The Sweet Sound Of Hello From a Steady, Friendly Stranger

Whatever else he is remains a mystery, like most of that which comes to us unasked for and unasking. He was a stranger who greeted me upon first sight with great cordiality. I first heard his call at a five-way street corner in busy downtown El Paso: "Aren't you the lady who works for the refrigerator company?"

"No," I called back to the man with the pleasantly round face under a jaunty cap. He had observed me from the sidewalk as I crossed the street in one of its many directions.

"Oh, you do look like her," he said as he waved and smiled broadly.

Over the years, I have crossed this street countless times on my way to work, and his daily greeting of "Refrigerator lady!" has become ritualized. He calls out from as far away as he can see me, in a manner so original, various, and personal that I feel blessed by what is at once a salutation and a benediction.

But still I don't know what this man does. Is he a greeting master or a night watchman who patrols the buildings on the premises? He remains a mystery, inviting me to fill in the details from imagination.

His call, sometimes reduced to the one syllable "Fridge!" carried on the wind, now reaches my ears before I see where it comes from. When I do not at first hear it, others relay the message as if it were a letter being forwarded to an addressee.

One day traffic stopped while three different drivers motioned first to me and then to him: The caller was way up on a third-floor level that morning.

Now and then our city unexpectedly has an icy winter day, and in bad weather the greeting master is at his best. He springs into action, rushing to escort me by the elbow as I cross the fifth corner. I may slip and slide over the rest of the city, but I pass safely through his turf. He asks how I am and tells me to take care. Nothing more - or less.

For seven years, the Hello man has greeted me, in his different caps and outfits, yet with the same gusto and flair, from one of those five corners.

During this time, many other events and relationships have changed emphasis or ended - for me personally, for the city, the nation, and the world at large.

But whether the foreign trade balance shifts or there are threats of more nuclear waste being dumped in our countryside, the Hello man's greeting is the same dependable yet spontaneous ceremony. Somehow it captures personal meaning in an apparently depersonalized world. Somehow it makes my day right.

And even though I can't say much about the greeting master, I do know this for certain: He is someone who accepts me solely for myself, whether I am the lady who works for the refrigerator company or not, and asks nothing for himself in return - except that I hear his "hello." No absent friend, this man, he is a present stranger.

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