By Steve Flores
I think of Mr. Right every Christmas Eve. He was the father of five very well-behaved young children whose ages I would guess to be between 4 and 10. Mr. Right isn't his true name, but I give this very real man this name out of respect for what I believe should be right and good in all people.
In my early teens and during the mid-1960s, I worked at Handy Spot Market, our neighborhood's local corner store in southeast Bakersfield.
I have long since moved from our small Watts Drive home, but as I remember it, there was a particular type of rumbustiousness to our southeast neighborhood. Long before Neighborhood Watch, a rite of passage for most young men was to walk alone to Handy Spot Market at night. Your mission was to make it to and from the store with all the items you bought. You developed a protective street swagger you hoped worked as a defensive shield from our neighborhood's more domineering personalities.
Because I worked at Handy Spot, I came to know many families, not just from my street, but entire neighborhoods within about a half-mile radius of the corner store.
Mr. Right was a quiet man, an anomaly for our somewhat boisterous neighborhood. He was unlike some of our customers whose gregarious personalities may have been shaped by high unemployment, community crime and a yearning for equal opportunities.
There was never a "How is your day going?" or "What do you think of those Raiders?" from Mr. Right. He came in, picked out his groceries and said in a soft Clint Eastwood-style voice, "Please ... thank you very much" and left the store. He was tall, slender and although his clothes were well aged and worn, they were always clean and somehow showed the characteristics of a hard-working and honest man.
His young children mirrored his demeanor and style. They often walked into Handy Spot holding hands with a note for groceries from their dad. They never seemed dressed for play, and were always proper and well mannered. I never knew if there was a Mrs. Right.
Like clockwork, all four years I worked at Handy Spot, Mr. Right would walk in on Christmas Eve right before closing time. He walked straight to a four-tiered wire circular display rack.
It was stocked with toys selling for 25 cents each. Each one was wrapped in its own see-through plastic wrap. A green toy soldier squatting in combat position, jumping jacks, a spinning top, and a red fireman's whistle, all made of plastic and just a grade above what you might find as a prize in a Cracker Jack box.
Mr. Right would pick out five toys and bring them to the counter. Like it was yesterday, I can still hear his words. He looked me straight in the eyes. This proud man straightened his back and said with a sorrow and heaviness I can still feel today, "I guess I should get something for my kids."
Stevie Wonder said it best for my siblings and I would suspect many children in our neighborhood in his "I Wish" song: "Then my only worry was for Christmas what would be my toy. Even though we sometimes would not get a thing, we were happy with the joy the day would bring."
Christmas accentuates many emotions and feelings for me. Some sorrow. Some joy. Sorrow at missing those loved ones now gone. And wishing that I could somehow see my deceased mom and dad back with us for just one day to hold and embrace their grandchildren around our Christmas tree.
Joy in the enormous pride I have in my large loving and extended family whose blessings and blemishes are uniquely ours and whose mantra has quietly become, "Tomorrow is promised to no one."
I don't know whatever happened to Mr. Right and his children. I regret he doesn't know he gave me a life-long present on Christmas Eve many years ago: No matter the circumstances, humility, dignity and self-respect are imperative to how we treat each other, ourselves and how we choose to raise our children and serve our community.
Thank you Mr. Right. You were a real blessing for me. Merry Christmas from my family to yours.
-- Steve Flores is a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are his opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.