The nice guy at the sandwich shop, where I've been eating lunch almost daily for three years now, died last Thursday. He was only 34.
I can hardly stop thinking about him.
In 2000, shortly after I had moved to Cleveland, I fell in love with Quizno's "Sierra Smoked Turkey" sandwich. It's tasty, it's low-fat, and best of all, I could run across the street and be back at my desk in a matter of minutes.
Charles, who owned the Euclid Avenue franchise, appreciated my loyalty. So much so that he and his employees memorized my predictable order. Quite often, he rewarded my patronage with a free soft drink or complimentary bag of chips. A few times, mostly on Fridays, my lunch would be free.
About six weeks ago, on a Monday, the store was unexpectedly closed at lunchtime. I tugged at the locked doors. Odd, I thought, but more so—irritating. Now where would I eat?
The next day, I asked Charles what had happened. "I haven't been feeling well," he said, as he put a bit of lettuce on my sandwich. "The doc tells me that I have an enlarged liver. I'm having an MRI this afternoon."
I knew enough to be worried about him, but what could I say with a line of hungry people forming behind me? "I'll be thinking about you, Charles," I said casually. "I'd appreciate that, Ben," he said.
It's the last time we spoke. And his restaurant has been closed ever since.
This afternoon, feeling pangs of hunger for a "regular Sierra, no onions," I walked several blocks down the street to another Quizno's location. A kind, familiar face greeted me from behind the counter. I remembered the young woman; she had previously worked at Charles' store. And she, too, remembered me.
"Did you hear that Chuck had passed?" she said. "He had liver cancer."
Her words confirmed my eerie suspicions. "That's really, really sad news," I said. We talked briefly and awkwardly, and then I took my sandwich and ate alone on a city park bench.
It's strange about relationships. In the midst of all the predictably special ones, there are hundreds whose significance we rarely honor. They are the faces we memorize, but the lives we do not know. At best, in time, we care enough to catch a first name.
Still, friendships can be constant, even if not deep. Just consider your favorite server at the diner, or the bartender at the corner pub, or the bank teller in the second window from the left, or the woman at the dry cleaners. Sometimes it's the friend of a friend, a relationship where circumstance keeps everything at surface-level. Too often, unfortunately, it's a good percentage of the folks we know—and really like—in our communities of worship.
In our UCC liturgy, there is a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have died by which we ask God to "keep us all in communion with your faithful people in every time and place." That's my prayer this day, as awkward as it sounds. I pray with gratitude for a friendly soul, if not an outright friend, on whose daily bread I came to rely.
God bless Charles, and God bless all the special people whose last names we will never know.