In honor of my mom’s 62nd birthday, we took a wander around Buffalo, NY.
Buffalo is where I grew up, and is where my mom, dad and grandma live. After many years away, Buffalo is still the place in the world that feels the most like home for me.
During our wanderings about town, the universe brought my mom and me in contact with three inspiring humans, who each taught us lessons about life.
So, without further adieu, I introduce you to David, Tobias, and Dale…
Part 1: David’s kind words
“You are an environment that functions inside a larger environment.
So everything that goes on in you is important.”David
What creates a sense of place?
For me, one answer is constancy over time.
Like the regulars who, when you come back years later, are still there and recognize you. When I landed in Buffalo, I took a stroll down Allen street, peeped into bars, and chatted with humans. Despite COVID, The Pink is going strong in its delicious filth.
“This place is still the same!” I remarked to the group of day drinkers at the bar.
“It never changes,” the bartender said.
Next, I came to Intersection Cafe, which used to be called Cafe Taza back when I lived here. Despite the name change, the vibe and people were still the same.
David was still there.
David has a traumatic brain injury from being shaken as a baby. He goes to Intersection daily, filling up massive paper cups with coffee and drinking it out of a straw. Coffee cup after coffee cup, cigarette after cigarette, the day passes.
In my exuberance, I snapped a photo of him. Then, feeling bad, I asked him if that was okay.
“You should have asked me first, because I would have said NO!” he said.
I felt a rush of shame.
“In fact, I’m surprised that you were able to get a photo,” he continued, “Because that usually cracks people’s camera lenses.”
“Yes! My phone is heating up and about to explode,” I returned, finally picking up on the dry humor.
David plays word games with himself, seeing how many small words he can make out of big words (see the photo above). He has a heart of gold. In Yiddish, you’d call him a mensch. From a Buddhist perspective, he’s a bodhisattva.
Some people spread good in the world through tangible acts. David does it through words. I wrote down a few phrases that came up as David had coffee with my mom and me, in hopes that they will give you some new eyes on the world.
Here is David’s dictionary:
- “Keep it going!”
This is what David said to my mom when I told him it was her 62nd birthday. I love the playfulness of Keep it Going! as a birthday greeting. I don’t know why, but it feels so jumpy and alive.
- “What’s the worst that could happen? I don’t know… the world blows up?”
I love this phrase because it underscores how small our ups and downs are in comparison to the whole wide world. Something about this soothes my anxiety, reminds me that my fears can be put down. It’s a funny way of talking about the cosmic perspective.
- “Precious cargo.”
“This coffee shop used to attract a lot of bikers, and they didn’t like to wear helmets. I used to tell them: You are carrying precious cargo.” David said, and pointed to his forehead. The brain really is freaking precious cargo. All our memories, loves, hates, proclivities, stories are housed up here. It’s the most precious cargo we’ve got.
- “Work for demons”
“When I see young people working at this coffee shop, trying to figure out what they will do, I hope people can find work that they enjoy, and they don’t have to work for demons.” Then David changes his voice: “Here, embezzle this money…heee heee heee,” he says in an evil voice. Then he takes on the body of the worker, makes his hand into a gun and faux-shoots himself. Compromising one’s ideals is a sort of death.
- “Intellectual indigestion”
“The news gives me intellectual indigestion,” he says. This sums up perfectly how I feel with information overload in the modern world.
“I think that burnout is terrible. Every doctor, policeman, nurse should have a therapist. The work is not normal! And sometimes you need re-motivation, to remember why you went into it.” When David asked me about my motivation for doing medicine, it took me a while to “locate” my altruism, to remember that I was in medicine to help people. The phrase “re-motivation” normalizes the experience of losing touch with the reasons for why you are doing something. Similar to losing focus on your breath in meditation, the only thing to do is to gently re-focus and begin again.
Part 2: Tobias has Enough
Since time immemorial, people have been asking the question, “What is enough?” Meeting Tobias provided as close as I’ve ever come to an answer.
Tobias was middle-aged and bald, a fairly nondescript white guy in a t-shirt. He was sitting in front of Hoyt Lake at sunset, playing beautiful music on a mandolin. This perked my ear, so I walked up to him and complimented his sound. The conversation flowed easily, and soon hellos morphed into his life story.
Here are some excerpts:
“I’ve always done something artistic,” he told us. “I started off playing music, travelling up and down the East Coast. But after a while, you get tired. The crowds get younger, and stupider, like I was when I started playing. So I took a job at a lumber yard. For the last 20 years I’ve been making furniture and flooring. Now I’m retired and I just play for fun.”
“My family is Hungarian, but I’ve never visited there. I think Europe would feel like home. I don’t think I’ll get to Europe in my life, but that’s OK. I’m 63. That means I’ve only got 40 years left to live. I don’t have enough money to go to Europe. I spent all my money on stupid stuff, like guitars and drugs. I did a lot of drugs before I was 25, but then I quit. I don’t even drink now. I do drink coffee.”
“I pick up old furniture from the garbage and restore it. The other day, I picked up an old wash basin from the trash. I sold it to an antique dealer for $100. It was beautiful, with a gold inlay. Artists must all have OCD. Otherwise they wouldn’t spend so much time working on stuff. We can watch paint dry. I paint something and 8 hours later, I’ll still be looking at the paint.”
“When I was 17, I had my first kid. And my daughter had her first kid at 15, so I’m a great-grandfather.”
“I live on the West Side [of Buffalo]. People judge the West Side by the worst things they hear. Like there was some gang-related shooting and people think everyone who lives there is bad…”
“There are no races. We are all Homo Sapiens. There should be one global government so we don’t have wars.”
