Rhumba and I are working stiffs: we go to work, come home, recover, do it again the next day. On the weekend there’s the chance to catch up on private life; we spend much of our precious time on grocery shopping, laundry, chores, prepping food for the coming week, and sleeping late. We don’t get out much or have much of a social life. You might even say that we both have second jobs, though not the kind that pay money.
And that’s why I write, to a certain degree, about restaurant workers. They’re the people we most often see outside work, on those days when we’re too beat to cook. As time passes, such days come more frequently. You could tell me that we should stay home and save the money for the future, but I’ll tell you this, sir or madam: we are not young, and the future is now. We need this, now.
So we see these people, waiters and busboys and counter clerks and managers, a few days a week. We see the same men and women over and over. They’re friendly and solicitous, because their tip depends on it.
And they will welcome you and ask you how you are on this fine day. And you will say, “Fine, thank you.” If you ask in return, “And how are you?” you will receive in exchange a slightly raised eyebrow and a smile that is perhaps more than just professional. Because you are just a tiny bit unusual: most people don’t care to know about the server. They just want to be fed in exchange for money.
But Rhumba and I are old, and a little isolated socially. While the waiter/customer relationship is very ritualized, we are more than willing to engage our server as a person. We have both worked food service; we know that it is hard work for limited reward. So why not be human toward these human beings who may be the only people we talk with today, outside work?
And after you express interest in them a time or two, your servers may tell you who they really are. Many of us feel a bit isolated these days, and isolation’s not always a matter of how many or few people that you talk with.
So on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, the breakfast waitress at the Cafe de Lay bustled over to greet us and talk for a moment. She barely needed to know our order, as it rarely varies; she has in fact has served Rhumba and I more eggs than our mothers ever did. Thirty four countries have been born since the day that Alma signed on at the cafe.
Alma is a middle-aged Latina with high cheekbones and wavy black hair that tumbles down over her shoulders. Her eyes are wise and friendly; her voice, gracious and full of feeling. When she asks me how I am, I’ll tell her the truth She wants to know.
“I need my protein this morning,” I told her. “I’m starting a new job.”
“Oh, how wonderful. Does it pay better than the job you had?”
“Yes,” and we discussed the several reasons that I took the job.
But I also had to say: “Frankly, at my last job, whatever I did? It wasn’t enough.” By that I meant that the demands just kept growing and growing; but Alma interpreted it her own way.
“I know what you mean. I worked here twenty five years for a man who was never happy with me. No matter what I did, he criticized. But now he’s gone” — the restaurant had just changed hands — “and I’m still here.” She smiled wryly.
The new owners were impressed with Alma; she knew how to do practically every job in the place. The old owner? “I guess he had a problem with women.” A toss of the head, an inclined chin: it was his problem, not hers.
We spoke of Labor Day, and how much business the restaurant had gotten. “We were so busy in the morning,” she said, “but everyone went away by noon. I got to go home early, and read my book. And I fell asleep.” A rare afternoon of rest on a busy holiday: Alma smiled at the memory.
Across her blouse Alma wears a collection of pins and brooches: stylized representations of winged angels in silver and bronze and gold and colorful stones. Alma loves angels. And I wondered, in this context, whether she wears her angels as a sort of breastplate: something, anyway, to give Alma the strength to keep on being Alma in the face of bitter bosses and long years of hard work.
One pin outshines all the others; it is costume jewelry, of course, made of stamped and formed metal; but larger than the rest, and brilliant gold in color. The angel smiles from within a halo of fine metal strands. Its wings catch the light. It has come only lately to Alma’s collection.
And if that angel could talk, it could tell you a few things about the nature of reality. It can’t; so I’ll try.
One hot day several weeks before, Rhumba and I found ourselves in a thrift store that she hadn’t particularly wanted to visit. I did, for some reason. Rhumba could have stayed behind, but chose to tag along despite the heat and a sore knee. I ambled to the clothing section, while Rhumba headed for a room of chintz and china and shiny decorative things.
I found nothing that I wanted, and so rejoined Rhumba in the chintz room. I found her hovering in front of a display case. In the case lay a golden angel pin in a pretty box.
“I’d like to get it for Alma,” she told me, a little hesitantly. “Do you think she’d like it?”
“Don’t see why not.” Even in the flat light of fluorescent tubes, the angel shone. Valuable? Not especially, but it was well made and in perfect condition.
“Is it okay if we spend the money?” Rhumba asked. She seemed almost shy about it.
And yet the angel pin cost less than a decent omelette. I never would have thought to make this gesture to Alma — men need women to compensate for their deficits — but good grief, this was a modest gift if ever there was one. It puzzled me that she wanted my approval.
“Buy it,” I said. And that was that. Rhumba stowed the pin in her purse against the next time we saw Alma.
