The sailor man selling rubber duckies.

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I have been thinking about this man often this week. Every day lately, he sets up this tiny card table, arranges rubber ducks on it, and hangs the white sign written in light spidery handwriting: ducky $2. And then he sits down and sings.

He always shows up in the sailor suit. He sits there for hours, a different spot every day. He doesn’t ask for anything. He merely tells a story — as much as I have tried listening to figure it out, I can’t follow it — and has rubber duckies for sale.

I don’t know his name or his story, even though I have listened. However, I think of him often.

How did he get here? Where did he grow up? Was he actually a sailor? Who loved him? Who did not?

I wonder about him, as I do every person I see on the street.


I might also be struck by this man in particular right now because I have begun reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Lucy. This book. Oh, this book. I read it first when I was 11, as Lucy is now, and I loved it so fiercely that I read it every year again for decades.

If you don’t know the book, do read it. It’s the story of a young, deeply sensitive young girl named Francie Nolan who lives in Brooklyn in 1912. She observes everything around her, keenly. And she notices the poverty in which she and her family and everyone she knows lives in. It’s a story set in a tenement, in immigrant neighborhoods, in the struggle of living in a city and country that really doesn’t want you there. Reading it again with Lucy, I can see how much of it formed me and my sense of injustice in the world. It’s such a wonderful book.

Right in the first chapter, Francie is waiting for day-old bread on deep discount because it’s going stale. There is a shoving match at the front, as the bakery throws out hard bread to people who need it for sustenance. Francie decides to wait until the rush dies down, to not be in the scrum. So she watches, as she always does, as I always did. And she sees an old man and wonders about his life.

He was a baby once. He must have been sweet and clean and his mother kissed his little pink toes. Maybe when it thundered at night she came to his crib and fixed his blanket better and whispered that he mustn't be afraid, that mother was here. Then she picked him up and put her cheek on his head and said that he was her own sweet baby. He might have been a boy like my brother, running in and out of the house and slamming the door. And while his mother scolded him she was thinking that maybe he'll be president some day. Then he was a young man, strong and happy. When he walked down the street, the girls smiled and turned to watch him. He smiled back and maybe he winked at the prettiest one. I guess he must have married and had children and they thought he was the most wonderful papa in the world the way he worked hard and bought them toys for Christmas. Now his children are getting old too, like him, and they have children and nobody wants the old man any more and they are waiting for him to die. But he don't want to die. He wants to keep living even though he's so old and there's nothing to be happy about anymore.

I don’t know if this description has stayed with me all my life because it is so poignant. Or if, like Francie, I was already observant and a bit melancholy as a solitary reader, so I felt a sense of connection with her that astonished me. But this passage, only 12 pages into the book, stays with me still.

I never look at a human being without wondering about the story.

When I lived in New York in the late 90s, I did a series of meditation retreats for more than a year. One evening, walking home after three days of heart-opening exercises, I looked at every person on the sidewalk passing me. And for the first time in my life, I didn’t wonder if any of the men I passed could ever love me or be the one. Instead, I looked into the face of everyone I passed, man and woman, and knew, “I could love you. It would be easy to love you.” Everything else fell away and I could feel how arbitrary the idea of soulmate or the one I have been waiting for truly is. If we open, we could send love to any person we meet. Not romantic love or sexual love but LOVE. Every person.

When I look at people and wonder about their story, I remember that moment of clarity.

And when I met Danny, almost a decade later, I could open to him because of this revelation. I wasn’t trying to check things off a list when I saw his face. I looked in his eyes. And I could somehow sense the story before us.

As I walk on the streets in Seattle now, headed to work, I put away my phone and really look. The couple sleeping on the sidewalk, ragged sleeping bag thrown over them both, his arm thrown over her body, pulling her close. What is their story? The small boy crossing the street with melted ice cream in a plastic container, dribbling a line of pistachio drops on the black scuffed street until his mother chastises him quietly in Japanese? What is his story? The man with a Trinidadian accent laughing with two men while he sits astride a parked bicycle cab. What is his story? The older woman on the phone not noticing that her tidy grey backpack is bumping into the hip of the man walking by her. What is her story?

There is always a story.

I will probably buy a rubber ducky for Desmond tomorrow.