We’ve grown accustomed to requiring a certain dose of cynicism in our fictions in order to find them believable. “Few people have the imagination for reality,” Goethe wrote. Because truth can be beautiful in ways we have trouble daring ourselves to believe. Said Mark Twain: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
I preface this story with these thoughts because I want you to know it really did happen. Yes, we conceive of awe as the appropriate emotional reaction to that which is extreme; but what about that which is happy? Doesn’t that equally warrant our reverence, our admiration and respect?
Readers of my book will know of Avery, whose story features prominently in the book’s delicate thematic organization of a series of seemingly unrelated stories. It’s included for several reasons– we touch briefly on my filmmaking background; we explore a character who rode my bus not once but dozens of times; and most importantly, we offer it to the reader almost as a dare. To what?
“Half of them think it won’t work out,” Melanie Laurent’s character says in Mike Mills’ astute and grossly underrated 2011 romance Beginners, looking at a crowd of people. “And the other half… believe in magic.”
A companion and I were walking to the neighborhood post office with a handful of packages. This was before Elliott Bay was the primary shipper of my book, when I was selling copies, basically, out of my back door. In each package was a signed copy of my book, and in each book was, of course, the Avery story. Avery with the indefatigable attitude, whose welfare and appearance I watched gradually wane over a period of years. He came to mind because the guy outside the post office looked a lot like him.
Wait a second.
Could it be? Was that him? Standing there by the main doors, the same but different, as ever with the big smile? But look how put-together he is now. Yes, he was still selling Real Change, but he was doing it looking sharp. The dreads clean and fresh, no debris therein nor on his clothing– a trademark collection of beanie, black carpenters, black sweatshirt, hooded of course, with shoes I forgot to notice, so powerfully did his effervescent grin offset his outfit, which another man might wear without knowing the first thing about how to make it as approachable, personable and downright endearing as Avery did. Clean was clearly the word of the day. Spotless. His pride of self and belief in life were palpable, risen back up to the best moments of my first knowing him and possibly beyond. Certainly his attitude must have played a role? How could that not be, honestly? Makes you wonder sometimes, how much control we may actually have in tipping things into being…
The building was just opening for the day, and a small crowd had gathered, the early birds with letters and packages. I could see that he had put in the effort, like I try for, to be known and loved by the community. The friendly neighborhood stalwart. They knew him and they smiled, never mind that they were North Seattle white, and he was a poor black man on the corner. I saw real enthusiasm in their interactions, and several knew him by name. This is where we start, I think, in the massive undertaking of righting history’s wrongs. By tending to the living.
“Avery,” I called out sharply, mock-serious, and he turned. He turned, he saw, and he blew up. He exploded. Pure joy, reader. This man on this corner, today. This was the face and name of jubilation. How did he still know my name, all these years later? I’m surprised enough when people recognize me out of uniform, let alone remember my name a half-decade on, and on the far side of town to boot.
Our small talk was the conversation to end all small talk. Our “how you been doin'” and “man it’s good to see you” exchanges were overflowing with so much love, surprise, respect, and awe… it must have looked ridiculous from the outside. Comical. But you know the feeling. My shock had mostly to do with the fact that my hopes as written four-plus years ago could actually have come true. That this world had room for him to rise again.
After a chat my companion and I went inside to mail our book packages. No, I didn’t tell him about my book, or how much his story means to me. Let me find the right time. I’ll share that when the time is right. This was more important, what was going on right now–not depictions or documentations of life but Life, the burgeoning immediate present of his accomplishments, not mine.
I was struck by an air which seemed to be affecting everyone. Something magical about this place today. When did you last see the staff happy at a post office? The spry older woman in charge, who steered our small talk into what she loved about the job, who called out to customers she knew, and spoke of the day’s hardships–being understaffed, mainly–with a voice that knew there’s more to life than complaining. People chatted amongst each other, chuckling, even a pat on the shoulders here and there. Others walked out past Avery, wishing him well all over again. He eagerly waved them on with a grin that started and restarted the whole experience.
Was I asleep?
Had I been dreaming? If this was in a movie we wouldn’t believe it. If Nathan dreamt of a post office, then yes, this is what it would look like. But it was no dream, no movie. Only in life could something happen as absurd as a happy post office wherein the customers standing in line, the overworked staff, and the homeless guy out front are all having the time of their lives at eight A.M. on a weekday. This was the post office as fairy tale, community big and bright as life.
A cynic might roll their eyes, insisting something has to be wrong here; but let us remember that realists are forever doomed to mediocrity, because they lack the necessary naivete to believe in the possibility of great things. They lack the requisite capacity to imagine. A realist wouldn’t even notice that this building on fire, in the best way. My own attitude may have played a role in shaping the place that morning too, sure; it’s a delicate and mysterious dance, the mood of a place. But I credit Avery most of all, he who embodied what my parents taught me from day one: you have to generate your own happiness, from scratch, within.
Anything else is a setup for failure.