It happened on a beautiful spring day after what had truly been a forever winter. The weekend was rainy, but Sunday brought out the brightest sun, and it warmed my skin as I sat outside the ice cream shop with my mom and Lola.
We were together celebrating Mothers Day by spending time bumming around the city of Anoka and enjoying its old world charm, the aging buildings situated against the river most idyllically and cobblestone still paving many of the side streets. A relatively perfect backdrop for ice cream, as evidenced by the many mothers and children ordering cones.
We were two scoops deep sharing a bench on the most charming side street of them all, the blue sky innocence and sincerity of the afternoon so refreshing. As we stood to finish, an elderly man in a wheelchair approached with the most peculiar question.
“Hey,” he started, “do you want to see a picture of my pride and joy?”
I thought, Oh great. A pervert comes along just in time to ruin our perfect Sunday. Concerned we might be getting a dick pic or something equally appalling, I cautiously ushered Lola inside as the old man reached into his pocket. We were halfway through the door when I heard my mom ask,
“Well, what is your pride and joy?”
And he says, “You have to guess.”
I stopped to listen. Mom loves a good old fashioned guessing game, so she started right in;
“Maybe….it’s your wife or your children?”
And that’s when he smiles a slow grin, and takes the xeroxed photo out of his shirt. It’s only the size of his palm, and one of several copies tucked away in his breast pocket.
He hands it to my mom and says,
She takes the photo from his hand and studies it. I wince until she turns it my direction.
It is a color image on white paper of,
A brown bottle of PRIDE
And a yellow jug of JOY.
And this guy just throws his head back and laughs and laughs – he’s done this before, it’s his favorite joke and he’s been telling it for decades, always starting it out by asking the participant if they want to see a picture of his Pride and Joy, and then making them guess what they think that could be. He’s passed out over 1000 of these photos. It never gets old. He points with a laugh to the bottle of Pride – “that one’s my son!” he says.
My mom is the perfect participant for this kind of thing. She’s not afraid of anyone, and she’s always down for a laugh. I emerge from where we’ve been hiding under the ice cream shop awning, happy to learn this guy is not a creep at all but just an old man who loves to tell this same never-tired joke. He tells my mom she can keep the pic and rolls away with one last head tossing laugh before we hear him approach the next group of ice cream eaters. “Hey, kids, do you wanna see a picture of my Pride and Joy?”
As we climbed into the car my mind began reeling with questions I wished I had asked in the moment.
Who is this guy? How long has he been doing this? How many other people have had the privilege of seeing his Pride and Joy? Has the reaction always been curiosity? Has anyone been creeped out, or was it just me? It is all so strange and fascinating. I wanted to go back and give him my business card so we could keep in touch, thinking maybe I could convince Christian to make a micro documentary about his Pride and Joy, or maybe I could turn his weekend hobby into some kind of a Pride and Joy photo series. But by then he was gone, a mystery not even google could help me solve ( I tried).
Why was my instinct to think this nice old man would flash us a photo of his hard-on? I felt silly for being so cynical, for assuming this guy was a predator. But to be fair there are a whole lot of creepy men in the world, and I’m still traumatized from the Periwinkle Pervert (Lake Harriet Flasher). It’s not every day someone asks to show you their Pride and Joy. That’s why the innocence of his schtick took me by surprise, and why it took so long for the joke to settle. The joke on its own is pretty bland, but the timing and delivery were both spot-on, tapping into a Grandpa Humor® I’ve heard of but wouldn’t know firsthand because both of my grandfathers died when my parents were children. Each time he delivered the photographic punchline is like the first time he’s ever told the joke.
I want to live with as much levity when inevitably I am old.
We laughed about Pride and Joy Guy for the rest of the day. Isn’t it the most bizarre experiences that become the funniest memories, even if they’re so strange we don’t understand them at first?
It’s like the day I was stuck in traffic on my way to pick up Lola from karate, inching forward behind cars backed up for half a mile at the stoplight over the highway you have to cross to leave the neighborhoods full of families and enter the part of town built up by strip malls and grocery stores and three CVS drugstores in a one mile radius; the older part of town where they keep the assisted living facilities right next to Lola’s karate dojo, where kids as young as six break boards and yell HIEEE! I was mindlessly listening to music with the windows down when I rolled up to a rambler with a row of chairs on the perfectly kept front lawn, which was lined with drooping yellow ropes to prevent trespassers from the sidewalk crossing through. Three lawn chairs were unevenly in a row, a chair situated slightly apart while two empty chairs were arranged closely together as if a pair seated there had left them still warm. In the single chair sat a senior gentleman, talking animatedly to the invisible duo in the empty chairs to his right. I watched him for three turns of the stoplight as he carried on a most lively conversation, unaffected by the traffic or the heat or the sideways glances from the sidewalk as people passed by the street.
I told Lola what I had witnessed. “Point him out to me on the way back” she said, but traffic blocked him from our view so we were left to muse instead over who he could have been talking to. Possibly an imaginary friend, we thought. I wrote a narrative that perhaps they were the ghosts of his parents, long passed away but never forgotten. That maybe their only son had had a difficult time moving on, and by keeping the yard nice and free from debris he was really keeping their memory alive. Lola thought it could be the man’s wife and child in the empty chairs, which I had not considered but could very well be, and this thought shattered me. His Pride and Joy.
We both agreed that Christian would probably do the same if we died first — keep all our stuff intact and talk to us on the front lawn like we’re still alive. There are incredibly creepy actions that accompany the utterly sad state of not being able to physically be with someone, but also not being able to go on living daily life without them. Grief makes a person do beautiful ritualistic things that seem odd and off-putting to an ungrieving world. And because I learned how to grieve when I was young, I always try the best I can to live broken-hearted to the world, to see and identify the hurting people whose actions can’t be rationalized away but who still need love, like we mused this old man must need from the invisible people on the other side of his imaginary conversation.
Or maybe the guy was tired, and he just needed a nap.
I hope when I’m old I am funny and that I do funny things. I hope the punchline never gets old.
I hope I keep saving space for the people I love who can no longer join us, and that being a little crazy helps the heart to heal.
I hope when I’m old I won’t care that the strange and funny things I do don’t make sense to anyone but me.