My Friend Al

Written by Frank Barbera

I'm sorry to say that this story starts off twenty years ago. Way back then I was having coffee with a friend of mine. He suddenly looked like he was in pain and he grabbed his stuff as just so he could make a quick run for the door. I had a fresh, full coffee, just was not going to leave, and so I asked what the hurry was. My friend hissed "Look at that guy!" I looked out the window, and saw another coffee shop regular about to come in. "That's Al" my friend said, "I don't want to listen to him. He is Mr. Depression." I had seen this guy around, but knew nothing about him. My friend timed his last remark so that he could get out the door just as Al was coming in. "I'll give you twenty bucks if you can cheer him up!" was a challenge thrown over my friend's shoulder, as he quickly exited.

Al came in, and sat down close by. He nodded a 'hello', placed his order, and much to my surprise, started talking. He was worried, he said, about losing his job. Now, I was really a total stranger. But I got a full report on Al's worries and concerns, on his trials and tribulations, on all of the trouble in the world that personally impacted on Al's life. It just went on and on, all with the bleakness of a terminal cancer patient. It was depressing, to say the very least. But as Al talked, as he listed this never ending stream of complaints, he began to smile. At first I was extraordinarily puzzled by this. But I quickly figured out the reason for his grim happiness. Someone was listening to him! That rare event was a ray of sunshine into the life of a totally self absorbed individual!

Al was a frequent customer of that coffee shop. Oddly, I became one as well. So I would see him, and get fresh reports of his dull, depressing life. I would listen, which was a rare event for him. Occasionally I would offer some sort of advice. But Al was not looking for advice. He delighted in always having a storm cloud of troubles over his head. Somehow he enjoyed the though of his being 'crusty' because, after all, the world was giving him a hard time.

Al was the type that if it was a rainy day, he would think that the rain was sent just to interfere and spoil his personal plans. If he would scratch a hundred dollar winning lottery ticket, it was the god's punishment by not winning the big prize. The exact type to talk for hours about himself, and then say: "Well, enough about me. What do you think about me?"

I felt sorry for him. His total self absorption made him simply unwelcome in social circles. His delight in the negative made him tiresome and boring. In fact, I often got tired of him. I would take a break from that coffee shop, just to refresh my batteries. Listening to a bore is hard work! One has to take frequent breaks!

One year around Christmas I ran into Al. He did his usual Scrooge bit, Bah Humbug on the season. I happened to ask what his plans were? He had no plans. He did tell me that a coffee shop at the airport would be open. Would I like to join him there? The poor guy had nothing to do, nowhere to go. In a fit of Christmas weakness, I agreed that I would join him for coffee on Christmas Day.

On Christmas the roads were deserted. The airport almost empty. I found Al sitting at the appointed place. His humbug act had paid off with him having nothing to do and nowhere to go. Any happy thing I could say was met with a frown and a growl. Did he not realize he was bringing on this cloud of depression to himself? My visit was an attempted Christmas gift to him. Something not acknowledged and certainly not appreciated. I tried to stretch the visit out, but I found myself wanting to rush away. His personal unhappiness was contagious. I did not want to catch it, especially at Christmas! When I left I had to pay the usual inflated price for the parking of my car. It occurred to me just as I handed over the cash, that knowing Al was a costly experience. Not so much in money, but in time and in emotion. He drained people of whatever good feeling they had within them.

I kept more of a distance, from that time on. While a cheery word did perk him up, it was also very true that his bleak despair would bring you down. His company was not worth the effort.

Coffee shops come and go. Our original spot closed. I discovered a new and interesting place, one with good food and fine art on the walls. Much to my dismay, Al found the same location. And from there, the other night, I heard the other night the Orange story. A story that perfectly communicates the real Al:

Al was taking a bus trip to Florida. And, as usual, his activities are his total preoccupation. So, in his conversation he would attempt to inject Florida at every opportunity. To everyone else's boredom. Finally he hit on the note of asking people what they wanted from Florida? He was pestering the owner with this question daily. She did not want anything, especially anything from him. Eventually he asked her if she wanted a bag of oranges? Well, that stuck a note. She does like oranges, and what could be better than fresh oranges from the Sunshine State? So, she admitted that she would enjoy some oranges.

Her friend was there as well. So Al proclaimed that not only would he bring back a bag of oranges, but he would get a second one as well!

What a generous, kind heated fellow!

Off he goes. It was a grand holiday, for those of us rid of him. And, like all holidays, it was far too short!

Al returns, with a heavy cold. He sniffles and sneezes, never the mind spreading germs on others. And, the first day, he is empty handed.

The second day, the owner is out getting her hair cut. The second lady is behind the counter, as Al comes in. When the owner returns, Al proudly, and loudly announces his gift to her is there. She sees one orange on the counter. She thanks Al profusely, and looks around for the rest of the bag. She can't see it. After his seemingly endless visit, Al trudges off into the night.

The owner turns to the second lady and asks: 'Where are the oranges?'

She breaks the news: 'He brought in one orange.'

Neither can believe that news, even though they know it as true! It is one of those situations where you don'y know if you should laugh or cry!

The orange in half, to be shared.

One takes a bite, and ends up spitting out the fruit. The orange is old, dry and tasteless. The orange, it seems, has taken on the very personality of Al!

There is a lesson to be learned here. Each one of us determines our own mental framework from which to see the world. Focusing only on ourselves blinds us to the light and joy of human life. Adhering, obstinately, to that self centered view gives only an abundance of boredom and disgust. We can corrupt ourselves into a vile sourness, and end in misanthropic despair. We become chained to that destiny.

Or, if we seize the grace to see it, we can choose another way. We can expect happiness and get a foretaste of Nirvana.