Monday, January 5, 2009

Ron's Story

This piece is dedicated to Studs Terkel.

I first met Ron a few years ago at my convenience store gig. He worked the night shift at the cabinet factory across the street and would stop in with his carpooling buddies to buy coffee, smokes and lottery tickets. Every day, Ron would stop in for this afternoon ritual, always buying “Minnesota Hold-Em” scratch offs. I didn’t know if he ever won more than he lost but he seemed to enjoy the game. Ron is a small, skinny fellow, about five feet tall and alternates between a scruffy gray beard and clean-shaven. That’s all I really knew about Ron, despite having served him at the store for almost two years. I didn’t think much of it as I assumed we would have little in common anyway. I just sold him a large cup of coffee, a pack of Pall Malls and scratch offs. I don’t think Ron ever bought anything other than those three items which he bought every day, five days a week. He must really like stability.

One Sunday afternoon, I took my family to eat at a Chinese restaurant in Monticello, which has the distinction of being the only place in Wright County where you can order fresh sushi (yes, I know sushi is Japanese food – my last name’s Koeppe, not Palin). As I was gathering a plateful of salmon and tuna wrapped in a sesame seed rice patty with a big side of wasabi, I bumped into Ron. He greeted me with the “hey” of an old friend and pointed to the table where my family was seated. “That your family? You’ve got a nice family there.” Ron motioned to a table two down from ours where a young man was seated. “That’s my boy – he’s a BIG boy,” he laughed. Ron’s son was definitely bigger than he was, about three times as big. I could tell how proud he was of his son. After I finished my sushi-fest and the kids were getting antsy as toddlers tend to, we put on our coats and began to leave, I walked over to Ron’s table.
“Nice to see ya,” I said.
“You, too. Take care,” smiled Ron.
“See you in a couple days.”

Ron and I talked quite a bit after that encounter. He’d come into the store, fill up his 20-ounce coffee and give me grief regarding its freshness. He always made a point to ask me how my family was and tell me what a nice family I had. I started to get more engaged in his lotto picks and guessed he usually won a little more than he lost. We’d have two minute conversations about life’s boredoms and annoyances. One afternoon, I confessed to being a little tired (probably from writing or the kids) and Ron laughed.
“How much sleep do you get?”
“I try to get six hours,” I replied.
“I get home about one o’clock, sleep at two and I’m up again at five.”
“So I can see my boy.”
Ron explained that his work hours prevented him from seeing his son most of the week. He would leave for the night shift before his son would be home from school and his son would be sleeping when he returned from work. Like many individuals, Ron found it hard to fall back asleep after waking up. He survived on three hours of sleep, five days a week, so he could see his son every day. It’s little wonder he would complain about the freshness of coffee given how much of it he probably consumed. Ron’s sacrifice of sleep is one many parents give when they can’t see their kids. The thought of missing them grow up is far worse than missing sleep.

Ron’s story made me think of my mom, who for many years, worked either the midnight or graveyard shift at her factory job. I guess I took for granted that she would be there to wake me up in the morning, give me a good breakfast and ask me how life was going. Mom probably didn’t fall back asleep after I went to school. Our house was always spotless, laundry washed and beds made. Many times, she would make supper for my Dad and me before she left for work, putting the meal in the refrigerator in separate Tupperware containers for the both of us. As a kid, it never occurred to me the time and effort entailed on a daily basis to make her family happy.

The 2008 recession hit the construction industry particularly hard. The cabinet factory was forced to lay off the majority of the night shift, giving the employees about a days notice that their services were no longer needed. It was difficult to come to work for my first day after the carnage. I kept thinking about Ron and his carpooling buddies, wondering if they made the cut. I started to watch the clock, ticking closer to 3PM, a half hour before the night shift starts. Nobody. 3:10, still no-one through the door. About 3:20, I knew Ron had been laid off. It was a sad, lonely half hour, one experienced by too many this past year. I started to realize how much I would miss Ron, a person I didn’t know or care much about until he chose to care about me.

Maybe it’s time we take a closer look at all the people who surround our lives every day and get to know them. Even if you don’t have anything in common with them, their hearts might surprise you. Make a connection with them – keep it if you can. Ron may not be a plumber, “Joe Six-Pack” or a convenient sound bite, but he is real to me and an epitome of why we should create connections with each other every chance we get.

I hope Ron uses this unfortunate situation to hang out with his son that he loves and not dwell on his lack of employment. There’s no point in being mad about a lost job. What’s the use in being angry about something if you can’t change the outcome? Even though change is hard to stomach, losing a job is miniscule to losing family or friends. There’s no point getting wrapped up in situations out of your control. If the media is too much of a downer, ignore it, watch “Sponge Bob” and laugh at the realization Patrick Starfish would have done better supervising Wall Street.

My Mom was laid off several times when I was young. Even if we didn’t have a lot of money, it was great to spend time with her. Possessions are replaceable, time is not. Hopefully, many people who are starting the year unemployed will use this time to do things they always wanted to do. Be it sleep, fish, cook a good meal for your family or catch up on TV, do something that makes you happy. I’d like to think Ron is using his time enjoying his family, making the occasional trip to the local store for cigarettes and “Minnesota Hold-‘Em”, winning a little more than he loses, which is all any of us can hope for when the chips are down.

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