On a recent Friday night, Risto Pakarinen was sitting on a half-empty 3 train going uptown, his legs stretched out and his black-and-yellow hoodie unzipped. He was on his way back to Harlem where he and his friend, Ari Lepisto, a fellow Finn, were spending the night.
They were in town to check a few items off Lepisto’s bucket list, heavily slanted towards sports events. It wasn’t the first time the duo had done it. A few years ago, when Lepisto wanted to cross out “watching a Premier League football game” off the list, Pakarinen joined him on the trip to Craven Cottage in London to see Fulham take on West Bromwich.
At home, I don’t really like to be a regular customer anywhere because I like my privacy, but when I’m traveling, I suddenly find myself humming the theme song of Cheers and feel that “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”
Caffe Connect, the coffeeshop I’m writing this at, has a loyalty program. Collect nine stamps and you get the tenth coffee for free. We’ll only be here for three more days and I only have one stamp on it, so I’m probably not going to get my free cappuccino, but I wanted to get the stamp because I figured the guy behind the register would also be happy to get a new regular.
Strength is a curious thing. There’s all kinds of it, but you never really know how strong you are until you need it. That’s not what the man said, but that’s what he was telling me as he was packing his javelin into the 1998 Nissan that was parked next to our Volvo.
Lately, Son’s gotten into politics. He’s dashing off to all kinds of meetings, and he’s arranging events and moderating debates, so much so that it’s hard for me to keep up. I do know, though, that he’s a smart and caring boy and that his politics are very warm and that he’s out to change the world for the better. He wants to help people, which is nice.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to me that he wants to get out there and make things happen. A few years ago, maybe around five or so, he ran a one-man one-cause campaign at school as he paraded the schoolyard with a sign that said, “BELIEVE IN SANTA – He is real.”
Now there’s a message I can get behind.
Today’s my birthday. It’s good day, a happy day, it makes me feel special. Today’s my day all day long, so there’s a little more spring to my step, and my posture’s a little better than usual.
Some time ago, about ten years ago, I decided that I’d never work on my birthday again. Since everybody else was always telling me how it was my day, why not then make it my day for real. On December 8, I don’t do work – writing this isn’t work, this is just me talking to you – and instead, I do whatever I want.
(Almost. I mean, I do have to run Daughter’s ringette practice, and those garbage cans don’t move themselves onto the curb, do they?)
Two weeks ago, I was on the ferry between Stockholm and Helsinki, listening to an interview on my headphones when suddenly I saw a man standing in front of me, pointing at me with his index finger. I took off my headphones just in time to hear him say, “Risto, right?”
It was Lare. I recognized him right away, which was pretty impressive, considering that I had only seen him once since we lost touch after fourth grade (mine, Lare’s third) and even that was more than twenty years ago.
But there we were, sitting at the table by the window, talking like that was all we ever did. We talked about his Dad (who was the first person I remember dying), about his 98-year-old grandfather who had lost his driver’s license and was wondering how he’d get to the summer cottage now, about my kids, his kids, our old hood, my work, and his work as a bodyguard at the finest and most legendary hotel in Helsinki.
“Some of the celebrities are really nice,” he told me. “Like Springsteen, he’s been there a couple of times. He’s a good guy … except that he gave me a T-shirt that was way too small so I had to go back and give him some feedback,” Lare said with a laugh.
“So, no rökötys for him,” I said.
He coulda bin a contender. His words, not mine. Actually, that’s not true, they were my words because his words were, “Coulda been an A-list celebrity”, but the idea was the same. Had he got his break, the one he thought he had deserved, things would have been different. Very different.
The first time I saw him, I heard him first. I heard the sound of a skipping rope hitting the floor, but not the sound of his sneakers softly landing on the same floor. There was only a centimeter, at most, between his shoes and the wooden surface that had once been blue, and it was almost as if he’d just but now had black scuff marks from all the skipping and other training that took place in the small workout area.
You can’t see me from where you are
On the stage, in the spotlight
Because I’m in the back, in the dark
But I see you as you walk out to your place
On the stage, under the spotlight
I watch you make people laugh
and I laugh with them.
I hear the people sigh at the exactly right places,
and I sigh with them
as I mouth each line with you
From my place in the back, in the dark
Then I hear the applause
and I clap my hands and
even though you can’t see me from where you are
on the stage, in the spotlight
I give you the thumbs-up
and I smile as I wipe off a tear
There’s a circus in town. The trucks and caravans rolled in late the night before, and by morning the big red tent has taken over the parking area of the town’s sports grounds. The entrance is set up, along with the popcorn stands, the candy store, and the ticket booth.
That same night, a bit before 7pm, the band starts to play. As soon as the audience find their seats inside the tent, the ushers close the doors, and with every beat the anticipation rises.
Then a tall man in shoes and pants that are several sizes too big stomps in with a big smile on his face, waving his hands like a conductor. The first laughs echo inside the tent – and the big man hasn’t done anything yet except show up.
The other day, I sort of decided to write a blog entry every day for the entire … well, for a while, and I just realized it’s time for me to go to bed, and the page is still blank.