The Evanston Fairy Tale: The Old Lady and the Shoemaker’s Son
During a gray day last fall, my doctor gave me the harsh news that I needed toe surgery.
So I was left to contemplate how I would be able to survive in my apartment, and off my feet, during my (long) two to three month convalescence. How does my dog Casper walk four times a day?
What does that have to do with the shoemaker’s son, you might ask. Well, the answer to this question is pretty much everything.
I have tried to avoid this surgery. My last chance was with Felipe Marin, who owns Mike’s Shoes on Central Street in Evanston. He’s worked at Mike’s for 40 years, and has been the owner for the last four.
I sat, waiting, in the shop while Felipe cut the front of my shoe to take pressure off my toes. I was grateful for his efforts, but it was clear to me that the solution would not work in the coming winter months. Felipe knew I would need something more too, and maybe that’s why, when I asked him if he knew someone I might use to help me if I had the surgery, he volunteered so willingly that his 21-year-old son could not only help me for a few months, but also live in my place. .
“Neo is a really sweet and wonderful person,” he said. “He works two days a week for me and won’t be back in school until September.”
“How do you know he wants to do that?” I asked. And what’s more, I said to myself, Why would I want to do that? A 21-year-old has been at my place for several months and I haven’t even met him?
Felipe arranged for me to meet Neo at the shop. However, the only person who did not ask him or tell him about this plan was Niu.
I entered the store, thinking Neo knew who I was.
Neo decides to play along with the joke he thought his father created.
He agreed without hesitation.
The amazing and lucky thing was that, even after knowing it was no joke, he agreed to take the job to help me.
Later, a few weeks into our experience, we talked about our concerns.
“I was worried that you might not like me and want to leave. Then what was I to do? Or what if I didn’t like you or if I didn’t like you being around me? What if I was a 21-year-old party guy?”
Niu was worried that he might be homesick. He is one of nine children, five of whom still live in the home.
“But I was ready to try something new,” he said. “And it seemed like I could do something good for you. Also, it mattered to my dad because he saw that I had a lot of ideas for things to do with my future but no real plans set.”
And, as with his generation, he Googled me.
“I saw a picture of you and Casper and some information about you made me think this experience would be good for me.”
The adventure began and the fears vanished. The elderly lady got her assistant. The young man got his focus.
And so the fairy tale began.
Neo had some of the usual tasks: walking the dog four times a day, cleaning the dishes, tidying up the rooms twice a week, going shopping, and riding in the wheelchair in good weather. He also got used to me needing him, and that gave him a position of responsibility even though he was much younger than the person he was responsible for.
Sometimes we ate meals together. That’s when our shared conversations took surprising lessons.
For example, you learned how much a 21-year-old eats. After a week of sharing food, he told me that what he ate was “just enough for his sustenance.” I was embarrassed. It had to change. I gave him extra money to buy his own food.
More serious talks followed. Niu asked me, “What do people your age think of people my age?”
He believed that people my age might portray him and his friends as superficial and lacking in commitment and substance.
I told him that people my age might think that younger people have no interest or belief that older people know what people his age are going through, so we are ignored.
I said, “Old people love when the little ones spend time with them.” He was surprised, but he believed it during the two months he was with me.
Then I asked him the same question: “What do people your age think of people my age?”
Perhaps his willingness to have dinner with some of my friends was part of what changed his perspective.
“I don’t have the opportunity to talk to the elders,” he said. “At dinner, your friends seemed to like me and listen to me.”
The question of advice has been raised more than once. More often than not, I wanted to give it a go. Sometimes he listened patiently and sometimes he tried to shut her down.
“I’m 21 years old, and I need to learn to make my own decisions,” he said.
“But the old people want to use their expertise to protect you from making mistakes,” I say.
“And this is where the young and the old differ,” he would reply.
Some of our topics were surprisingly revealing.
“People my age are worried that they won’t be able to get married, support a family and have a home,” he said.
It took me a while to realize that he sure didn’t understand what that meant for his future.
Our most interesting conversations were about friends and family. Niu asked if he could stay in the living room when I had visitors. I said of course. He asked how much work it takes to maintain friendships. I never thought of friendships that way.
Neo’s father has 13 siblings and his mother has 11. Most of them live in Chicago. Neo has 85 cousins.
Neo and his eight siblings eat dinner at his parents’ house every Sunday. Almost all of his social relationships come from the family. None of us know much about our ancestors. Neo explained that his grandmother, whom he only knew from a single photograph, was an indigenous Mexican. Furthermore, it will not check “Mexican” on whatever ethnic identity it fills in because Mexican is not a race. I told him it sounds as if people describe Jews as a race, which it isn’t. I cannot go back further than my grandmother in my family history.
For both of us, these backgrounds triggered a shared sense of confusion about our ancestors.
The role reversal happened unexpectedly. Neo was sitting through one of my physical therapy sessions when my physical therapist told me I slumped and wasn’t taking big enough steps when I was using the walker.
The next day, Neo commented, walking behind me, “You’re slack.”
“any thing else?”
“What do you think of your step width?”
“I think he’s fine.”
“Very small,” he said.
But role reversals happen in other unexpected ways, too. I’m getting better and Neo is leaving. It is the older lady who is testing her independence, not the younger man who is testing his own.
Separation is not so easy. One of the things that seniors know is that breaking up, even after only a couple of months and soon after, has its own defense mechanism, one of which is a little bit of an argument or disagreement.
This fairy tale ends the way all good fairy tales do. The old lady and the shoemaker’s son did it. They lived with each other. They had a great time together. I got her help. He became a more confident young man. And they showed each other a clearer view of the path leading to eternal happiness.