Monday, 10 August 2015 00:00

     The experience of some of the most precious moments in life is like that of perceiving a mote floating upon the air, grabbing it, and opening one’s hand slowly to find nothing—as if it had never existed.
     It was years ago…the name of the place was Daylight Donuts, located in the town of Taos, New Mexico.  Taos is over 7000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains.  The famous mountain man, Kit Carson, lived there at one time, and the first American governor of the New Mexico Territory, Charles Bent, was killed (I’m talking arrows shot into his face—pretty much maximum hostility) by an angry mob of locals in 1847.  It seems that strangers, especially Anglos, were not always welcome in these parts.

     The donut shop was just south of downtown on the road to Santa Fe.  That highway was a constant snarl of trucks and cars; other than a few locals and tourists, most of them were headed somewhere far away.  Taos was a small enough town that you had to have some reason to be there, and most drivers couldn’t come up with any such reason.  For them, Taos was a place you had to slow down because of the redlight. 
     The donut shop was almost invisible by virtue of its plainness, even though it crowded the edge of the road.  It was a small, generic-looking brown building (as pretty much everything in those parts is), distinguished primarily by a rusting neon sign with the name of the establishment that never seemed to be capable of mustering more than a few lighted letters at any given time, and one of those generic OPEN signs you see everywhere nowadays.
     It was March--a dark, cold day typical of early spring this high up.  A storm had come through the night before and dropped a lot of rain.  Most of the storm had already cleared out and had moved on east of the mountains, making a beeline across the plains for Texas.  There was a surly clot of leftover clouds from the storm still clinging to the mountain peaks, hunkering low and mean over the town, as if they didn’t want to leave.   A sharp wind was still blowing from the north.
     The parking lot, unpaved, was a sea of mud, pocked here and there with puddles.  Due to their unknown depth, it was wise to avoid them if at all possible, because they were so opaque that one never knew just how deep you were going to sink if you stepped in one.
     Upon opening the door, the first thing that smacked your senses was the heavenly smell of fresh doughnuts…I’m talking gastric-aphrodisiac intensity here—pleasant enough on any day, but on a cold morning like this—wow!  The seating area for customers was plainly furnished with cheap metal frame chairs that had worn, garish-red seats and backs.  Virtually all of the tables rocked one way or another (despite an assortment of rolled up napkins and wooden stirring sticks placed beneath the legs in an attempt to steady them).  It made something of a challenge to avoid burning your fingers when setting a hot cup of coffee down on one of them.  Normally the linoleum floor was kept spotlessly clean, but on a morning such as this, what with all the mud in the world outside, even a quick glance at the floor made it obvious that the management had understandably surrendered to the elements.
     Most of the customers were regulars.  Farmers and cowboys, for the most part they were simple folk who lived quiet, centered lives with little interest in anything that happened in the world outside the city limits.  Even if I had wanted to be nosy, most of what was said was indecipherable to me, for it was for the most part spoken in Spanish—the lingua franca of this land for centuries before our own.  Most of these folks could talk fluently in English, the gringo tongue, when needed, but speaking in Spanish was one way they insured that most of their business was kept to themselves.
     Crossing the room to the display case, I picked out a nice, fat plain-glazed beauty. Then after a moment of indecision, I picked a second doughnut with what I was sure was way too much raspberry filling inside.
     “I’d like these two, and a large cup of coffee” I said to the huge, grizzled man behind the counter.  It was 10;00 o’clock in the morning, but he already looked tired.  Seems in the doughnut business, you gotta’ get up around 2:00 in the morning to have everything ready to go by opening time.  He’d already had a long day.
     “Alright, here you go, buddy” he said as he handed me a large white Styrofoam cup.  That’ll be two dollars and seventy five cents.”
     I shoved the man my money and headed over to the coffee pots.  They sat on a row of electric warmers, and I tried to pick the pot that looked the least “fried.”  Don’t get me wrong, I have always considered the taste of cheap, burnt coffee, especially on a cold day, to be one of life’s great, if often overlooked, pleasures.  Besides, you had unlimited access—why, I’d be peeing like a fish the rest of the day.     
