Al and the Hubcaps…

I used to work at the Benson Hotel in Portland Oregon, a fine old hotel with crystal chandeliers, a grand palatial stair case and an elegant entry hall all paneled in a dark rich walnut so rare now as to be considered extinct. I worked with a cast of characters as odd and eclectic as any British novel and as full of corruption and intrigue as an Italian murder mystery.

I was privileged to work with a wise old black man named Al. He had worked there at the Benson as the maître d’ for so long that he had become as much a part of the hotel as the lustrous old walnut walls and the strong upright marble pillars. He had served 3 generations of guests with the kind of reserved yet intimate manner such that they greeted him as if he were an honored member of the family.

One day I came upon him in the lunchroom and found him in a somewhat pensive mode. When I asked him what he was doing, he leaned back and stared up into the corner of the room as if he were looking to a great distance and he said, with great gravity… “When I was young, we used to steal a lot of hubcaps.”

This was a side of Al I had never seen before. Somehow, I could only imagine him dressed in his elegant tuxedo, with a gentle slow smile and his ancient graceful hands. I sat up and paid close attention, and waited to hear what he had to say.

“I don’t know why we stole all them hubcaps.” he said shaking his head in a puzzled yet bemused manner. “Maybe that was just the thing that young men did in those days. Like stealing car radios nowadays. I mean, didn’t none of us have any cars…”

And then he sat for a long time and didn’t say anything, just stared off into time. Just stared into a different world where he had been young and strong and close to the street. Before the Benson, before a lifetime of service, before his hands had become so old and strong that they looked like the polished roots of an old tree.

Property of Al

Then he said, in a soft puzzled voice, “Sometimes I wonder…” And then, with more force, as if asking a very particular and important question,” Whatever happened to all them hub caps?”

Several days later, I found at a yard sale about 10 perfectly round, shiny hubcaps for $.25 apiece. Recognizing that I’d stumbled on a singular treasure, I bought all of them and took them home. There, I cleaned them and polished them and then with a magic marker I wrote inside each one,” Property of Al”.

The next day, I brought my booty to work and left them all in a big pile on the lunchroom table right around break time and sat back and waited for Al to show up. When he finally arrived, he stood at the door for quite a while staring at the pile of hubcaps as if deep in thought. Finally he said,” Damn! I wish I never said nothing about them damn hubcaps!”

However, I should mention… That although there was never another word spoken about the issue, he collected them all and took them home.

So now is I approach my late 50s I often find myself thinking,” What ever happened to all them hubcaps?” I imagine them at yard sales, or gracing the wheels of antique cars, or more likely long gone and rusted away. I imagine how they might have passed from hand to hand and been hung on walls or hidden in long forgotten garages. I wonder about the young men who grabbed them and ran in darkened streets so long ago. About the lives they lived and who they might have become…

Like Al… with his strong soft voice and his memory of hubcaps. And I wonder, what ever happened to those memories of youth. Whatever happened to that silver dollar my mother gave me when I was 15, or the broken pieces of the Swiss Army knife that my father gave me when I was 19 and that saved my life one extraordinary night. I wonder what happened to Pamela, or Philip, or Bill. Not that they are gone, but that I was not there.

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