By Ken Lass
I am furiously ripping open packets, pouring coffee granules into the filters, hanging them on the large brewers, pushing the “Start” button to get the hot water flowing, and then turning to see if Sharon needs help with customers. As the busy morning wears on, a familiar figure leisurely strolls up to the bar. He is an older man, I’m guessing around eighty-ish, with thinning hair, a gray mustache, and a kind face. He is dressed in a coat and tie, as people of his generation were raised to do for Sunday church.
This is Joe. He comes by this way every week. He never orders anything. He just wants to socialize. He will ask me how I like this cold weather we’re having, or what was it like working in TV news all those years, or what do I think about that football game yesterday. Just friendly icebreakers designed to start a conversation. I don’t really know him, but I instinctively like Joe. His smile is warm and empathetic.
Unfortunately, this is not a good time for me. There are coffee pots to fill, cups of sweet and unsweet tea to be drawn, donuts and fritters to be restocked in the display case, lids, filters, napkins, and straws to be replenished, money to be taken in and change to be given back. So I keep my answers short and try to politely indicate with my body language that I can’t fully engage with him at the moment. Joe seems to be a genuinely sweet and friendly guy, but I just don’t have time to chat. Besides, it won’t take but a minute before he turns and strikes up a conversation with somebody else nearby. Everyone seems to know him. Everyone except me.
When I actually stop to think about it for a moment, it occurs to me that coffee bar work is not all that intense. As they say, it’s not brain surgery. I could easily have taken a few moments and made small talk. After all, a big part of belonging to a church family is fellowshipping with other believers of all ages and walks of life. No, the truth is, I just didn’t want to. I wanted to stay focused on the tasks at hand. There would be a time and place for developing new relationships. Surely one day I’ll bump into Joe around the coffee bar when I’m not on duty. Would be fun to talk and get to know him better then.
Except that Joe doesn’t stop by the coffee bar anymore. I went to the visitation for his funeral the other day. It was at the church. On my way into the sanctuary to offer my condolences to the family, I took the pamphlet containing his obituary and began to read it. Turns out Joe was a musician, but much more than that. He was first chair trumpet player for Alabama’s Million Dollar Band. He was a band director at several local high schools, including Hewitt-Trussville, Leeds, and Elba, also serving at Gardendale and Shades Valley high schools. He built the foundation for what the Hewitt-Trussville band program is today. He played trumpet in the church orchestra until the final years of his life.
I never knew. I never took the time to find out.
Wish I had because I love the whole band culture. I was not in band in school, but I got hooked on it when my daughter spent much of her high school years on the Hewitt Trussville color guard team and then as a High Stepper. We went to all the competitions. I learned about the intricacies of choreographing a top notch marching band, how the various sections have to work together, how all the band members have to stay disciplined and patient. I learned what the judges were looking for and enjoyed trying to evaluate the various bands on my own. It was fascinating and fun.
Joe would have known all about that stuff. He was also an educator for 33 years. I could have asked him his thoughts on the state of our schools, another area of interest for me. We had so much in common. We could have talked for hours.
There was, I knew, a lesson to be learned from this, though sadly too late. Everyone has a story. Our lives are far richer when we spend time focusing more on relationships with others, and less on our own concerns and priorities.
After the visitation, as I was leaving the church, I passed by the coffee bar, which then was closed and quiet. For a moment, I could picture Joe standing there, his quick smile inviting me to conversation. Maybe I’ll see him again one glorious day, and we’ll have that talk. The coffee will be on me.
(Ken Lass is a retired Birmingham TV news and sports anchor and Trussville resident.)