Blue Like Tony

I learned today that Tony died.

To be honest, I didn’t exactly remember his name, although it was printed on the employee tag that he’d always worn. But when the baby and I went to the grocery store, after dropping off my oldest at preschool, I saw a display set up, blocking check stand 13.

I stood off to the side for a minute, staring at the flower bouquets, the framed photographs, the cards and pieces of paper taped up, words scrawled across them. A lady was standing in front of it with her cart, staring at everything. I waited until she moved away.

As she left, our eyes met; hers had that grave look of solidarity that people get when something bad has happened, in the news. Can you believe it? Isn’t it terrible?

That’s when I realized: someone had died. As I got closer to the largest photograph, I thought Uh-oh…I hope that’s not who I think it is.

It was. It was the tall man with the gray hair and mustache and the paunchy belly, the one who always smiled at you and kept up a cheerful patter and joked with your boys, even when they gave him that silent, sober stare that toddlers are so good at. The man who remembered little things about you. The friendliest cashier that the grocery store had.

“Tony,” the placard said. I should have remembered that, I thought. I should have remembered his name. According to the notice, he had died suddenly.

My eyes filled. I stood there and read some of the cards left behind by customers.

They all said how kind Tony was, how friendly, how much he’d be missed. How they used to purposely choose his line, when he was working. One lady talked about how much Tony had “been there” for her while she was going through an adoption, and a divorce.

There was a book lying open on the top shelf of the display, where store customers could write thoughts about him. So far, forty pages had been filled.

The thing is, it’s not as though Tony was “living the dream,” on top of the world. He was a fifty-year-old grocery cashier. And he didn’t seem to be a naturally bubbly guy, one of those people who have energy and exuberance to spare. Lots of times, there seemed to be an effort behind his smiles, his banter. Not that he was sad, exactly – maybe just that he was tired, like all the rest of us, and that it wasn’t always the easiest thing in the world to come up with good cheer and kind greetings and one smile after another, for hours at a time.

But he always, always did it. I guess you could say he always put others first.

A few days earlier, I had finished reading Blue Like Jazz, by Don Miller. (Yes, I realize I’m late to the party, that almost everyone else in the world read that book years ago.)

Blue Like Jazz was Don Miller’s attempt to write out “non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality,” and it is a fairly brilliant little book, the one I’d want to read if I wasn’t a Christian. (And how many books on faith can you say that about?)

The catchy title of the book came from Miller’s idea that God is like jazz music (He doesn’t resolve) and so is Christian faith, which, in the end, cannot be written down or spelled out, but is something that is felt.

The thrust of the book, though, the thing that resonated so deeply with me and with so many others, is how important (and utterly unnatural) it is to die to self, to live for others. Miller writes: “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: Life is a story about me.”

We Christians talk about that a lot (we talk about a LOT of things a lot), but it’s often accompanied by a hint of martyrdom (look how much I died to self today), and it’s usually in the context of putting Christ first, or putting our “brothers and sisters in Christ” first. Not, you know, putting unbelievers first. Not the people who are totally screwed up.

Why oh why do we keep forgetting that we’re totally screwed up?

We send the message that people are only worth our time if we can get them interested in our faith, if we think there’s a good enough chance that they’ll come around to our beliefs.

What the freak is that? Who on earth is going to be drawn to that?

Don Miller doesn’t have all the answers, any more than anybody else does, and that’s kind of his point. His book is blunt, and honest, and so real you can feel the experiences he describes. He loves Jesus. He loves people – all people – for real. He tries to pour himself out for them.

St. Francis of Assisi put it this way: “Go out today and preach the gospel. And if you must, use words.”

I have no idea if Tony the cashier ever read Blue Like Jazz, but I can tell you that he lived it. He lived it every time he turned his mouth up into a smile, every time he offered up a personal greeting and some friendly chitchat. Every time another person (and another, and another) moved in front of him, and he behaved as though they were worthy of attention and respect.