Unsurprisingly, we saw Alma at breakfast a few days later. She wasn’t our waitress, but Rhumba waved to her and she stopped with us.
“We saw this pin at a store the other day and thought of you,” Rhumba said, “I hope you like it.” Rhumba handed Alma the small box. Alma smiled graciously.
“Oh, how nice,” she crooned. “Thank you.” And then she opened the box.
“THIS PIN!” Alma cried. “HOW did you find THIS PIN?”
She had seen it in a store some time back, and fell in love with it. And yet, she hadn’t bought it. She couldn’t say why; I won’t speculate. Her husband was in a hurry to leave, and she followed him out without the angel pin. She had thought about the golden angel ever since, though she couldn’t even remember where she’d seen it. And now, here it was — or one just like it — freely offered as a gift to her.
“AND IT’S MY BIRTHDAY!” she cried, and literally fell on Rhumba’s head, hugging it and laughing and crying. I will long remember the sight of Rhumba’s helplessly-smiling face — what little was visible — peering out from within Alma’s full-body embrace.
Ever since, the golden angel has ridden Alma’s blouse, the biggest and brightest of the guardian demi-gods perched there. We talked with her about the golden angel one other time, then never mentioned it again. She always gives us a discount; but then again, she’s done that for years. I tip back half of it.
And this is where people who need an orderly world say, “What a coincidence!” And this is where I sneer at them.
Rhumba and I have discussed the odds against the occurrence of this chain of events; they are so large that belief in Santa Claus would be a more rational conclusion than “coincidence.” Santa Claus — or angels.
When Rhumba looked at the angel at the store, she told me later, it seemed to look back at her. It asked for her attention. She described it as “numinous:” possessing a meaning beyond its physical self, presenting a sense of a connection to someone or something else. And she thought of Alma, the only person we know who would clearly want such a pin.
Say you see someone on the street who somehow reminds you of a childhood friend, someone you haven’t heard from in 30 years. And three days later, he calls you. Most of us have a story like that. Rhumba and I have several. You may, too. And yet most people don’t let such oddities affect their world view. They’re afraid of being thought irrational.
But these events are not irrational at all.
Not in a world where scientists begin to wonder if, on the quantum level, the future influences the past. And not in a world where scientists absolutely know that actions performed on one quantum particle also effect other particles that are related to it, in other places: even though there is no evidence of information transfer. It’s called entanglement.
How do you explain the impossible ways that information can sometimes pass between people? How does, say, a used bookseller accept a set of 70-year-old trading cards as part of a book buy, cards of a type he’s never heard of across 40 years in the business. Only to have a long-time customer come in to ask about those same cards, out of the blue, the very next day?
Or, what about a guy who gets a fortune cookie with his broccoli beef that reads “A short stranger will bring you many blessings.” And, next day, he runs into an elderly woman with odd eyes and a heavy accent who barely comes up to his ribs — holding a box full of unappetizing dried berries. She is a stranger in town, and has lost the way back to her bus.
“The guy” was me, and I helped her. She showed me the berries and explained their medicinal uses. I researched the berries and bought a pound online. They changed my life. Four years later, I eat them daily.
I could tell you odder stories; but you’d wonder what I’ve been smoking. Things happen that everyday logic can’t explain. What we call realism excludes the possibility of a hidden realm where information passes in unknown ways and connections can be made that foretell the future, or call people toward possibilities that they cannot possibly have knowledge of.
These impossible information transfers do not happen often — that I am aware of. If they work by any rules at all, the rules are unknown and unpredictable, no matter what Sister Miracula promises through her $10/minute 900-number.
Call me a Christian agnostic. I believe in the faith tradition and the teachings, but as far as the nature of reality is concerned, I’m open to possibilities.
That said, I believe that religion at the very least is a sincere attempt to explain a very real part of existence — an over-arching connection that is sensed yet cannot be explained or described. What we call hard-headed realism is a cop-out — unless you are a particle physicist on the hunt for the reality beyond reality, ready to follow your logic straight to the unthinkable and then try to describe it with an equation.
Imagine a pool of water that is entirely opaque. Three shafts begin to rise from its surface; they appear as separate objects. They continue to rise, and now there are four, and finally five. At last you see that they are not separate objects at all, but the fingers of one hand. There is a connection; we do not see it or understand it, but it is there.
Perhaps it’s fair to say that there are angels in the world, indeed; not creatures with wings and robes, but strange and irregular interchanges of information predictable by no man. They occasionally make possible the wildly improbable, if we care to act on them.
I don’t know that belief is a factor, save that rigid disbelief might close you to the possibilities. In short, the world may be an agnostic’s playground.
But even agnostics believe in love, and that love is divine if anything is. Nothing entangles related particles like love — and not just on the quantum level.
A golden angel smiles from Alma’s blouse, and keeps its own counsel.