Faces of God

  • Barbarella

When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.

-- G.K. Chesterton

"I spare no expense when it comes to my girls," Dad said with a satisfied smile. I lifted my slice of pepperoni pizza as though it was a glass of champagne, toasted my father's sarcastic sentiment, and filled my mouth with melted cheese and soft, hot dough. He mimicked my actions and, after wiping a bead of tomato sauce from his graying whiskers with a handful of white napkins, Dad posed the same question he always asks when I join him for lunch at Costco: "Where else can you get two huge slices of pizza and two sodas, with unlimited free refills, for less than six bucks?" The outside dining area at Costco in Mission Valley is forever plagued with breezes that whisk away your napkin the moment you let down your guard. I used my soda to anchor my plate (I had already chased after it once) and continued to enjoy the tasty calorie bomb in my hand. "It's a pretty good deal," I said.

"It's a great deal," Dad corrected.

Though he enjoys a busy schedule, my father prefers a simple life with plenty of routine. His Saturday regimen for the past several years has been working up a sweat in an aerobics class at his local gym, then (after a social soak in the gym's Jacuzzi) going to Costco for lunch and any necessary shopping, and, finally, bustling about town to attend any events he finds listed in the paper that promise to be both interesting and free of charge.

We finished our slices and headed inside for what Dad likes to call "dessert" -- on Saturday, nearly every aisle in Costco begins and ends with a small table, behind which stands a person in a white coat and a hair net, serving up samples of edible products, free for anyone who pays the annual membership fee (or in my case, anyone who knows someone who pays the annual membership fee).

As we approached one such table, Dad quickly jerked the cart to the left and made a U-turn in the middle of the aisle. "Buffalo wings, no good," he said. "Those are too messy; they take too much work. We need something simpler."

"Gotcha," I responded, and followed him back to the other end, where he waited patiently for a hot chunk of boneless, skinless chicken breast doused in KC Barbecue sauce. With the little paper cup containing his chicken in hand, Dad led me to the office supply aisle. There we stood, looking for a printer that would suit his needs.

My father's frugality is no secret and, at least in our family, the butt of many a joke. Dad seems both proud and ashamed of his reputation when it comes to money -- proud because it takes a clever man to find a good deal and ashamed because people often equate frugality with being stingy; he shudders at the idea of being thought of as an ignoble miser. He is selectively generous, and vocal about those whom he feels are deserving (and undeserving) of his generosity, regardless of whether it is his time or money he is donating.

"Did I tell you what happened with Chubs the other day?" Dad asked me.

Still scanning the side of a box for the lowdown on a printer's system requirements, I said, "Nuh-uh. What happened? He still keeping the streets clean for you?"

Dad walks five miles every morning before sunrise from his home in Mission Hills to Balboa Park and back. When Dad first told me about Chubs, the homeless man he encounters near the Starbucks on Robinson Street during his early morning walks, he described him as "about 35 years old, maybe five-foot-nine, and really dirty. He's not a bad-looking guy, but one of his eyes is really messed up."

Upon seeing the "poor unfortunate," Dad will approach him and say, "Chubs, how ya doin'?" Chubs never seems to remember my father, even though their frequent meetings have followed the same script for two years.

"Oh, hi, sir," Chubs will respond. "I'm cleanin' up the street, pickin' up the place. I was downtown, helpin' 'em out down there, and now I'm here. Do you have any spare change? A couple of quarters maybe so I can get a cup of coffee?"

My father, a man who doesn't believe in handouts, used to give Chubs a dollar, but, realizing the destitute man could hardly buy a cup of coffee with that amount, Dad upped his offering to five bucks, or what he calls a "fin." Each morning, after tying his sneakers and donning his jacket, Dad puts a five-dollar bill in his pocket, specifically for Chubs. For years there have been few variations in his morning routine. But on this day, as Dad began to explain, something different happened. I stopped reading the box in front of me and gave my father my full attention.

At around 6 a.m., Dad spotted Chubs and, prepared with his five-dollar bill, he approached him. "It's funny, because I don't think he ever recognizes me, but I crossed the street and said, 'Hey, Chubs, how ya doin'?' and he answered, 'This and that, cleaning up the streets,' you know, so I pull out the fin and I give it to him and I don't think he realizes what it is and he goes, 'Oh, thank you, sir, thank you very much,' and I tell him, 'Hey, get yourself something to eat. If you get coffee, don't get it here,' because you could drop the whole fin on a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and that would be stupid."

I remembered from previous stories that Chubs tends to spend the money on a large coffee and a sandwich from 7-11. "But then he looks at what he has in his hands," Dad continued, "and he realizes what it is and, like always, his face lights up and he goes 'OH! Thank you, sir! Thank you, sir! Have a great day!' Whatever, he's really nice, but this day was different, this day was interesting. Have you ever felt like you were in a scene from a movie? Because that's how I felt after what happened."

After Chubs had accepted the money, Dad turned around and continued on his walk. He had only made it about 15 feet when behind him he heard Chubs, in a sober, sincere tone of voice, say, "I love you." "You know, not funny, not facetiously, not 'I love you, man!' like the sports morons, those jocks in the locker room, but like he really meant it," Dad explained.

"When I turned around, I was expecting to see Robin Williams or George Burns playing God or something, you know what I mean? But when I did, Chubs was just standing there, his head down, looking at the money. He said 'I love you,' he just said it. He wasn't interested in me turning around to respond in any fashion, so I turned back and kept walking, and as I'm walking down the street, I thought, eh, that's a pretty neat moment, you know? I'm always trying to see the face of God in other people, which is really, really difficult, and I thought that was just a little, 'Hey, you're doin' all right.' It was just a really sweet moment."

Dad sniffed at the air and cleared his throat. His eyes glistened and he looked up, as though suddenly trying to read the sides of the boxes on the shelves that stretched to the high warehouse ceiling. "Okay, I need a printer, and I refuse to spend more than $100. I don't need any of that photo crap, just a straight-up color printer," he said, pushing his thoughts of his poignant encounter with Chubs back into his head.

"I think this one might do the trick," I said, pointing to the box I'd been reading a few minutes earlier. "Let's plop it in the cart and go see what they're cooking up at the end of the frozen food aisle. Something smells tasty."

"Roger that," Dad said, and we were on our way.

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