The August sun streamed across the front porch and into the southerly windows of my 1920s bungalow. Outside on the street in front of my house, a man climbing out of a white Cadillac with a boomerang-shaped radio antenna on the trunk caught my eye.
He was tall and broad, with a belly the perfect shape and size to be considered “Santa Claus quality.” Having opened the trunk, he stood leaning over the car with a cigarette dangling from his lips, rifling away for something. Above the lid bounced his brown leather fedora as his hands and arms swept back and forth inside the trunk.
His attire conjured up a stock character from a 1970s detective show: white slacks; brown, well-polished cowboy boots; and a navy blue, button-down rayon shirt. The aging countenance of his graying beard gave him a street-smart air, and the surety of his classic fedora and the disregard with which the cigarette hung from his mouth gave the impression that he “owned” the street corner.
After awhile he left, only to return that afternoon in a different car, and thus began the pattern. Monday through Friday, he parks his car in front of my house and waits, surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke and the notes of old-time blues wafting from the radio. He arrives for an hour every morning around 7:30, and then disappears until the afternoon shift. Four months, three different cars, and the same fedorawithout fail I see him every morning.
And every morning now, Mr. James waves as he searches the trunk for his tools: a hand-held stop sign and a safety vest that leaves his belly exposed. Not many kids pass in front of my house on their way to school, but those who do are accompanied across the street by a sure-footed man in his late 60s. Mr. James is retired from the railroad, but he still engineers the flow of traffic as he places himself between the oncoming cars and the kids rushing to cross the street. Twice a day this unsuspecting crossing guard smokes a pack of cigarettes, carpeting the ground with butts as he converses with the local color and waits for the youngsters in his charge.
Mr. James is a generous man, but he said he wasn’t looking forward to Christmas.
“My wife’s already a big woman, and dag if she won’t blow up like a blowerfish if I don’t get her something nice, and then neither of us will make it through the end of the year. I guess I’ll just have to do what I can.”
I don’t know what Mr. James did about his wife’s present, but he didn’t have to worry about mine. Mr. James didn’t know it, but his neighborly presence made me realize there is little that can overshadow the gift of his kindness to those around him. Mr. James always asks after me, and after not having seen me for a week he became concerned enough to knock on my door to see if everything was all right.
I take comfort in the thought of Mr. James in his fedora, parked in front of my house everyday, smoking up a storm and making sure that the kids (and anyone else with whom he comes into contact) are doing “just fine.”
Merry Christmas, Mr. James. And thank you.