I returned to a place I love today: my public library.
Even though I rolled in a few minutes after opening, I had my pick of the work stations. Accordingly, I chose my favorite table, in the back corner behind the magazine stacks, facing the wall.
I prefer my own company at the library.
After about an hour, I was joined at my table by a graying, African American gentleman.
“I’m sorry.” He said as he pulled the chair out across from me at the table and gestured with his head out at the now quite full, sea of work stations.
“Don’t apologize.” I looked up quickly and gave him a smile, then buried my head back in my laptop praying he would not wish to engage.
Charming, I know.
About fifteen minutes later, my stomach started to growl. I looked up to see if he heard. I saw that he was buried in his magazine, jotting notes down on a scratch piece of paper from a page with five or so images of different tennis rackets. I sized him up. He was lean, definitely a fit old guy, wearing a crisp blue and white striped polo.
What if he is some amazing, recently retired, collegiate tennis coach? What if he is a PROFESSIONAL tennis coach?
Holy shit! What if this Venus and Serena’s dad? Right here? At the freakin’ library saddled up next to me?
My imagination went into overdrive.
Maybe I could charm him into giving me lessons. Something he wouldn’t normally do, of course. Maybe he could work miracles on my crap 3.0 game and lead me to world tennis domination at the age of 40?
Shit. Now I wanted to engage him. ..but he was so engrossed in his notes on the rackets.
I sat there a few moments longer. I thought about my old friend Charlie Evans. I met Charlie at a public library, too. The beautiful main library in Old Town Pasadena. I met Charlie when I was 21 years-old. Charlie was also African American and probably about the age at that time as my new, silver-haired friend sharing my table today. I met Charlie through the Pasadena Reads Literacy Program.
Charlie never learned to read. He earned his living working with his brother as a driver in and around Los Angeles after they moved here from Mississippi in the early 70’s. Charlie’s brother took Charlie’s driver’s license test for him. That’s how Charlie was able to support his family.
“But I don’t understand. How did you read the street signs?” I asked him during one of our first encounters.
“I came to know the streets in and around LA well enough that I could get most of my customers anywhere they needed to go; and sometimes, if it was someplace I’d never been, I’d ask my customer the quickest or best way. It usually worked out”
So that was the nature of our friendship. I was the tutor and he was the tutee. I suppose we were an unlikely pair but I sure liked talking to him.
I was tutoring as a volunteer but Charlie and his wife would sometimes slip a $20 bill into a thank you note for me. I’d tell them I couldn’t accept the money but they wouldn’t let me give it back to them.
I still have one of the cards he gave me. Every now and then, I run across it in a basket of old correspondence and keepsakes in my closet. I like to look at his signature inside the card. I also have a little keepsake he gave me that I keep in my jewelry drawer so I see it more often.
A small reminder of a very special time and a very special friend.
I ignored my growling stomach for another 15 minutes before I had to pack up and find some lunch.
“So do you teach tennis?” I went for it. I had to.
He looked up from his notes and gave me a smile.
“Nope.” He laughed. “Just looking for a new racket. I already have this many of them,” he used both hands to demonstrate the tall stack of tennis rackets he already had. “But I need a bigger racket face for the slices and the spin and the serves that come at you like this and like this.”
He was moving his whole body from side to side in his seat, swinging stroke after stroke, after imaginary tennis balls with his brand new, imaginary racket.
“I'm told the right equipment helps. Good luck!” I told him.
“You, too!” he laughed.
I put my bag on my shoulder and walked away, imagining my old friend Charlie, sharing a table at a library somewhere, doing his own research.
A great song for another old friend I've been thinking about lately: