I went to a dinner party recently. It was a small gathering, only five of us. A man arrived whom I had not met before, a coworker of the woman hosting the meal. I greeted him and shook his hand. He introduced himself as James. He had just come from work (It was 8:30 at that point) and was still wearing his suit from the day, though the tie had been shed and his starched shirt was unbuttoned to show a white t-shirt underneath. His head was shaved completely bald and veins ran along the sides of his scalp. I noticed a large, dark patch underneath the t-shirt. I could only assume it was a tattoo and quietly speculated upon the circumstances that led him to get a tattoo covering most of his chest. When had he done it? Had it been recently (out of rebellion to working such long hours at a major corporation), or was it a remnant of his past life?
The host served the food; we sat at the table to eat. The conversation was light-hearted. Basic getting to know each other questions: What do you do? Where are you from? When it came time for James to answer, he said, “I’ve lived in so many places I can’t remember where I’m from.”
“I’ve lived in all fifty states,” he added.
That sparked conversation, so he elaborated. When he was nineteen, he had run away to live a vagabond, hippie lifestyle. He spent two years homeless, hitchhiking and jumping trains from state to state.
“That’s so cool,” someone interrupted.
“Uh, no. It’s not cool. It’s horrible. I was homeless. I would never do it again.”
He continued his story. When he was twenty-one, he had gotten a woman pregnant and become a father. Shortly after the daughter was born, the mother disappeared. He had raised the child on his own since. “I had to get serious in a hurry,” he said.
“How old is she now?”
“Ten. She’s in fourth grade.”
I did the math. Ten years old? That would put him at 31. Talk about growing up the hard way.
“What’s her name?”
He shook his head and made a fist. “I made the mistake of letting her mother name her. Her first name is Rhiannon and her middle name is (some Bohemian name I couldn’t pronounce). It means ‘Queen of the Fairies.’
“But I call her Sam.”
Fascinated, we pressed him for information about what it was like being a single father in L.A. He told us that Sam lived with him during the school year, then spent the summers with her grandmother (his mother) in New York.
“I don’t want to be one of those guys who talks about his kids all the time, though. Besides, I’m a terrible dad. A few months ago, the school nurse called and told me Sam had thrown up at school. I asked how long it had been from the time she ate lunch to the time she threw up. Was it less than an hour?
“’I think so,’ she said.
“’Did she have carbs for lunch?’ I asked.
“’I don’t know. Probably.’
“I said, ‘She’ll be fine. I tell her to do that so she’ll stay pretty.’”
Everyone laughed. “That’s a funny line,” one man said.
“I thought so, too. I thought she would laugh and we’d share a bonding moment. She didn’t say a word, though. Dead silence. Finally, she asked, ‘Are you serious?’
“’No,’ I answered. ‘I’ll be there in twenty minutes.’
“Like I said, I’m a terrible dad. I ground Sam for everything. It’s a joke between us. Shoes untied? Grounded. You left the TV on? Grounded. She had a friend over for dinner last week. I told her at the table, ‘You didn’t finish your peas. You’re grounded.’ The friend looked up with a weird expression on her face. Sam said, ‘Daddy grounds me all the time. I’m used to it. Either that or he hits me. Sometimes if he’s tired, he just holds out his arm and tells me to run into it.’”
We finished the meal, though James left before dessert had been served. He needed to get home.
With experience comes the ability to laugh at life, or the absurdity of it. Here was a man who had experienced more by the time he was twenty-one than many of us experience in a lifetime. His daughter had also adopted his sense of humor. It will probably serve her well. She will go through life with a healthy attitude—the ability to laugh at the things most of us take so darn seriously.