Pauly, my hubby, dabbles as a toy “picker”. Think American Pickers, Mike and Frank, white van, but on a much smaller scale, less budget and a little less cool (sorry Love). He asked me to spend a weekend with him at the end of September in Des Moines. I am not embarrassed to say that I reluctantly agreed – as long as there would be a steak dinner and a nice place to stay. Hey, this girl can’t do her part as Frank Fritz for nothin’. Bravo to Hotel Fort Des Moines – a beautiful historic downtown hotel that was recently renovated. You did not disappoint.
The downtown area of Des Moines is quaint and clean. Yet still, like so many downtowns, homelessness has heartbreakingly tucked itself into the sides of buildings, and has moved into open alleys.
The air was chilly and rain brewed when we left our hotel for dinner on Saturday night.
On our way out of downtown while we were stopped at a red light, we watched a homeless man, who obviously struggled with mental illness, have a difficult time crossing the street. He had very little clothes on and he wore no shoes. He needed a little more time crossing the street. My heart sank as I watched a driver with little patience come dangerously close to him in the intersection. I wished I was someone who saves the world. Some days the world just feels heavier, and it’s harder to witness peoples’ ugliness. Today it was the cold wet pavement under one man’s feet, and the inhumanity of another.
A last minute decision put us in a booth at Johnny’s Steakhouse. The booths are tall and private, just one other couple sat to our left. Casey and Maggie, we would soon come to learn. Mac was our waiter. He has a smile that easily lights up a room. He was also taking care of Casey and Maggie. It was clear just moments after we were seated, that something very cool was unfolding at the booth next to us.
Maggie apologized for crying at the table – she said that it was so unlike her. She shared that one of their sons had just called and surprised them with the news that he would be coming home from deployment.
(Okay, so here’s the skinny, I got the inside scoop on how this sweet story unfolded. We heard some of it, but not all of it. That would be creepy. These wonderful people shared with us privately, so if you see Pauly and I seated next to you in a nice restaurant, there’s no need to guard your conversations. I mean your crème brûlée might not be safe, but your conversation will be, well maybe, probably. I digress.)
The three of them continued to chat about family, and Mac told them that he has a little girl, named Hazel. He said people are always saying things like, “Oh, just wait until she’s sixteen”, or “Wait until she turns twenty-one”, but he said that he has every intention of simply enjoying her now. He told them that for now he can wait for moments like the phone call they got today. He just wants to enjoy his daughter while she’s little.
To that point, the couple said how funny it is that he would say that, because of a conversation they had with a young mother at ALDI today. They said she was in her early twenties, and she had a daughter, who was probably a year old. Her little one was singing away in the store and her mom was trying to quiet her down, and Casey’s response was to please let her sing. He told the young Mom you have no idea how quickly this time goes, that it really is just the blink of an eye and before she knows it she’ll be all grown up. It’s best to just enjoy moments like these.
Mac, having the strangest feeling that these patrons were talking about his little family, pulled out his phone, swiped through some photos and said, “By chance, was this them?” Maggie’s response was a shocked, “Oh my goodness, that’s them!” The couple exchanged glances and Casey said to his wife, humbly, “Don’t tell him, don’t say anything.”, leaving Mac to walk away wondering.
Mac then found missed texts from his fiancée, Lex. The texts were sent less than an hour before, and read “Literally bawling my eyes out” and “Call me when you can.” He assumed the texts had something to do with this humble couple seated in his section. When he returned to their table, he told them about the texts and asked what happened at the store. Maggie, with tears in her eyes, simply said to Mac that he should just ask his fiancée later. From our table, we watched Mac give up. I’m sure he knew it was pointless, but he did ask for selfies.
Mac stepped away, and called his fiance, Lex. She asked if he had two minutes to talk. He said he was busy but he had 30 seconds. She said, “Nevermind then, I’ll just wait until you get home.” Mac quickly texted her the selfies. Before Mac hung up, he said, “Okay, but do me a favor and please check your phone.” Mac heard her pull away from the phone and start to sob. Once she caught her breath, she told him what had happened, and to please thank them and hug them for her. Mac, too, felt overwhelmed.
Mac returned to Casey and Maggie’s table, and gave them hugs, and thanked them. They sat in disbelief, and argued with the truth, the way people do. How is it possible that the three of them were now in one another’s company?
I was so relieved when Mac turned to us and said, “Are you hearing this over here?” Finally we could stop pretending we weren’t, and I said, both as politely and sarcastically as possible, “Well, we’re trying.” and Paul said, bluntly, “Oh we’re listening.”
Mac smiled and said, “Well, this nice couple here met my fiancée and my daughter at AlDI earlier today, and they ended up paying our grocery bill without her knowing. She texted me no more than an hour ago asking me to please call her when I could. She said she was at home ‘literally bawling her eyes out’. I didn’t have any time to text her back, until just now – and somehow, these amazing people are sitting right here, in my section.”
(Des Moines has a population of 215,000 people, and a greater metropolitan area of 709,000 people. We didn’t even leave the parking lot that evening before I felt the need to Google – in case you’re wondering too.)
Casey said that Mac’s little girl reminded them of one of their sons when he was Hazel’s age. They chatted in the store and then Maggie and Casey ended up in front of Lex at the register. Her cart was full of groceries and her hands were full with Hazel. Maggie stepped over and started helping Lex with her groceries. Meanwhile, Casey quickly slid his card in the reader to pay for her groceries, without much thought, and without Lex knowing.
Mac expressed to us privately how overwhelmed Lex had been by the kindness of these strangers. When she went to pay the girl at the register, the cashier smiled at her, and handed her her very long receipt. She told Lex that the gentleman in front of her paid her bill. She turned around and they were gone. I got the sense from this young proud father that this simple gesture came at just the right moment. We chatted about how incredible it is that they were brought together tonight.
In the middle of all of this, Mac still took care of us-a smooth old fashioned, a tender steak, and a delicious creme brûlée.
Another waiter apologized before leaning into our booth to take a picture of Mac, Maggie and Casey. Mac slid in next to Casey and put his arm around him, the way old friends do. Mac’s co-worker, taking the photo, smiled wide as if he was on the other side of the lens – this God moment had the most beautiful rippling effect.
We were blessed that evening to have shared Mac’s side of the lens too. God’s a show off sometimes, and it was just what my soul needed. It’s prettier on that side of the picture… where we stop at an intersection for someone who just needs a moment longer, when we embrace the way old friends do, when we do something kind for a stranger, when we encourage little ones to sing.
Here’s to Hazel’s sweet little voice, and saving the world – little bits of it anyway. Cheers!