Plain Ol’ Harry
It’s hard to explain a hero of the heart when you see one. Harry was a hero of the heart to me. And yet to Harry he was “just plain ol’ Harry.”
I met Harry first wondering around the neighborhood. Actually he seemed frozen on the sidewalk looking like the plaster statue of a misplaced Greek god.
His brilliant white crown glistened in the mid-morning sun. His neatly gelled bangs were secured in a backwave despite the cheeky breezes tugging at the trees nearby. Eagle eyes strained from behind spectacles to take in the sights around him. A generous paunch drooped comfortably between the arms buried in deep khaki pockets. His unwrinkled checkered button-down dress shirt marked him as orderly and worthy of respect.
Harry stood enthralled at the gaggle of 350 people milling about in an amoebic lineup outside our Foodbank. I thought he might be one of the seniors struggling to get by on their pensions – perhaps confused on where to blend into this mass or perhaps wrestling with pride at having to appear needy.
My approach from his blindside startled him but he recovered well. “I’m Jim. May I help you?”
“I’m Harry. Just moved in next door and saw all these people. What’s happening?”
Next door was a Senior’s Home for well to do folks so I narrowed my options. “It’s the Foodbank. We serve up to 500 people.” I watched him scanning the mosaic crowd. “Last week we had 35 nations represented. We have disabled. Single parents. People who need help to make it through the week.”
“Can I do something to help?” His thick neck rotated his eager eyes to look full into mine. “I don’t need food. I’ve got nothing to do but jig-saw puzzles.”
“I could use help breaking down boxes after we empty the food.” I saw him processing and nodding as he did. “I try to keep up but it’s hard to register all the new people and keep up with the boxes.”
“I can do that.” He was already moving toward the open door. “I used to make cartons for a living at one time.”
I worked him through the crowded doorway and showed him his workstation. “Harry, you don’t know how much I appreciate this.”
“Not at all. I’m just plain Ol’ Harry.”
The room is filled with the smells of fresh produce freshly unboxed and put out for our friends. The banter of Spanglish is especially noticeable as the kitchen crew begin to organize for their luncheon. A baby’s howl interrupts the waves of human jocularity. Traffic continues to lurch by as steady as a mountain stream in spring. My new recruit drinks it all in. And he stays.
Every Friday for a year, at nine o’clock sharp, plain Ol’ Harry shuffles purposefully down the sidewalk and through our door to break down hundreds of boxes. He’s never missed. He sweats profusely but he refuses to quit. His exacto knife moves with purpose and skill.
Sometimes plain Ol’ Harry has to sit a minute to catch his breath but he never complains, never speaks about himself. When one mass of cardboard cadavers has been dissected and secured in place, Harry sets out like a shepherd to herd in more scattered strays. Large or small, none of them escape. His large digits firmly grasp his prey and corral them into his work station.
At times I’ll see him pause to watch a young Latino mom awkwardly cradling her baby while trying to stuff another set of diapers into her overloaded shopping bag. He’ll smile at the Burundian twin girls dutifully helping their father scoop up new foods they’ve never seen before. He’ll straighten up briefly as he listens in on the young Korean woman and the old Japanese man jabbering at each other as to who was first in line. Harry will wipe his brow with a yellowed handkerchief, glance over at the old Polish man painfully leaning on his cane, and he’ll grab another box.
The volunteers hail from El Salvador, Mexico, Columbia and Canada but they all know Harry as one of their own. Harry has a gift. It oozes out of his eyes and it flows out of his hands. It wafts on his few words. Silent compassion. All of us feel it. We feed off it to get us through the morning.
Plain Ol’ Harry is a hero to my heart. It’s Friday. 9:30. I wonder where he is.
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