Halloween night, after helping hand out candy to trick or treaters, and hanging out over at my brother's house, the Clint Eastwood Play Misty for Me scenery of Monterey Bay playing somehow appropriately in the background 'til late, a bottle of a wine, I went out to catch a little of the festivities, the outfits. First down to dreaded M Street, low riders going by, but then up to old Glover Park, my old barman neighborhood, my own small version of McGowan's Soho of rainy night. And after a bit of that, catching up with my old friend Herb, mayor of the place, a topped off glass of wine, another bar, a double cheeseburger and fries from Z Burger and no luck with any of the fresh nurse outfits, riding home, I hit a patch of uneven pavement and took a spill, the springy front end of my mountain bike dipping as I braked, leaving me with a road rash on the left palm and small pinky finger. I rode home, carefully, poured hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol and iodine over my wounds, a squeeze of polysporin, and a large bandage, and passed out on the couch. I was back to work sunday night, stiff in the way a rider of the Tour de France would be very familiar with and wearing latex gloves over my bandaged cuts, moving pretty slow. I had five shifts to get through, the uncertainty of healing, a few nasty looking spots that required consistent treatment, soaking in epsom salts, a trimming of dead skin with small scissors, and I was reminded of treating an infected wound, also from coming to a stop too quickly, below the ankle on the inside of my upper foot in between day and night jobs when I first came to town here twenty five years ago, having to open up before it could really heal.
And then I'd be flying to New Orleans, to catch up with my college buddies for football. After the beautiful old city, walking the French Quarter, not enough time, not enough bars and gallant old restaurants and venerable staff, with a taste of the incredible hospitality and humanity of such an old cultured place that might remind me of the old Japanese ghost stories told with stylishness in the 1964 film Kwaidan, I boarded another airplane and came back to DC, stopping after I'd landed at a bar on Connecticut Avenue and having several glasses of wine to ease getting back, then walking home in the kind of way you don't perfectly remember, I mean, you've done it a thousand times, do you remember locking your door always, but you know what I mean.
Two days back to work, a golden day, a jacket on, I head off to work and take the path on my mountain bike through the woods. I'd walk and call my mom but for the encounter with the Russki Soldatin man who did not take kindly to my talking through my earbuds in the quiet of the park, striking me hard with his hand like an angry cop, the need for quiet something I can understand and maybe I talk too loud when on this gadget the iPhone, being, after all, the son of a lecturer. I'm taking the winding descending path through the forest there behind Dumbarton Oaks and below the Italian Embassy building at a slow roll. Usually I'd walk, but there's work to be done, wine tasting night to set-up, and last night was busy enough. Two women up ahead, standing, studying the environs, and I quietly stop and dismount, walking towards them. I take a moment to look up, as they are, at the treetops. "Any owls today," I ask. "No, but a white chested woodpecker." "Cool." A few other bird names are exchanged, and clearly, they know their stuff. "I saw a turtle a warm day a few weeks ago crossing the path toward the stone wall," I say, pointing down hill where the path parallels the stream and the a stone wall of even stones rises above to hold back the bank. "Headed toward it's winter nest," one of the ladies says. I was glad I'd figured the turtle, dark with a small stripe of yellow, observing me, knew where it was going, and I'd seen it move out of the pebbled harm's way and into the tall grass. I did not see any obvious large cracks in the WPA era stone blocks.
"We are in the midst of a conversation project here," I'm told, the reintroduction of native species. Yes, down by the small bridge over the stream. I've been observing that. "We're happy to have volunteers." Nice. Yes, I say, my dad was a botanist. I'd be happy to help out. "I'm a botanist as well," I find out, one of the nice women here on this sunny fall afternoon in the woods. "Where was your father..." she asks, looking at me. "Oh, he was an old GI Bill guy at UMass Amherst and then we left and he taught at Kirkland, a woman's college in Central New York..." Who's ever heard of Kirkland College, a beautiful moment in time that did not last, the legacy of it a Benjamin Thompson beautiful campus below the dairy field rolling hills. (I don't get to talk to too many people about my dad. That's how life is. Thankful for the few remembrances of him on the Hamilton College website.) And I'm about to go on, wary of already having talked a bit too much, as I am passing through that emotional stage before work and facing raw humanity, having to shepherd myself through the shift just as much a task as anything, ever conscious of walking the line between being open and friendly given a short amount of time and going on too long, a sophisticated business to conduct, no situation like any other. Shift number how many in my twenty five year Lou Gehrig career? Will I work alone tonight, or will I have help?
And then a strange response, the woman looking at me now squarely as the sky is blue and the light golden and the leaves yellowing orange and brown, the earth below, trees rising, the usual silence of the woods where my thoughts run, the stream below where I sit sometimes on a log in some form of lotus position. "Is your father's name Putala?"
"Yes," I say, and often times I've hoped, or thought, or imagined, or figured it would be a prayer of communicating with him to walk such woods, or walked, thinking of life, thinking of him, thinking of the gift he must have passed on to so many people, least of all his gentlemanly politeness, his friendliness and curiosity toward all walks of plant life and trees and people and gardens. And to stand here and here before me a very nice person making study of such woods and the species within it, here tucked away, telling me she became a botanist because of my father strikes me as a redemptive moment, like something out of A Tale of Two Cities. And me on my way to work in the obscure Levis and a courier bag over my shoulder an anonymous young-acting fellow without any obvious or real credentials beyond a decent liberal arts education and steady employment in the restaurant business as the very front of the house, that guy who is your entry point, your welcomer, the maker of your cocktail, the presenter of menus, the pourer of your first sips of wine. All of which I attempt to do using a basically Socratic method, as opposed to aggressive salesmanship, "here's what you want," indeed, the whole job being a platform of the philosophical approach in almost each and every way, even as plates and dishes and glassware and silver ware, food and things to clear off tables make their own rounds of circulation against the backdrop of nervous time and relaxed diners, often enough a room full of many spirits for any Jesus to study, learn from and ultimately cast out. Finally, standing before me, is a kind person, knowing, in essence, who I am, where I came from, why I've made the choices I've made.
I filled up, of course I did. Stifled a small blubber, in the same way my old dad did himself sometimes. In the same way one of my own teacher, Benjamin DeMott of Amherst College did once before my eyes remembering in Shakespeare class burying a family dog with his own father. And this nice person before me tells me what a true teacher, in the true sense of the term, my father was for her, and how he encouraged her to move on and forward.
Out of coincidence I've been reading a book, one purchased on one of those days after last Christmas with my mom who likes to check out bookstores wherever they are still found. (Zen Battles, Modern Commentary on the teachings of Master Linji, by Thich Nhat Hahn.) And within it I find a bit of the music of things my father taught me. The words, quoted, of the master: "Do you want to know who our teacher, the Buddha, is? The Buddha is you yourselves who are standing before me, listening to me teach the Dharma."
And that you sometimes realize is the nature of your legacy, the important thing passed down to you from your father, both your parents, your inheritance, your health, your way to proceed, the way to honest maturity.