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A Common Language
by Jerry Rasmussen
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A Common Language

My wife and I see him every day on the river walk. When we say, “Good morning,” he makes the slightest of gestures with his hand, smiles and says something so softly that you wouldn’t even know that he had spoken unless you saw his lips moving. He’s a short man with black hair peppered with gray and a craggy face, and he walks with a slow, measured pace. One morning a few weeks ago, when I was out walking by myself, I caught up with him and slowed down to talk for a moment. And then, I realized why he never talks to anyone. He speaks with a very pronounced Italian accent and struggles to piece sentences together. He has just as much trouble understanding English but as we walked along side by side, we managed to hold a conversation of sorts. He was very humble about his walking, because he can only walk a portion of the three and a half mile river walk. But as he tried to explain, he is doing what he can to keep his strength. I told him that I respected anyone who was out walking, no matter how far they walked. They were doing what they could to take care of the gift of health that the Lord had given them.

The conversation was brief, as I wanted to walk at a much faster pace than he could, so I wished him a good day, and moved ahead. In the weeks that followed, when my wife and I would pass him on the walk, he’d smile openly and occasionally say “good morning” loud enough so we could hear him. But up until this morning, I hadn’t spoken to him since that first time.

As it turned out, I went for a walk alone today. When I pulled my car in and parked in the lot next to the walkway, I noticed the man getting into his car, which was parked facing mine. He tried to start the car but I didn’t hear any sound, and when he looked up and saw me through his windshield, his face lit up. When he got out of the car he tried to tell me that his car wouldn’t start, showing with his hands how he had turned the key. I told him that I had some jumper cables in the trunk of my car, and pulled around, right next to his car. I hooked up the cables, and got into my car, gunning the motor. He just stood outside, smiling until I told him to try to start his car. He smiled, and turned his key in the air, turning an imaginary starter and looked at me quizzically. When I nodded, “yes,” he got in and gave it a try. Nothing happened. I got out and asked him if he heard any sound when he turned the key and he just said, “A click.” I’m no car mechanic, but I’ve driven junkers for much of my life, so I know every ailment ever visited on an old car. I asked him to get in and try it once more and even though I revved my motor while he turned the key, nothing happened. I knew then that it was the starter. I’d had my starter go in that same parking lot a couple of years ago.

When we got out of our cars, he handed me his AAA Motor Club card. I asked him if he had a phone, and he nodded his head, “no.” I told him that he could use my cell phone and when he tried to explain something to me, I realized that he had no idea what to do. I dialed the number on the card and after being put on hold for about ten minutes, someone finally came on the line. The woman asked me what the membership number was, which I gave to her, and then she asked my name and address. I said,
“I was just passing by when I saw that this man was having trouble getting his car started.
I’ll let you talk to him and he can give you his name and address.”

When I first looked at his AAA Motor Club card, I asked him how he pronounced his last name. His first name is Colagero, which immediately brought to mind the name of the young man in the movie A Bronx Tale. I knew how to pronounce the name because of the movie. When I asked him how to pronounce his last name (my Italian is fifty years rusty) he spelled it, pointing carefully to each letter on the card. Despite asking him two or three times, he would only spell it. I don’t think that he understood what I was asking.When the woman on the phone asked his name, he just spelled his last name and gave his address. I had no way of knowing what her next question was, but I could see his confusion. He was having trouble even holding the cell phone so that he could hear her voice, and I had to keep re-positioning it for him. He just smiled at her question, turned around and looked hopefully at me and handed me the phone.

The woman had a whole string of questions to ask me, including the make and year of the car (he spoke out “two thousand,”) and what was the problem.
“I’m pretty sure that it’s the starter,” I said. “I had the starter go on the car I’m driving, in this same parking lot a couple of years ago.”
Then she asked me:
“Where does he want the car towed to?” and I asked her,
“Can they tow it to the gas station closest to his house, and have someone give him a ride back while it’s being repaired? and she said,
“He’s a platinum card member and he can have the car towed up to 100 miles.”
“He lives in Ansonia, and I’m looking across the parking lot at the town, so it shouldn’t
be a long tow,” I answered. I didn’t want to leave him stranded at the gas station.

When I asked her how long it would take for the tow truck to get there, she said,
“No longer than an hour and a half.”
“An hour and a half? I could push the car home in that amount of time!”
She assured me that that was the maximum amount of time. Because he didn’t have a phone for
them to call him back, she said that it was important that he stay by his car and keep an eye out for the tow truck. That’s a long time to keep your eye out.

When we’d finished our conversation, she said,
“It was nice of you to help the man out,” and I answered,
“I’m just glad that I happened by.”

After I got off the phone, I tried to explain to him everything that she had said. I’m not sure how much he understood, but we were very patient with each other. When he seemed to understand that it would be a long time before the tow truck would get there, I offered to walk over to a McDonald’s across the street and bring him back a cup of coffee and an egg McMuffin, or whatever he wanted, but he told me that he’d already eaten before he came. I hated to see him just standing there by the car for all that time.

As I prepared to head off for my walk, he kept thanking me profusely. He didn’t need a grasp of the English language. He just kept saying, “Thank you very much.” I threw my arms around him and gave him a hug and said, “God Bless you. The Lord brought me here so that you’d have someone to help you.”

In all the times we’ve seen the man walking, we’ve never once seen him talking to someone. The language barrier is probably too much for him. I thought back to that time a few
weeks ago when I walked alongside him, and realized that I was probably the only person he knew on the walkway. Even though his English is very poor and my Italian even worse we were able to communicate through hand gestures, facial expressions, smiles and laughter. We spoke more fluently with our eyes than with our tongues. In the time that we shared together, we discovered that we had a common language: Jesus Christ. When I looked through his car window, watching him try to start his car, I notice a thin silver chain with a cross hanging from his rear view mirror. It was a constantly reminded of where he’d come from, and where he was going.

Christ is the great communicator. When Jesus dwells in your heart and you meet someone who shares your love for him, your hearts leap, as Jesus and John the Baptist’s did, while John was still in his mother’s womb. Eyes speak volumes and a love of Christ knows no barriers.

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