     I had just wolfed down my glazed donut and was struggling to gain a smidgen of self -control as I contemplated the second (I always saved the raspberry-filled ones for last), when in walked a young man with a long cane, held carefully out in front of him.  In his skillful hands, the device became like some wooden antennae for navigation as he methodically tap-tap-tapped his way across the room.  Now you might think a blind guy walking across a crowded, chaotic room in a public place would look frail and vulnerable.  On the contrary, his face was relaxed, and there was even an air of serenity about him.  If he felt any impatience with his slow progress, he did not betray it.  He eventually made his way over to sit with some friends, which it so happened, was right across from me.  He looked to be about 19 or so, and was obviously pretty near blind, though he seemed to be aware of me.  He began talking to his friends in—what else—Spanish, and everybody at his table seemed to be enjoying each other’s company.  After several minutes of this, he turned to me.
     “Sir, you from around here?” he said in perfect English, with a melodic local accent.
     Now, my immediate reaction, I am embarrassed to admit, was to steel myself.  My city boy instincts kicked in, and I  awaited what I assumed would be the coming plea for money.  Many people in this area are desperately poor.  Even after years of trying to perfect an air of studied indifference in public places, I’m basically a sucker.  I don’t know what about me betrays this so clearly to the world, but I’m the guy that all of the street people hit up for money—even walking among the heaving masses on the sidewalks of Manhattan.  
       Warily, I responded that I was visiting from New Orleans.  I threw in something or other about how beautiful Taos was, and how I kept coming back year after year—hoping somehow that would ingratiate me sufficiently with him and his compadres at his table that everybody would just back off and leave me alone.  Left unmolested, I might become “one” with my remaining doughnut.   Then I noticed that everyone in the place seemed to be looking at us, and I don’t like being put on the spot anywhere/any time—especially outnumbered by locals by about twenty to one (remember what happened to Governor Bent?).  But something unexpected happened.
     “It is cold this morning.  Do you have enough clothes to keep you warm?” he asked, instead of hitting me up for money.  Suddenly I had no idea where this conversation was going…he certainly had my undivided attention.
     “I do,” I responded, not committing to anything more. 
     “Do you have enough to eat?” he then asked, his gaze actually off to one side of my face, in the manner that I have seen blind people cock their head in conversations.
     “Why sure, I’m doing fine…can’t you tell, just looking at my waistline?  I’ve got a pretty good spare tire.”  This was my lame attempt at making a joke, but an especially bad one when talking to a blind man.  Oops.  No one laughed.  If he was upset by my faux pas, he did not show it.  I was beginning to trust him.   And still the questions came.
     “Do you have a place to stay?” he then asked, to which I answered yes.
     “And do you have any money?”
     With a very deliberate attempt to suppress any evidence of emotion, all I said in response to him was “I have enough.”  Inside my head, however, I was disappointed, as this conversation seemed to be finally headed in the direction that I had experienced before so many times in my travels.  I had hoped this time might be different.  But then came the ending to my encounter with this almost blind Hispanic boy that has stuck in my mind over the years.  You know, the prize-in-the-bottom-of-the-Cracker-Jacks-box moment that life sometimes gives you without warning.  
     “Sir, if there is anything that I can do to help you, please let me know.  For you see, one must always be kind to strangers. That is because we never know when we might be talking to an angel.”
     I thanked him, but otherwise couldn’t think of much to say as I tried to get my mind around what he had just said.  I needed some space.  I gobbled up my jelly doughnut and swallowed my coffee too fast, burning my tongue.  Outside, most of the clouds were gone.  There was a radioactive-blue sky, and lots of bright sunshine.  It was a good day.
     So, in the years since, I have been left wondering if I was the one who had been talking to an angel.  Or was the experience best summed up by the famous fictional New Orleanian, Blanche DuBois, who said “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” 


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