December 25, 2012
I was thinking about Wilkes-Barre in springtime of the good old days and downtown Wilkes-Barre as the greatest generation knew it.
I and Baby Boom stragglers were fortunate enough to experience it before Tropical Storm Agnes wiped it out forever.
It was a glorious May day when Pete Chaivanik made his presence known to my 6-year-old self. In my bouffant skirt, Walter's Shoe Store oxfords and that year's Easter bonnet, I came to town on the bus with a mother who didn't know how to drive.
There in front of Fowler, Dick, and Walker, The Boston Store -- smack-dab on the most prosperous block of the Valley – was plunked this twisted, drooling, palsied man. The nerve! How brazen, right in front of the Boston Store!
At first sight, Pete was scary, so messy and scary. Then -- no! -- my mother made my sister and I drop a nickel in that ugly felt hat that collected his salary, and even say hello to him.
Oh, I didn't want this. I was all dressed up for a day in the most glamorous city on earth. South Main Street, with plate-glass windows filled with clothes that rich ladies wore and that my mother tried to emulate for us on her sewing machine, was a whole city-block of glamour, from The Boston Store to Blum's to Lazarus to the Beverly and The Hollywood Shoppe.
How could my mother do this? How could she ruin it by embarrassing me like this? Did I want one of those stupid pencils he drooled over? I snatched one with as tight and fake a smile as any mortal child could.
And then Pete, still a young man, looked at me. He smiled, too, and choked on, Thank you! Have a nice day. Laugh if you want, but a vain little miss saw God.
I was so angry, walking away looking over my shoulder at that monstrous man with his need and poverty bared to the world, unashamed. Scandalous. Heartbreaking.
I was angry more than anything because something wouldn't let me turn away. I kept looking even after Pete struggled to maneuver his cart out of the noontime sun. Something, some force wouldn't let me turn my back to him. Some voice whispered very quietly, in the voice a child's mind heeds, This is the truth about the world you will live in, vain little girl. I will never let you forget that in the midst of springtime and plate-glass windows full of pale lovely things, there's a primary feeling that will obliterate everything else.Pete was courage personified; he was, to me, a fitting knight of the Savior I would come to worship. But I was so angry that day for being introduced to God.
My friendship with Pete would grow through the years; memories of him in winter cold in front of Zayre's, when South Main Street would no longer have him, or at places that took him on consignment, were bitter and eternal.
Pete Chaivanik is an angel who left this Earth 25 years ago this July, on a broiling hot 1988 summer day. Fifty years older now, how I wish I could walk out of Boscov's Department Store as the kettle-guard rings the Christmas bell and meet again that visitor from heaven.