Karen.

Her name was Karen, for real.

I know you’ve heard it, maybe even seen the movie…Pay it forward. A pop culture cliche now, at least I think so. But I remember very clearly decades and decades ago the first time someone told me to pay it forward. It was the summer I graduated from high school.

I was wearing my red shorts and red striped polo shirt that had the Albuquerque Duke embroidered on it, driving to work in my old car. That old Javelin, I miss it. Fun fact, the ignition in the Javelin was broken. If you turned a corner too fast the keys would fall out.  I could also start that car with a butter knife. Years later,  I would have Karate Kid moments where I had to get rolling and pop the clutch with a push from the kindness of strangers to get it started. I loved that car. I also loved that job, where I would learn to love  baseball .

I was at Dukes stadium, getting my blue shop rags ready in my section next to…Karen.

Karen was roughly the age I am now. Actually, I think probably younger. This was my first job,  way back when I was barely 17. She was a tiny thing working a second job at the stadium for extra cash and something fun to do. She wasn’t the mothering type, rather more of the cool auntie type. The one who wouldn’t yell at you for coming to the Sunday day game with a gatorade in hand knowing damned well you were probably hungover. She’d just offer an ibuprofen and a cigarette without a hint of judgement. If the games were slow we’d stand at the tops of our sections and make casual polite conversation. She heard every word I said.

One day, I remember having to cover for her because her daughter, just a few years younger than me,  was scratched by a rose bush and had a severe allergic reaction. This is one of those moments I always thought was strange, her daughter discovering an unknown severe allergy to a beautiful flower. But now I’ve seen it in my cheesy hospital TV shows… She needed to go to the hospital to be with her daughter, so I said to get out of here. I would cover her section.  Taking care of each other  in those this is just what you do moments was something we did, no asking needed.   I tried to take care of her as best a scattered teenager terrified of going to college in the fall could, and she kept a watchful eye. I didn’t realize how watchful Karen really was.

I wasn’t taking very good care of myself, due to pretty typical teenager nonsense. My only money coming in was from tips and the tiny minimum wage paychecks that would come every once in a while based on the baseball  home game schedule. I wasn’t fond of asking for money from people, but always needed a few extra bucks it would seem. The most usual tactic for me to get that little bit extra was to ask for gas money from people if they needed a ride. That would usually hold me through, and at least keep gas in the car. The teenage equivalent of Uber before Uber.

One day at the top of our sections, she insisted on inviting me and the boy yep the love of my life over for dinner. She had met him a few times when he came for games or fifty cent hot dog night. I wasn’t sure if she was interviewing him, or just making sure I got a meal in me. Either way, I said sure. She was a cool person to be around. A few days later we would head to her house not far from where we were living.

We get to her house and she introduces us to  her girlfriend.  This woman knew I didn’t give a shit who she wanted to be with, back in the days when it was unfortunately a big deal. I think it was her way of waving hello from the closet and we were happy to be there and have a drink. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but upon reflection realize it was probably a really scary moment for them back then. Shit, it’s still scary for a lot of folks today. Dammit. We sat at a table in the backyard, had a cocktail because I had graduated from high school…and ate a salad that had olives in it.

I am pretty sure that during that dinner I started to realize the importance of breaking bread with people. I digested that lesson.  A meal, no matter how simple, is always appreciated, especially  if it is with good company. I think too, I learned that sometimes you get to, or have to pick your family.  At the time, it was rare for me to sit down to a meal anyone else had prepared and I truly appreciated it.

That was a long summer. Lots of heat and Virga. Lots of teen angst. Lots of Karen checking up on me in that cool auntie sort of way when we were at work. She seemed to understand, had probably been there.

One day she asked if I had enough money to fill up my tank and grab a bite to eat. When I said no, that tips had been garbage that day, she handed me 20 bucks. This 20 would last me a week and make life just that much easier and a bit more fun. I told her no, that I couldn’t take it, because I didn’t know when I could pay her back. She put the 20 in my red jean shorts pocket, said don’t worry about it. Someday just pay it forward.  Someday you’ll meet someone who needs something more than you do, and it will make a difference for them…Pay. It. Forward when you can.

A relative stranger, a work acquaintance, put 20 bucks in my pocket. I know now, that she probably needed the 20 herself. Shit, she was a single/divorced mom working two jobs… of course she needed it. But she had a moment of kindness and compassion and forethought to know it would make a big difference for me. We so often get stuck in our own patterns, and privileges. I think many  folks especially these days are starting to finally see that more often than not,  what what we take for granted would be a big deal to another person or family.

A meal when the pantry is bare and the frig just has mustard in it is a big deal. A seemingly small gesture, a gift that grants the recipient the feeling of relief if only for a day or two is also a big deal. Learning and believing that the expectation is simply to accept that moment of kindness and to someday make sure you do the same, is a big deal. Pay it forward not backwards was a huge lesson for me. One I remember all the time.

Time, as it does, has moved forward. The Dukes aren’t the Dukes anymore. In typical ABQ fashion they are the Isotopes now. Yes really, just like the Simpsons. But, over the years, I have thought of Karen and that twenty often, and how lucky we are now. We are really lucky.

I see with the Holiday season people beginning to get into the spirit of the times. Drive through lines taking care of strangers behind them, people helping out those short at the grocery store so they don’t have to make a hard choice.  I read about people paying off layaway items for people at stores.  We are reminded that we can adopt families for feasts instead of famine. The feel good 5 o’clock story about the big tip for the overworked waitress. We get to see these moments on the news or in our feeds, we know they are happening. But I know there are countless moments of random kindness we never hear about from the Karens of the world. When I hear and see these moments more often these days, I remember Karen.

Pay it Forward kiddo. 

Thank you Karen, I will do my best.

Learning to live unafraid.

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