Yesterday evening I had the opportunity to chat with a friendly acquaintance within the Portland congregation who happens to live in a neighboring apartment complex, and after our own customary lengthy conversation, he invited me to meet one of his friends in the mall, a Turkish man named Hassan who sells sunglasses at a kiosk on the first floor of the Clackamas Town Center. He was a fascinating character, and I found that I could relate to him quite well, and we managed to chat for more than an hour and a half as the mall closed all around us in the midst of our lengthy conversation, which took deeply personal and serious terms. I’m not sure why I was led to that particular conversation with that particular man, but it provided a lot of food for thought, and I am not one to waste the opportunity to engage in necessary reflection.
Hassan was in his mid-50′s, balding and struggling with problems in his leg that kept him from standing up comfortably for long periods of time. In his general look and demeanor, he reminded me of an old friend of mine from Los Angeles (since deceased), only being Turkish instead of Visgothic (an inside joke this friend had with many of the people who ate with him after Sabbaths). A little bit of background information would provide a bit of understanding of why I could relate to him so well. In the course of our conversation (it must be remembered that we were perfect strangers), he revealed the fact that he came from a poor and dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father, had studied business administration in school (getting a degree and numerous other certifications, which he happily showed me and kept inside his kiosk) but had a passion for art, had worked hard and saved money for five years to move to America only to find himself working at various menial jobs trying to survive, and had never married because he could never find a woman who met his demanding standards. He was also somewhat of a short-tempered natural aristocrat who voraciously devoured self-help books, a man whose behavior mirrored those around him and who seemed somewhat embittered and defeated at not finding opportunity in the United States despite his obvious talents, as well as frustrated with the low people who sought to steal sunglasses from him. That said, he was quite friendly and chatty with me, sensing a kindred spirit in many ways despite our obvious differences in background.
Speaking with this man was a bit of a jolt to me personally, as it presented a sort of bizarro world vision of a possible (and unpleasant) future, and a reminder of the problems that are faced when expectations fail to meet reality and ambitions and ability fail to meet opportunity. Hassan was definitely an artist, someone who was passionate about beauty and had demanding standards of himself and others. He was a cultured and intelligent man who was frustrated at the lack of respect he received from others, especially because his language and background seemed alien, and because it appears that few people would lend him an ear to let him spin his tales of life. He seemed particularly horrified by his experiences in the recent Clackamas Town Center shooting, where he was one level below and not more than a football field away from where the shooting had taken places, seeing cracked glass within sight of his modest location. While not a particularly brave man, he was an intelligent man with a certain amount of pride and dignity, who had lived a difficult life and who had not had his hopes and dreams rewarded with success despite his efforts. I saw much to respect in him, and he seemed to respond in kind, giving advice freely, and showing himself to be a canny judge of character, a man whose lengthy experience had given him great insight into the patterns of behavior of others, whether that included the one (fairly indecisive and eczema-suffering) customer who came along during the course of our lengthy conversation, or the friendly janitor who had worked 35 years as a drywall installer until hard times forced her out of her business.
Within the course of the conversation, there were two aspects that I found particularly intriguing to ponder, the first being the advice to follow one’s passion rather than what appears like a more rewarding job, and the second being the observation of the vital importance on education (and not merely schooling) on the life and behavior of others. Hassan was very critical of feminism and the problem of failure of leaders in all institutions to model right standards of behavior, allowing others to grow up uneducated and without decency and self-discipline in their conduct. This is obviously a frequent complaint I have about the institutions of this corrupt world. Likewise, Hassan felt (probably justifiably) that he would have been better served living out his passion as an artist rather than seeking to work in business, considering that in his mid-50′s he was selling sunglasses at a kiosk in the middle of a mall, eking by a living that was far beneath this capabilities and ambitions. I can certainly relate to his situation in many ways, so much so that there is no hint of contempt in my reflections concerning this man, and a great deal of empathy from having walked more than a mile in his shoes. I do not believe the conversation was a mere accident, though I am not sure exactly what it portends, or what the lasting value of such reflections will be either to Hassan or myself, or to anyone who reads this. However providential the meeting might have been, it was certainly not by my design, nor did the person who introduced us know the background of the fellow before it came out in the course of our lengthy conversation. It does provide a lot of material to ponder, and to reflect on what implications can be seen for my own life given the obvious parallels between this fellow’s fate and the course my own strange and difficult life has taken me.