It was very, very early one New Year’s Day, a Sunday, when I arrived outside a Quaker Meetinghouse to make sure that the furnace was working properly. As I made my way from the curbside towards the back door of the building, I suddenly realized I had not been watching very carefully where I was walking. I was headed straight toward two young men and if I hadn’t stopped when I did I would have walked right into them.
I looked up just in time and stopped cold. It was obvious that the two men had been drinking. My guess was that they were slowly making their way home from a New Year’s Eve party the night before. I tried my best not to appear overly startled or afraid when I stopped, but it became apparent that the men saw my advancing walk as a threat and had stopped just before I did to deal with whatever might come.
I stopped not more than a few feet in front of them, close enough so that I could smell liquor. The smaller of the two men seemed especially agitated. His fists were clenched by his side as if ready to spring. I’m not really sure where it came from, but I blurted out, “Happy New Year, Gentlemen!”
The smaller man said to his friend, as if in response to my greeting,
“Take’m down, Vin!” The time-lapse felt like minutes as the three of us stood there. I remember barely being able, especially at that early hour, to comprehend what was being said and that I was suddenly in a potentially dangerous situation. It was still very dark, we were behind a building in the city and nobody else was around. I felt like my early morning peaceful world had suddenly careened into whatever energy had been carried over from someplace else the night before.
The bigger man, and by “big” I mean tall, wide and tough looking was blurry eyed and he swayed a bit as we stood there. Despite his size and intoxicated state, his face was softer and his eyes more inquisitive then his smaller and more agitated friend beside him. So from this quick assessment, I extended my hand to shake his in the tradition of a New Year’s hand shake. My hand waited in mid-air as the bigger man looked me over, thinking and deciding.
He made a soft fist as he raised his right arm and stepped slowly towards me, thumping the top of my open hand with his as he brushed on by, so close that our shoulders actually touched, and I heard him mumble over his shoulder, “Happy fuck’n New Year,” as he walked away with his friend.
Afterwards I realized how close that encounter had been to becoming something else. I was certain that my outstretched hand, for that moment and for that time at least, had made all the difference. I knew it, and I’m sure that the big man did too.
Happy New Year!
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