twinge of guilt at having turned her away, but somehow, on Saturday, I didn’t. I had told my truth, she had heard that truth and we were parting as what I imagined was friends.

Old age, like begging, makes its demands and a waxing patience is one of them. The environment from which she spoke seemed to add weight to her words. By disposition if not wallet, Northampton is largely a lily-white community with an I-deserve-it outlook and sensibility.

Relatively speaking, there is plenty of money, so people can take an interest in things like creating a road crossing for migrating salamanders. The pressures of poverty are best observed over a glass of white wine. The dirty hands of “scrapping” are washed in anti-bacterial soap. It may all be well-intentioned, but good intentions don’t put spaghetti on the table or keep the bacteria-free bill collector from the door.

I don’t really feel the impetus to turn all this into some economic-inequality screed. There’s plenty of that available elsewhere. What interested me in the situation was a strange, momentary sense of kinship and family.

It was a little like the feeling that arises in a community snookered by a power blackout or a walloping snowstorm. Suddenly, everyone gets a little more understanding about others. The number of crabby drivers flipping each other the bird diminishes. People passing in the street may not say hello, but they look at each other and smile perhaps ... a warmish, complicit smile that was not there when the lights were on or the roads passable.

It all seems to say, “We don’t need any self-help smarm about how we are all connected. I know you and you know me. No need for forgiveness or pretense.” Things are looser and warmer and less-contrived. Fragility and sorrow live side by side with strength and laughter. Also, in some way that cannot be proved or defended, all this is simply true.

Nor do I wish to elevate the scratching, searing realities of hard times. Hard times are hard and trying to make lemonade out of lemons is a pastime for those well-enough-fixed to envision safe passage for a salamander.

But hard times can scrub away some of the social callouses that keep others out even as they hem the calloused in. When the storm hits or the lights go out or the scrubbed bill collector comes calling, the fragility that is as much a birthright as any other gets a chance to breathe and relax and claim its rightful place.

I read you and you read me. In the only important sense, we are friends, even when I do not know your name. In a well-learned and sometimes wracking blackout, we can smile together or perhaps even sing. Come back any time.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton and is a regular Gazette columnist.