I stopped at Costco on the way home last Friday to pick up a few items, as if anyone can pick up just a few items and not walk out of Costco with a kayak or some such thing.
It was Good Friday. The line to the gas station was long, the parking lot nearly full and the crowd of shoppers thick. But I wasn’t in a hurry; it was one of those clear, sunny spring days with a blanket of astonishingly blue sky that can’t be appreciated if you don’t slow down and look around. The shopping list wasn’t long and soon I was loading more than expected into the car. And while it’s not unusual for other shoppers to wander by, an uncomfortably close, slow-moving shopping cart caught my eye.
Pushing it was an elderly gentleman, appropriately grizzly for his age but dressed in pressed khakis, a button-down shirt and sweater, as you might imagine would have been the standard about 50 years ago, when publicly wearing pajamas would attract attention and perhaps include a visit to the funny farm. He walked slowly but without shuffling, slowly looking left, then right. The corners of his green sweater flapped in the breeze while the set of his face showed he was expending more than a little effort on thinking.
There’s no telling whether it was my Boy Scout mindset or overly hopeful belief in karma, but I slipped out of the car. As I stepped toward the man, he eyed me through thick glasses with a level of caution that’s unfortunately appropriate these days. His posture relaxed after I asked if he might need some assistance.
His eyes were clear and sharp under tussled salt-and-pepper hair as he described a growing distrust of his memory, a worry reinforced today by his inability to find his car. His habit was to fill up at the Costco gas station and park near the gas station exit. Today, because he couldn’t find an open spot in that section, he cruised around the lot to find a spot.
Knowing cars a little bit more than the average person and figuring I might help, I asked what type of car he was driving. It was Honda, that he was sure of; but of the model he wasn’t. The color was gray, but maybe lighter. Perhaps silver. It had four doors and was more than five years old. Rubbing the whiskers on his chin, he told me that it was bigger than a Civic. The easiest solution, pressing a button on his key fob, wasn’t an option; the remote integrated with the key was held together by masking tape and hadn’t worked for years.
My offer of assistance accepted, I began walking the 15 or so aisles of the parking lot, scanning for a four-door, gray or silver, Honda sedan. I was hunting for an Accord, but didn’t dismiss the possibility it could be a Civic. As might be expected in any parking lot in America, there was no scarcity of matching vehicles. (Silver – the color of indecision – and gray, were two of the top five most popular car colors during the last decade.) Wandering the closest three aisles, I took cell phone photos of a few suspect cars and returned to my lost friend. No, the car didn’t have a sun roof. The color was more of a light gray. The tail lights were different.
I searched a few more aisles, then returned to find the gentleman in conversation with the gas station attendant. This Costco gas station attendant is a good ol’ boy, always wearing a cowboy hat and quick to tell seemingly deaf patrons to turn down their stereos. He told me that he knew the older gentlemen I was assisting. His name is Clay. The attendant radioed the store’s cart crew for help, but no one was available. I tried to get a better description of the car but only got confirmation that it was indeed silver and had four doors. Clay wondered out loud if his car was on the far side of the lot.
Knowing I could cover ground about three times faster, I walked the rest of the parking lot, ending up as far away as possible from my starting point. Clay, who had walked in a straight line rather than up and down each aisle, caught up with me.
Not wanting to leave Clay on his own, I again prodded him for any identifying features of his car. Was it dirty? Was anything hanging from the mirror? Did it have special wheels? A light seemed to flicker behind his eyes; yes, there was something. The number five and “UES” had come to mind, though Clay was uncertain why. Hoping the number suggested the beginning of a license place – sequential 5-series plates were issued in California about five to seven years ago, fitting the possible age of a vehicle that had so far eluded us.
I began scanning plates and less than ten steps away, there is was; on a silver CR-V. Not quite the sedan I was looking for. Clay’s key fit the front door. An offer to help load his groceries was declined, so I wished Clay good luck and we parted company.
I was a few steps away when Clay called out to offer fruit snacks and thanks. I declined, again began to walk away, Clay drew me back with another comment about how he appreciated the help. My acknowledgement ended with an observation that we’d both gotten in some exercise by walking, never a bad thing. Clay replied, “You know, that was part of my training.”
I’m sure that I cocked my head to one side, wondering what that might mean. Bewilderment got the best of me and I asked, “What do you mean?” His story began with being stationed at Naval Air Station Alameda as a young man. (A quick calculation told me that this was likely in the mid 1930s.)
Then Clay asked, “Have you ever heard of Jack LaLanne?”
A response that I did seemed to release a flood of memories. Clay hung out with Jack, performing feats of strength. Occasionally he stepped in to watch over Jack’s exercise studio in Oakland*. He and Jack would impress the “girls” with their muscles, and eventually shared a lifelong friendship.
Clay illustrated his story with a strip of glossy photo paper upon which were printed digitized photos showing Jack and Clay through the years. One photo shows Clay lying on the ground, with his hands skyward while Jack uses Clay’s hands as a foundation for a handstand. Others show Clay, Jack and their wives at dinner. In one photo they are celebrating Jack’s 90th birthday.
Clay shared that he had to take care of himself for at least five more years. Jack LaLanne died in 2011 at age 96, and Jack wouldn’t like it if Clay didn’t live to the same age or longer.
I only spent about an hour helping Clay. His memory may be fading, but I hope his enthusiasm for life and appreciation of his past allows him to reach that goal.
♫♫Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
Say, who are the people in your neighborhood?
The people that you meet each day.♫♫
*For those who don’t know, Bally Total Fitness grew out of licensing LaLanne’s European Health Spas, which numbered more than 200 by the 1980s.
April 11, 2015 at 2:45 pm
Well done Patrick. Helping the elderly gentleman put you into hero status. Finding out he was a celebrity, awesome.
June 14, 2020 at 11:50 pm
Patrick! I know this was written 5 years ago, but I just saw it for the first time. My name is Cindy and Clay is my father. He had quite an interesting life and loved sharing his stories. Thank you so much for the time you spent with him that day and for finding his car. Everything you said is exactly my dad. I know you made his day. He passed away December 31st of last year at the age of 95 1/2. He almost made it to 96 like Jack! Loved life and all people to the fullest every day of his life. With my first father’s day without him coming up, this was perfect timing to see this. Thank you Thank you Thank you for being a kind person and for sharing the story.
June 16, 2020 at 7:22 pm
Cindy, sorry to hear that your Dad passed, but was clear to me that he had a heck of a life. Meeting him made my day a big brighter as well!