In February 2021, I went out to breakfast with a friend of mine whose husband died after a long illness. We refreshed the friendship after years of living, picking up the bittersweet pieces of life’s joys and tragedies with the same reverence during the active years of her son’s student career.
We became friends after I taught Italian in a summer school program which her son attended in 3rd grade, then in 4th grade. Years later, I was his Italian teacher during high school years, and several times, both parents took several evening classes always finding joy in learning.
During that breakfast at a recently-opened restaurant in Bethpage, NY, we were witness to an unexpected “random act of kindness” that captured the attention of several restaurant customers. As my friend and I watched events unfold, it seemed that, after COVID surges and the indiscretions (or worse) of many in public, this moment of witness rose to our attention. The simple act of kindness became the backdrop of this story, A View from Breakfast.
Besides having a satisfying brunch at Me & You Restaurant, we left with renewed hope of goodness all around us, and those stories that need to be told!
A View from Breakfast
It’s about time! Easing back into small groups of people for breakfast with a friend on a quiet Thursday morning coaxes me into a familiar feeling of normal. Pandemics have a way of obliterating any vestiges of that old definition…or what I remember of it.
We sit at a small, sturdy table—a neatly arranged square with solid silverware and crisp white linen napkins. My friend Jo smiles as I enter, always just a few minutes late. Some things never change. I take the seat adjacent to hers, so I have a clear view of the passers-by walking unhurried, aimless, on village sidewalks.
After an initial greeting and a few words to settle in, Jo makes sure I’m aware that Stacey isn’t coming. No, her migraines are acting up again, so she had to cancel at the last minute. The waiters are masked, but several people enter without the requested face coverings, despite posts to the contrary in every visible window. Doubts swirl about which policies are in place anymore, and who must abide by them, although everyone in a perfect world should…would comply with some consideration. That’s the way I remember it being not too long ago. But things have shifted. And sometimes, these days, it’s often better if chances are taken with a deep breath as we pretend to ignore the surrounding provocations, wishing them away.
Our young, masked waiter walks over with pen ready in hand. “Would you like tea or coffee to start?” His slight accent with trilled “r” swells to list the tea and coffee choices—”organic green, some herbal teas, regular Lipton, coffee, or decaf.” Jo takes coffee and I choose the organic green tea with honey. We both order two eggs, turkey bacon, home fries – her eggs are sunny side, mine scrambled; her toast is wheat, mine rye. So much for variety. The dishes arrive—hearty, simple fare, cooked and seasoned perfectly. The conversation continues as we catch up on developments affecting friends and family over the few years of mutual isolation.
Outside, I glimpse a used white van with rusting edges; its tailpipe sputtering a faint, pale stream of smoke that signals some mechanical difficulties. A short man with tan cap, tan pants, and crumpled jacket tries to maneuver the wheel to steer the van backwards from its position in a no parking, tow away zone. He’s not having much success. This van looks as exhausted as its driver—holding on to one more day of work despite obstacles and uncertainty, hoping today will bring tomorrow.
As this disheveled worker aligns his vehicle against the curb, he moves from side to back to the front of the van. As he positions the front seat for more adjustments, a shiny black SUV zips into the parking spot right behind the van. A young, raven-haired woman with an air of nonchalance, accompanies an older couple out of the back seats and across the street, intent on nothing else but breakfast. Once our working hero is fully cognizant of the situation, he realizes his plans are derailed. He’s blocked from any future possibilities out of the tow-away zone. The breakfast-bound trio comes into the dining area for breakfast, and the manager seats them at the table behind us.
It takes about five minutes for the worker to realize his predicament and move to step two. He crosses the street, enters the diner, and spots the party of three. He politely introduces himself with a distinct Hispanic accent and asks to please back the SUV enough to give him some space out of the tow-away zone to avoid ticketing or worse. The raven-haired woman complies without incident and moves her vehicle as the driver resumes his maneuvers.
All people in the restaurant, including the manager, are now watching the worker and his ordeal continue.
After a few minutes as observer, the manager stops wiping down the small, square tables, deposits the towel near the kitchen entrance, and goes outside. He crouches in a position pushing the van backwards while the driver steers the van out of the ticketing area. Finally, a tow truck arrives before any ticketing authority or complaint appears, and the ordeal concludes without incident.
Both Jo and I, as well as the entire diner watch this man take the initiative without being asked to go out of his comfort zone, out of his job, and lend a hand to someone who was visibly alone and struggling. He returns inside and disappears into the backroom kitchen. His graying hair, its color reminiscent of cedar bark, is sleek and swept back, barely touching the tip of his collar. After a while, he returns to the floor, and I ask him over to our table. He leans into the conversation with sparkling hazel eyes.
“What’s your name?”
“Oren,” he replies.
“That was very nice of you to go out of your way to help that man, especially in times like today.”
Jo agrees. “The whole place was watching to see how that situation would get resolved.”
Oren leans over the chair, his eyes alert to the surroundings, yet with focus on his words to us.
“I was raised in a community where we learned to take care of each other. Respect for everyone, from elders to children…everyone matters.”
His words are filled with a rationale that echoes family, friends, attempts at understanding and connecting rather than estrangement and isolation. I feel a connection to more than this present in his words, so I’m ready to ask where he’s from, but before I do, he delivers.
“Being Israeli may have something to do with it. We grew up knowing the value and ethic of work. Earning is important, yes, but the power of a solid work ethic goes beyond what you can spend and put in the bank.”
I nod and agree that there is much to value about being open to relationship in our daily lives, connecting then and now. Oren’s act reveals hope in ordinary events through acceptance of engagement and reminds me of the words of philosopher and psychologist William James: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”