Before relocating from West Palm Beach to Gainesville last week, I dropped by the local Publix to say goodbye to Mr. W.
I first noticed Mr. W. while shopping for green stuff to throw into my morning smoothie. He was ahead of me to the left, restocking salad mixes on the refrigerated shelf, whistling in free form. As I passed by I said, “love the whistling.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Need help?”
“Nope, I’m good,” I said. That was pretty much it. He returned to his work and I went on my way.
Over the next four months, I saw Mr. W. maybe a couple of dozen times. He was always in good humor, whistling, going about his work with unhurried grace. I made it a point to swing by and say hello – no conversation, just a quick “how you doing?” or “it’s a beautiful day.” Mr. W. would look up and smile and say something like “doing fine” or “yes it is, yes it is.” Those little exchanges, to borrow from Jackie Wilson, lifted me higher and higher.
One evening I saw a lady with a label gun working the fruit. “Are you the manager?” I asked.
“Yes sir, what can I do for you?” she said.
“There’s a gentleman who works in this section who’s always whistling,” I said.
“He’s a light, isn’t he?” I said.
She brightened, “Mr. W.,” she said. “Yes, he is! He’s a joy. Everybody loves him.”
Mr. W. is in his sixties, small of frame and wiry, hair well past the salt and pepper stage. He looks like he might have played second base in his younger years and that he would have fed the double play as easy as the tossing of an apple. His hazel eyes are alive and kind, with a hint of hard times seen. When he turns his attention to you, it feels like there’s no other place on earth Mr. W. would rather be.
The last time I saw Mr. W., he was stacking avocados, gently whistling. I called out to him. “Mr. W.!” I said smiling.
“Yes, sir!” he said.
“I’m moving away tomorrow. I wanted to say goodbye.”
“Well, God Bless you,” he said. He removed his glove and extended his hand. “Thank you very much.”
“Are you always this happy?” I asked.
“Try to be,” he said.
I paused wondering whether I should go further. “Well,” I said, “you really are a light. You brighten this place up, you lift folks up.”
He shook his head loosely. “I’m just chillin’,” he said.
He nodded slowly. “Yessir, just chillin’,” sliding the glove back onto his hand.
And then, because I can’t help myself, I went into interview mode. “How long have you worked at Publix?” I asked.
“Well, let’s see,” he said. “Started here in 1999.” Mr. W. explained that he took an early retirement when the distribution company he worked for moved to Lakeland. They wanted him to relocate but his wife preferred to remain in the area. Smart man. He asked me where I was headed.
“Gainesville,” I said.
“You got work there?” he asked.
“I’m a writer, lawyer and mediator,” I said. “I’ll be writing and getting my practice going. That’s the plan, anyway.”
“Then you’ve got things to do,” he said. “That’s good.”
“That is good,” I said, and meant it.
I felt that compulsion arise again, to keep asking questions. But this time it didn’t take hold. I wasn’t there to do an interview. I was just there to say goodbye to a man who whistled while he worked and made people feel better. And maybe to get one more shot of his mojo.
“Well, I’ll let you get back to your work,” I said. “Just wanted to say goodbye, wish you well.”
Mr. W. retrieved his hand from his glove again. We shook hands goodbye. “Thank you,” he said, “thank you for taking the time.”
Mr. W. then returned to just chillin’, which I am confident he continues to this day. As for me, well, by the time I hit the parking lot I had returned to my thinking, trying to make sense of the world. Habits of mind may not be impenetrable, but they are sticky.