28906339014_fd25b9065b_oI went to Kinney Drugs yesterday to get my biannual supply of Williams shaving soap, and as usual, everyone rushed the front and there was a line. The cashier called for help, and I stood about third in line behind an old man with a shopping cart. I didn’t look too hard at what was in the cart, but I noticed the man’s cap. It was covered in embrodiery and patches, proclaiming him as a Navy veteran of two wars, WWII and Korea. I suspect there aren’t that many of those left.

As the second cashier went to work and all those behind me rushed to her, the vet offered to let me go ahead of him. I said, “that’s okay I’m in no hurry” (I never am, these days).

“Where did you find those!” he said, pointing at the three packages of shaving soap in my hand. I misheard the question, and though he was commenting on my somewhat unusual choice and rambled off something about the fact that my father used to use it… He stopped me and said, “no, where in the store do I find those?”

I had taken the entire stock of the drugstore, so I quickly offered him one of boxes I was holding. He said that he used it all the time, and he was heading off to Florida and knew he’d have trouble finding it there, which is true. Not many drug stores stock it these days. The cashier got to him, and rang up his items, which came to six dollars or so, and he quickly paid with a credit card. I noticed that he was wearing hearing aids in both ears, but it was me who misheard him rather than the other way around.

He was just about to leave the line when the cashier pointed to the cart, and he said, “oh, I almost forgot” handing over a few bags of empty plastic bottles for recycling. She painstakingly tallied them up, and he commented that it would be nice if the drugstore had a redemption machine so the line wouldn’t get tied up, ever apologetic for taking too much time.

In fact, he started to walk away as the cashier exclaimed, “Stan, don’t forget your money!”

He said “Just put it in there” gesturing at the charity collection box on the counter. Looking at one of the women who had just finished up in the other line, Stan said “Wait a second, I want to talk to you.” It dawned on me that Stan was a part of the fabric of this drug store, everyone knew him but me it seemed. It choked me up to think that a life filled with service is long, and worthwhile.

During my trip to Maine earlier in the summer, I suddenly started to understand the difference between the Mid-Atlantic states and New England. New England is the land of voyagers, people who travel and yet always seem to return home. I started to think of generations that have gone to sea, and returned to the hard scrabble bits of land. Running into the Navy man here was a bit unusual; in New England, it’s the historical norm.

I’ve often lamented that New York is filled with provincial people who seldom look further than their neighborhood, let alone saw much reason to leave it. New England just isn’t like that; people leave, but unlike the Midwestern streams of migration, they don’t stay where they travel. They try, desperately sometimes, to get back.

I began to understand Jack Kerouac returning to Lowell to drink himself to death better, and the popularity of seafaring narratives. That’s when I decided that this year I was going to try to read Melville again. I’ve made it through Typee with great enjoyment, and stopped to read a biography, a couple of doctoral dissertations and a handful of articles before pressing on to Omoo.

I still don’t have great affection for the whale, but I’m beginning to at least understand the voyager spirit.