The man was jolly, like he’d changed out of his red suit a few days ago and now was just hanging out in Ocean Beach. Happy. Jovial. Smiling. Chatting. An ad for good humor. Or maybe delight. He seemed delighted. How many people do you run into at a doughnut shop who appear to be delighted?
So, of course, a happy man would encounter two toddler boys and find more reasons to be happy. After seeing their grandfather wearing a University of Wisconsin shirt, he would joke with them about how to raise their arms and say TOUCHDOWN when the Wisconsin Badgers scored in the Holiday Bowl the next day. Maybe he would do this three or four times or maybe a dozen. Say TOUCHDOWN, laugh and put his hands over his head.
None of us knew what to make of him.
We were all sitting outside at an Ocean Beach doughnut shop, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, doing what you do at a doughnut shop. A big dog, part pit bull and part maybe not, came wandering by. One of the things I like about Ocean Beach, and California in general, is that people don’t get tense about their dogs roaming about. I wish I was like that, a person who didn’t get tense about my dog roaming about and sniffing around people eating doughnuts and drinking coffee. To tolerate that, I think, requires a basic belief in the harmlessness of most dogs.
So I eyed the happy man. Part of me thought what a nice, jovial man and another part wondered when he would ask us for money. Shut up, I said to the part that wondered if the man was homeless and about to hit us up for cash. Just accept that someone could be happy and conversational and into small children.
He started toward the door of the doughnut shop but halted. Then he started a new gambit with my toddler grandsons. He fished in a bag of shells he took out of his pocket and gave each boy a shell that he’d just found on the beach. He explained about the shells and they listened to every word, holding their shells in their little hands like he’d given them chocolate or gold. My daughter, the boys’ mother, watched all this with a smile and friendly banter.
There were a few more shells and then the happy man went in the doughnut shop. A few minutes later he emerged with his coffee and a bag of something, waved goodbye to us and got in his car parked right at the curb near our table. It was a small station wagon with two happy-looking dogs in the back seats.
At the beach later, my grandsons looked for shells. One or the other would find a tiny shell and bring it to me to look at. Little boys. Little shells. Their love of the shells varied. Sometimes, they showed me and then ran to the water to pitch their little prize into the surf. Other times, they wanted the shells put in my pocket.
Thinking about the happy man at the doughnut shop later, it occurred to me that there had been a choice to be made although it hadn’t been mine to make. The boys could have been told not to talk to the happy man, the happy man could have gotten signals that his attention and friendliness were unwelcome. A chance to harden the little boys’ tiny soft hearts was missed, put off for a different day. For the time being, their mom let them believe in the harmlessness of most people, showed them how to trust the friendliness of strangers. She chose this instead of starting down the path of fearing strangers on this one sunny day outside the doughnut shop. Maybe she thought there was plenty of time for that later. I don’t know what she thought even though she is my daughter. She is her own kind of mother.
This all reminded me of the saying “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” And the twig is bent in thousands of small ways, tiny choices that no one ever sees. But I saw this one. I was a witness.