Tony wasn’t trying to sell anything. His customers had already chosen their purchases, had already decided to pay. Cashiers are trained to greet you, but that’s about it. They don’t have to act like you’re important.

I’m not sure yet what it will look like, or what I’m capable of, but I really want to live more the way that Don Miller described in his book. Fully present in a flesh and blood world, caring for people, letting my faith manifest itself as a love that spills out every day, in every interaction. I want to be more Blue Like Jazz.

I want to be more like Tony.

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28 Responses to Blue Like Tony

  1. Lisa Brooks says:

    I think it would honor Tony if you printed this and left it at his memorial in Fred Meyers. Good job, girl. Choked me up this time.

    • I did so and took it by today, but they’d taken down his display…his memorial service was today, so I suspect they took everything to the church.

      However, a few days ago I wrote in his book, saying I was going to post about him and giving my web address. Maybe his loved ones will stop by here and read this.

  2. That’s a great idea, Larry.

    Excellent post, Cathy. Hit me a couple different ways — I need to be more cognizant of trying live like the model Miller outlines in Blue Like Jazz, and like Tony…… and it was also a reminder (to another 50 year old) of the temporary aspect of life , and how we need to make sure we don’t miss opportunities to make a difference.

  3. Awesome stuff, I am glad you hit us hard with realism. God Bless you Tony!

  4. Moe says:

    The sad thing is, that we need more Tony’s today in our world, in our communities; but we are too busy doing things that have some level of importance but are not the “most important”.

    Sometimes I feel like we are becoming less “human” and more “robotic” in the way which we behave.

    Thanks for this reminder

  5. Pingback: Tweets that mention Blue Like Tony | Windows and Paper Walls -- Topsy.com

  6. Laurel Lundberg says:

    Our Pastor talked about this very thing yesterday: living the Gospel, instead of just reading the bible and believing what it says. Acting it out is louder than shouting it.
    I find it interesting and sad, really, that the people who sometimes live it out the loudest aren’t even believers.
    I love this (can I add very well written?) tribute to man who was just an ordinary man, living an ordinary life with a seemingly extraordinary effort.

    That book just moved up on my ever growing reading list.

  7. Jeannie says:

    Very well written! Thank you for sharing this. I remember him. We were obviously in Freddie’s a lot back in the day pre-move. A very strong reminder of how we should be treating each other daily regardless of our mood and that life is in fact very short.

  8. Jason says:

    Wow….this is brilliantly written.

    I need to read Blue Like Jazz.

    • “Brilliantly written”? I can assure you, I will tuck those words in my pocket, so I can pull them out and look at them from time to time. Thank you.

      And yes, I think everybody should read that book.

      If you’re on Twitter, look me up! I couldn’t find it on your web site…

  9. auntbethany says:

    I want to be more like Tony, too! This post deserve to be Freshly Pressed. I happened upon your site through a Tweet of @LarryHehn. I’ll be following you on Twitter as well now! Kudos on a great post!

  10. Yvette says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you for writing it and bringing Tony to my attention. I wish I could be more like Tony too. I’m going to try. Going to take a look at that book you mentioned, too.

  11. Tony Alicea says:

    Beautiful, friend. Now go read “Searching For God Knows What”. I liked that even better.

  12. kelybreez says:

    It is one of the things I loathe about the church, and about myself… the tendency to love believers and unbelievers differently that you speak of… I want to love those who don’t follow Jesus as much as I love those who do. Perhaps more.

    I don’t know. I just wanna love like Jesus loved.

  13. Grant Huhn says:

    Extracting Self from self is nigh-impossible. It is also what all the books I’ve recently read have been about:

    The Four Agreements
    Siddartha
    The Perennial Philosophy
    The Enlightened Mind
    The Enlightened Heart
    The Power of Now

    The idea, and the importance, of extracting self becomes crystal clear in “The Perennial Philosophy”.

    Those books need to be read in that order.

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