When I was reaching for a cup of coffee at a gas station food mart the other day, a portly man sauntered by. My first impression was of bulldog jowls. A thick neck. Thinning hair. Pale skin. I was mightily unimpressed. Then, as I began to add milk to my cup, a series of sounds bypassed my ears, diverted my attention, and dove straight into my heart.
“Fairy tales can come true it can happen to you
If you’re young at heart”
He, this barely noticeable and noticeably undistinguished individual, was singing. His voice was clear, clean, and unapologetic. Loud enough for everyone to hear, but non-intrusive. As if both the man and the song were integral to the store. Like a cash register. Like a coffee machine.
“For it’s hard you will find to be narrow of mind
If you’re young at heart”
He walked toward the counter, moving gracefully and confidently. Like a character about to engage in a jaunty duet with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. But instead of looking like a dancer in an old Hollywood musical, he looked like an unsuccessful salesman or a tax accountant. His face was hopeless, but his song had its fingers poised tenderly over the strong and fervent pulse of hope.
“You can go to extremes with impossible schemes
You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams”
The first time I heard Young at Heart was in the movie of the same name. It starred an attractively cynical Frank Sinatra and an ardently innocent Doris Day. The song itself, written by Carolyn Leight and Johnny Richards, was the true star of the movie, though, and I had always loved it. So, apparently, had the man in the food mart.
“And life gets more exciting with each passing day
And love is either in your heart or on its way.”
His face, still not handsome, seemed somehow less ugly as he sang. Each syllable, so lucidly and lovingly pronounced. Each lyric, so smoothly and eloquently integrated into the next that it became difficult to separate the words from the man.
“Don’t you know that it’s worth every treasure on earth
To be young at heart”
He reached into his pocket to take out some bills. The lady behind the counter did not react to his singing. Nor did the other people in the store. But we were all listening.
“For as rich as you are it’s much better by far
To be young at heart.”
I began to wonder. About books and book covers. About how often I had been warned not to judge one by the other. About this man’s book cover: So bland. So pedestrian. So dreary. But how the song that he was singing projected the exact opposite: Quiet daring. Promise. The fervent determination to achieve a dream. To reach for a star. To be happy.
“And if you should survive to a hundred and five
Look at all you’ll derive out of being alive.”
Who was he? What had he done? Who had he been? Was he the same man today as he had been yesterday, or had something soul-stirring epiphany motivated him to seize the reigns of change? Scenarios ran through my head. He had been a priest. He had fallen in love with a parishioner. For years, he had repressed his passion. Today…within minutes of leaving the food mart, he would meet his beloved and they would run off to start a new life together. He had been a pharmacist. His father had been a pharmacist. He had always wanted to be an actor. His greatest dream had been to someday play King Lear upon the stage. That very morning, he had sold the pharmacy to his partner, and tomorrow, he would be driving to New York City to seek success on Broadway. He had been in prison. He had been in a terrible marriage. He had been victimized for years by a demonic boss. He this. He that. In every situation, he had been unhappy. This morning, he was breaking free.
“And here is the best part, you had a head start
If you are among the very young at heart.”
An ordinary-looking but extraordinary man came into a food mart. He sang. His voice was low, pleasant, and articulate. His words filtered gently into the hearts and minds of each individual in that store. He reminded us of a lovely dream. A lovely hope. A lovely song.
May he find his princess. May he play Hamlet upon the stage. May he live happily ever after.
I wish him well.