One of the biggest thrills from playing music is in the act of giving. For me, it is wonderful to hear how Switchback makes an impact on people’s lives. I remember once when we played for a concert in Fort Madison, Iowa. We had just finished “Falling Water River,” and an old man came up to me and told me he was a veteran. His eyes filled with tears, “Thank you for remembering those who serve,” he said. He began to tremble. “I was in World War II.” He didn’t need to tell me any more than that. I understood that we reached a place that this gentleman probably did not visit often. In our early days, I remember a woman telling Brian how the song “Ain’t Goin' Back” became her rallying song for getting through a divorce. And the kids at the Hope Institute, creating a song about their living with autism. All of these become peak experiences, and in a way, it is easy to think of my giving as being all one way.
In my neighborhood there is a lady named Maureen. She is an old woman who hangs out in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts in all sorts of weather. I befriended her when I first moved into the neighborhood and she asked if I would buy her a cup of coffee. It became a ritual of sorts after that. When I would head in the direction of Dunkin’ Donuts, I would look around for a dollar to tuck in my pocket for Maureen. During the hot months, Maureen will head into the shop itself and take advantage of the air conditioning. She sits and draws pictures on the placemats. My guess is that the management tolerates her presence, and so I will get her coffee and whatever she wishes to eat so she can stay in the shop.
From what she has told me, she lives in a subsidized apartment. She has tried to get work, but clearly she has some mental challenges. Her story changes from time to time, and I realize that whatever I get to know about Maureen is really in the moment. I looked at Maureen as someone who was barely hanging on in the neighborhood. Someone was looking after her, but who and how, I don’t know. For a while she was sick and I did not see her for a long time. But about two months ago, when I took Áine out for what we call our “flower gazing walk,” there was Maureen. She was at her post, which is right on Clark Street in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot.
She lit up when she saw Áine. “Oh, she’s beautiful,” she said. Áine, who sees people for who they are, smiled and waved at Maureen. I gave her a dollar for coffee. “Can you meet me at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Sunday?” she asked. I was sort of taken by surprise. “Why sure,” I said, mentally checking my calendar and calculating if I was going to be in town.
“How about 10 am?” she said. “Ok,” I answered.
I went out on the road with Switchback, and we got back into town early on Sunday morning. I was dead tired, as usual, with three hours of sleep as Áine awakes around 5:30 a.m. It was about 10 a.m. and I started making excuses in my head.
“I deserve to sleep in.”
“Maureen probably forgot about our discussion.”
“I am sure whatever she wants is going to be a plea for money.”
“I need to get a lot of house chores done and have no time to sit with a homeless lady.”
“I barely see my wife and now I am going to Dunkin’ Donuts to spend time with a crazy woman?”
Somewhere in my sleep deprived brain, the tiny voice of conscience was still working. Perhaps it was the quote my French-Canadian grandmother would direct to my dad and his twin when they would come in late from a night out carousing.
“If you can be a man all night, you can be a man in the morning.”
I got out of my bed, pulled on my band clothes I wore in from Iowa, and trudged over to Dunkin’ Donuts.
“At least I can get me a cup of coffee,” I told myself.
I half expected Maureen not to be there.
But there she was. She kept her appointment with me, and when our eyes met, she broke into a beautiful smile. Sitting next to her was plastic grocery bag. I bought us both coffees and sat with her. I immediately felt ashamed for thinking I could have ditched the appointment.
“I made something for the baby,” she said. She reached into the plastic bag and pulled out a grey sleeveless t-shirt. The kind of t-shirt that I’ve always associated with the “Honeymooners” or “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." On the bottom of it, in front, Maureen had knitted a tiny little pocket.
“Here,” she said. “I thought she would love to run around in something like this.”
“Oh, Maureen,” I said. “Thank you so much. I know Áine will love it.”
I looked at the article of clothing.
It was, for the most part, something that I never would imagine Áine ever being in.
But I was totally leveled. And taken down a peg or three.
I thought that somehow, being a giver and provider of joy, I was entitled to being a dispenser of that joy. Maureen, by her lot in life, was not entitled. She and many like her are supposed to be grateful recipients of whatever I could cast her way. A dollar tucked in my pocket for a cup of coffee.
I look at Maureen differently now. I see in her, standing in front of Dunkin’ Donuts, a member of my community. Just yesterday, walking to the store, Annie, Áine, and I saw her. Annie gave her a dollar, and Áine waved.
“I just made this shirt,” she told us, and showed the tiny pocket she knitted and stitched to the plain white t-shirt she was wearing.
“Oh, Maureen, that is wonderful," I said. And I meant it. I was in the presence of a master soul-toucher.
~ Martin McCormack