It was very, very early one New Year’s Day, a Sunday, when I arrived outside a Quaker Meetinghouse to make sure the furnace was working. As I made my way from the curbside towards the back door to enter, 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 quite obvious that the two men had been drinking. My guess was that they were slowly making their way homeward from a New Year’s Eve party the night before. I tried my best not to appear startled 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 what might come.
I stopped not more than three or four feet in front of them. I could smell liquor and one of the men, the smaller of the two, 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!”
The smaller man said to his friend, as if in response to my greeting, “Pop him 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 pretty dark, we were behind a building and nobody else was around. I felt like my early morning peaceful world had suddenly careened into whatever energy had been carried over from the night before.
The bigger man, and by “big” I mean quite large, tough looking, and blurry eyed, swayed a bit as we stood there. Despite his size and intoxicated state, his face was softer and his eyes more inquisitive then his friends. And 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, deciding.
He made a soft fist with his right hand and stepped slowly towards me thumping the top of my open hand as he brushed passed me so close our shoulders touched. I heard him humble, seemingly to himself, happy fuckin New Year as he walked away with his friend.
Afterwords 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 the big man did too. Happy New Year!