We've had two major snowfalls in the last week and the road crews haven't yet found their way to our street. It's a knee-deep icy mess out there. Yesterday one of my neighbors spun himself into quite a hole. He needed a push, so I went outside to help. I had to bang around with my professional-grade ice-chopper and the task took longer than expected. Eventually we used the old towel trick to gain enough traction to release the vehicle. My neighbor said, "I'm embarrassed. You shouldn't be doing this." Which took me aback, of course. I replied, quite spontaneously, "It's exactly what I should be doing." And then I recalled one of my father's maxims: "Never omit an opportunity to do a favor for a friend, and never be embarrassed to accept a favor."
The old guy did lots of favors. When someone on East 9 Street had a problem or got into a little trouble, my father acted as consigliere; as far as I know, he never took a nickel for his trouble -- though occasionally someone would drop off a compensatory lasagna. In his last years, when he lived alone and his arthritis was very bad, someone mowed his lawn and someone took in his garbage cans and someone raked his leaves.
The old guy was the least materialistic person that I've encountered in an entire lifetime. He didn't seem to need possessions. No car, no clothes beyond the absolute minimum, no items of personal adornment. He didn't "shop." I was with him once when bought a new hat: "See this. I want another one just like it." We were in and out of the store in two minutes. Although he lived in a world of weasels (he was a real-estate lawyer), he was uncontaminated by what went on around him. He'd often tell me stories about the various chicaneries by which people cheated each other -- and every time he would express the same astonishment at the fallibility of human nature. He knew of public officials who were on the take, but he preferred to talk about the state legislator who had a large sign on his desk that said, "NO GIFTS."
In one of our very last conversations, I asked him if he himself had ever done anything illegal. He thought for a long time. "I don't know if you'd call this exactly illegal. Do you remember the B-----s? Rose was a widow and she was dying of cancer, but she didn't know it. She was a teacher with two young children and she had a benefit coming to her from the city. She made a very bad decision -- a lump sum instead of an annuity for her children. I went to her school and substituted a new form for the one that she had filed. It was technically a violation and I could have gotten into a lot of trouble." And then he surprised me by quoting some Wordsworth -- the lines from Tintern Abbey about the "best portion of a good man's life,/ His little, nameless, unremembered acts/ Of kindness and of love."
It's hard to believe that he's been dead for twenty years now. But I remember him when we come around to the winter solstice (he was born on December 22, 1904) -- and he's especially real to me when a neighbor lets me help him extricate his car from a snowbank.