Paul Bernhardt passed away last night. He will be missed by so many. The heartfelt depth of that missing will be uncommon. He was a regular guy in a small town who made a gigantic impact on the town and the many, many people around him.
Years ago, when Steve Bouser was editor of the Salisbury Post, he wrote a column about Salisbury’s mostthis and mostthat. He listed Paul as Salisbury’s most compassionate man. He was. He spent the days of his life taking care of people, beginning with his wife and Paul Jr., and extending out to those with special needs anywhere and everywhere. If he saw a chance to make a difference in the life of a cat, a homeless guy, a friend, a neighborhood, or a city, he sprang into action. My mom was like that also. She and Paul were like two peas in a pod.
He was a southern gentleman, a master in the art of conversation, and I am richly blessed to have participated in many of them with him. He was a good Democrat who started veering to the right just a bit in the past few years. He was a former mayor who never stopped coming up with ideas that would benefit the city.
He liked to talk. He liked to listen. He liked to think. He enjoyed ideas. And he loved to reminiscence.
I visited him last night, in his hospital room, just a few hours before he passed away, just in time to wish him an easy exit from this life. His breathing was calm. He was comfortable and peaceful.
A few seconds passed, and the kindly Chinese gentleman in the shoe repair shop rose from his bench and meandered through the tiny, ultra-crowded shop.
He stood in front of me and waited.
I gave him one of my sandals and showed him the broken buckle and the worn out bottoms.
He answered quickly. Apparently, for him, it didn’t require a lot of thought.
“Broken. Need new pair.”
Being the kind of person who sometimes needs to hear things more than once, I asked again, just to make sure.
“You can’t fix these?” I asked.
He handed me the shoe.
“Broken. Need new pair,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said.
He returned to his bench, in order to continue working on a pair of shoes that apparently were worth his effort and skill.
I remember, as a child, visiting that shop, in the first block of East Innes Street, in downtown Salisbury — located sort of in the basement of a building on “the square.”
My father, or grandmother, sent me there a few times, in order to drop off or pick-up a pair of shoes.
Our family’s department store sold a lot of shoes, and I suppose we used that shop’s service for customers who bought high quality shoes that needed new soles.
Other than this pair of sandals, I pretty much wear tennis shoes all the time — and I wear them forever, until they are completely, 100% gone, before breaking down and buying a new pair — so I really can’t relate to getting shoes fixed.
But I wonder how long that shop has been there and who has owned it over the years. How long has this man been there? Has it changed owners many times? Is it a family business, passed down a couple of generations? Could that same man have been there last time I was there, when I was a kid? It doesn’t seem like the store has changed at all.
I’m sort of curious and don’t mind, usually, asking questions such as this. But I dare not ask this man. He’s busy, with broken shoes everywhere. His work is tedious and continuous. He doesn’t seem like the type of guy who would waste away his time shooting the bull in English with a guy like me.
That buckle broke about two weeks ago.
I knew it was a long shot.
I’m thinking I’ve had those sandals at least ten years. I remember getting an incredible deal. I think they cost $12. It was a mismatch. One was size ten, the other ten and a half.
I’ve worn them almost every day around the house, and often out of the house. I wore them to work, on teacher work days. I’ve worn them to bars. I’ve worn them in the mountains and on the beach. I’ve drenched them in ocean water and beach sand — and stepped in, and scraped off, and scrubbed off, dog poop. Several times.
I’ve looked around town at a few shoe stores already. In February, there aren’t many to be found. The ones I’ve seen, I don’t like. They don’t have tire treads on the bottoms. They don’t have good arch support. And they’ve got too many straps. They’ve got straps on the back, which may require sitting down or bending over in order to take them on or off. There’s just too much sandal on the sandals. And they’re way too expensive.
On the internet, I’ve seen sandals that look just like mine, but they’re over a hundred dollars!