It doesn't seem like over thirty years but apparently it is. I can't say that I've known him all that time. I can merely say that we've had the same abbreviated conversation for probably about that long. Ritualized. Mumbling. Not really checking in. Rote. Playing our roles. Routinized.
But sometime this past year something changed. Is it that he looked up or that I did? Not sure.
"You're that doctor," he said, actually looking in my eyes. "Wait, don't tell me ..."
I waited. But the line was going to get restless.
"Anthropologist," I said.
And the conversation for a few months went like that—
"Wait, don't tell me—"
"Archaeologist?" he'd say.
And after all these years of mumbled, "debit or credit?" the conversation took a turn at the check out line.
Slowly, I learned that he had been a history major at San Francisco State. That what he loved most was history. And that he had over three hundred history books in his apartment. And that he spent four to five hours a day reading.
"I have a book for you," I'd say. But invariably I'd left it in the car. And thought it obnoxious to go back out to get it. And then at a certain point, not standing it any longer, Rh cleaned out the back of my car — and I couldn't find the book. Still can't. But I've got another copy.
So. Today's conversation took another turn.
"Archaeologist?" he said — after we went through the preliminaries.
"Close enough. Anthropologist."
"Right," he said.
"I still have that book for you—"
"Today's my last day," he said. "After thirty-three years, I'm retiring!"
"Mazel tov," I said, realizing that was culturally inappropriate. "Congrats," I said. And "yikes— I still have that book for you—"
I ran home with my four bags of groceries and left them in the car. I scoured the garage. No Ibn Khaldun. The one I wanted to give him was pristene. I'd given it to bio-father about thirty-five years ago. It had never been opened. And yet Al-Muqaddimah is one of the most profound takes on world history that ought to be read in the West. It was written in 1377, and — and you're probably sick of hearing me talk about it.
Scoured upstairs as well. All I could find was my own home edition of Al-Muqaddimah. You know, the one with all the paper clips, stickies and underlining. It was sitting on top of the three volume edition that I hold as close to sacred as I can manage.
I took a breath, and grabbed my own copy. And headed back to Andronico's. He still had five more hours before leaving the grocery forever. Yet still, the line before his register seemed as endless as it did every single time I'd stood in it. Wow. In a few more hours, no more Mark! But the uncaring line would pile up anyway.
I handed him the book.
"Do you want it back?" he asked, noting the clips and stickies.
"No, keep it," I said, hoping that my notes might help. I realized suddenly that he too might not read it, just as biofather had not. But that the notes might help him engage and make it more user-friendly.
"It's written in 1377," I added, hoping that would help.
"A primary source!" he said.
And he beamed.