Sitting there, on that lake at sunset, with his mandolin, chatting with strangers about everything from his own story to his vision for society, I could feel that Tobias had nowhere else he wanted to be. Such a relaxed vibe. Not trying to go to Europe, or make a buck, or get a high. He’d been there, and done, or not done, all that. Most importantly, he was satisfied with how it had all played out. He had many more years of simplicity ahead of him: playing music, restoring furniture, watching paint dry and taking satisfaction in the moments. Tobias was a living embodiment of enough.
Part 3: Dale’s Instant Karma
I’ve always resisted cosmic accounting systems, be they in the form of Santa, heaven and hell, or the law of Karma and reincarnation. They all seem so carrot-and-stick: don’t do good for its own sake, do good to get points, redeemable for a present from Santa come Christmas or a roomier seat on the Afterlife Express (a.k.a. heaven, if you’re on the Abrahamic train, or reincarnation as a higher life-form if you’re travelling on the Eastern line).
But when my mom and I met Dale, and I heard him talk about karma, something in me softened.
Dale is a professional jazz musician, but we didn’t know that. When he called out to us, he was just a regular-looking guy standing by his car. My mom and I were rolling my grandma in her wheelchair down a hill at Delaware Park.
“Roll the chair backwards down the hill,” called Dale.
“You know the trick!” I exclaimed.
“I took care of my great-grandparents, since I was the only one in my family who could,” he told us.
“I worked one day per month playing music for NBC, and the rest of the month I was free. I would drive up to Buffalo after my gig and for the rest of the month I’d take care of them.”
Dale told us about his life as a jazz musician:
“My parents told me, if you want to be a musician, you have to play every instrument. They thought they’d scare me off, but they didn’t. I learned it all. I’ve been all around the world. Hawaii. You name it.”
“The best place I’ve ever played was Biloxi, Mississippi. The clubs there close for just one hour a day. I would play all night, sleep for a few hours, then go out and listen to music all day and then play all night again. I don’t have any savings. I plan to work until I die…”
“When I was working at NBC, I wanted to take care of my great-grandparents. I decided I didn’t want to be selfish. If you are putting good energy out into the universe, good energy will come back. It might not seem that way, but it will.”
One way to see this quote is that the motivation for doing good is receiving good back at some point in the future. I call this the “carrot-and-stick reading of Karma.” But another view is that simply in the act of giving, you are getting the good energy back, right then and there. This collapses the distinction between selfish and selfless, and is similar to the Dalai Lama’s quote, “Be selfish, help others.”
And so it was with us: my mom and I were simultaneously putting out and receiving good energy by taking my grandma out on a walk.
As an added bonus, this action connected us with Dale, a jazz musician quite unlike us in demographic details or lifestyle, but who shared a common humanity. For he too, at a different point in time, had pushed an elderly family member down a hill. And he showed us the right way to do it: backwards!
Part 4: Who inspires you, and why?
It’s common advice that to discover our values, we should look at who we most admire. In this piece, I went a step further, and wrote an essay. The writing process forced me to think deeply about why I admired David, Tobias and Dale. I also posted this piece in a writing group called Foster, and two generous souls gave me feedback that helped me to go even deeper.
The amount of time I met each of these people in real life was as little as 20 minutes; most of the insights came out in the writing and reflection.
When someone’s behavior or way of being inspires us, we get a hit of awe similar to the feeling of seeing a magnificent mountain or sunset. We are witnessing something bigger than ourselves. There is a gap; we are not the way this person is, we are not yet who we most wish to be. And this person is a living, breathing proof showing us that yes, it is possible to be this way.
It’s one thing to abstractly stare at a list of values on a page: words like “kindness,” “generosity” and “gratitude.” It’s another thing to actually meet people who embody these values. That is what changes you. You meet somebody for twenty minutes and go, holy shit, I want to be like this.
Not long ago, my girlfriend and I were staying at an AirBnB. In the midst of dishwashing, she broke a glass pitcher. Ryan, the owner of the AirBnB didn’t get angry or want any compensation. He let it go, saying, “It’s already broken.”
I felt myself seething inside, but when I saw his reaction, I softened and didn’t lash out. Holy shit, I thought. I want to be like that. I don’t want to be so attached to things that I forget that broken dishes are small potatoes in the grand scheme of life. I don’t want to seethe for hours about them. It doesn’t do anyone any good.
So yes, before this moment I might have said that I valued “putting people over things,” but at that moment, it wasn’t true. I was feeling the opposite. It was only by seeing how Ryan responded that I saw a new possibility, a new way of being.
Here’s a homework assignment for you, should you choose to accept it. The next time you find yourself feeling all warm and fuzzy after interacting with someone, stop and journal. Write down what happened, and ask yourself what in that interaction was inspiring. Think long and hard. This is how we mine our lives for our values.
Humans are mimetic, meaning that we mimic others. This truth comes out in many oft-repeated quotes. For example: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” or “Be careful with the company you keep.”
By reflecting deeply on our social interactions, even and especially on our mundane ones, we can keep the people that we most admire close, even if we only meet them briefly. As I’ve tried to show in this piece, these small moments can be golden, for within them are the seeds of who we want to be and become.
But as with any seed, care is needed. For me, writing is helpful, and I’m planning to keep a log of inspiring interactions that can serve as seeds for essays like this one. You might find a different way that works for you. The crucial ingredient is to stop and ponder your inspiring moments long enough to let the everyday saints into your heart, so they can do their work in there.