Grandpa asked me for a favor today. He has a hard time asking for anything, never mind help, and he probably deliberated for the whole time I was there at his house, from 11:30AM until I was getting ready to leave, at 2:50PM in the afternoon.
I’m sitting at the table and reading Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End, a tragicomedy about work that I wish I’d written, when grandpa turns the TV volume down.
“When are you leaving?” he asks.
I look up, keeping my finger on a funny passage. He’s asked me that before, but only when I told him ahead of time that I had to leave early for an appointment. But he’s already taken his afternoon nap and as far as I know, he doesn’t really have anything else on his agenda aside from my aunt coming over for dinner.
I glance at the clock, “At 3PM?” I say, implying with my upward intonation that departure time is flexible.
He nods, then turns back to the TV. He doesn’t turn the volume back up and I can tell something is on his mind.
“…Do you want me to stay longer?”
He looks at me and speaks slowly, “I was thinking… maybe you could take me to the bank.”
I close the book and give him one of my “Don’t be ridiculous I can’t believe you didn’t tell me sooner of course it’s not a problem,” looks and said, “Sure!”
“It’s not too late?”
“Grandpa, I don’t have anything else to do.”
He gets up and turns the TV off, “Great,” he said, “But will you wait a moment, I have to fill some things out before we go.”
Grandpa is eighty-seven and he walks pretty slowly, even slower since grandma passed away. He used to complain about her being slow, but I think if he now raced with her memory, they’d tie. But he disappears into his room and emerges less than five minutes later, changed into a crisp light pink button down and a different belt. In his hand he holds a yellow slip of paper, a deposit/withdrawal slip. He feels bad, I can tell, about waiting so long to ask me and thus changed with lightning speed.
“You have everything you need?” I ask, gathering my things.
“Just this,” he says, holding up the paper, “I just need to take out some money.”
Grandpa gets less than $800 per month from Social Security, which is about what I spend at Trader Joe’s and various fine dining establishments, movies and on Amazon each month (if my father is reading this, he is crying), but for grandpa, who basically just pays for gas, water and electricity because various family members bring groceries and necessities over or take him out to eat pretty much every day, it’s a king’s ransom. I bought him a bottle of Head and Shoulders about five years ago and last I checked, he’s still using it, along with the razors, soap and detergent my aunts and uncles supply him with, also around five or six years ago. It’s not that he doesn’t shower or shave or launder his clothes regularly, he just doesn’t buy into the amounts the labels advise you to use. And grandpa doesn’t smell bad, so no one really thinks anything of it.
He’s not a hoarder, though grandma was, something she unfortunately passed onto my mother – and if there is such thing as an upside to your partner of sixty-eight years passing away, it’s that you can finally have the empty fridge and cabinets you’ve always wanted. He hates clutter and really dislikes when we buy him anything he doesn’t need, which is anything, and he more or less eats like a bird so that goes for foodstuffs too. When grandma was alive, it exasperated him to no end that the fridge was always stocked to the point of exploding – she hoarded things that she made, vegetables that we brought her, meats, fish and frozen buns. Whatever she feared would go bad would be crammed into the freezer and it was a common occurrence to open grandma’s fridge and have something fall on your toes. If she had one of those heavy duty restaurant fridges she probably could have filled it up too, in less than a week.
But now grandpa has an old bachelor’s fridge, filled just with a few bottles of prune juice, a plastic tupperware of pickled radish, a jar of peanut butter (which I recently bought basically for myself, when I visit), eggs, and two jars of homemade hot sauce, which are also slowly but surely being consumed by me, because grandpa doesn’t do spicy. It’s weird, opening up that fridge and being able to see the clear plastic shelving when before, it was a puzzle only grandma could decipher. Before, it was unquestionably “Grandma’s fridge” and now, the stark, barren brightness and unappetizing innards are undeniably, “Grandpa’s.” Though if you ask him, he doesn’t need any of it. He just wants his frozen buns and a good, sweet coffee.
And the occasional trip to the bank, apparently, to get cash that he has very little opportunity to spend except on us, in the form of generous red envelopes for birthdays, babies, weddings, new houses, new jobs, etc., which in our family have all been happening quite often.
“I go to the bank about once a month,” he says as we get into the car. I’ve taken him before, but I guess it occurred to him that he’d like to go today.
It’s a large Chinese bank where basically our entire family has opened accounts, so the tellers, whose kids we grew up with, know grandpa and call him, endearingly, “Leu Bo Bo,” Bo Bo meaning someone who’s older than your dad and more familiar than just some random old dude on the street. I drive up to the bank and he clucks at the number of cars in the parking lot.
“So many people today,” he says, but I find a spot pretty close and park.
“Why don’t you stay in the car,” he says, almost apologetically.
“Grandpa, it’s 80 degrees. I’ll just go inside with you.”
“Are you sure? I’ll only be a minute.”
“It’s 80 degrees.”
I hold the door open for him and he waves and smiles at me like I’m a security guard who works the door, then I look behind me and realize he was waving and smiling to the security guard who works the door. There’s a long line, something grandpa didn’t expect and I know he’s feeling worse about “dragging” me to the bank, but honestly, I don’t care and don’t know how to tell him that “Dude, it’s totally fine. I seriously have nothing better to do.“
He sighs and we get in line.
The bank is brightly lit, with dark wooden counters for the tellers lining one side and glass offices for the loan officers on the other. There are desks outside the glass offices too, with computer monitors positioned so that the people sitting outside the offices (mostly younger women) could never surf Facebook or read the New York Times because the people in the offices could see pretty much everything going on in the screens.
That sucks, I think. But then there was a steady stream of friendly customers along with a substantial but not overwhelming number of phone calls that come in during the time we are there, and I think, this is a nice work environment. The tellers smile and chat amongst each other, and three out of every four clients seem to know the tellers well.
The tellers work pretty quickly and the line moves forward, but not enough for grandpa.
“Next time, I know not to come on a Monday,” he says, “Everyone does their banking on Mondays.”
“It’s really not bad,” I say, thinking about the Bank of America I use back home that for some reason only has one teller ever. The patrons of this bank is mostly Chinese, who I think are much better at waiting in line than white people. Except Grandpa.
“So many people,” he says again.
I notice that the bank slip he’s holding is a different color from the white ones at the bank.
“Why is yours yellow?”
He laughs and cups his hand over his mouth, a gesture he employs when he’s about to divulge an “embarrassing” secret.
“I took a bunch home with me a long time ago and I still haven’t gone through my stack. They’ve changed the paper to white but I still have to use these yellow ones!”
We share a good chuckle and suddenly, it’s his turn.
“Sorry for the long wait, Mr. Leu,” says the teller, a middle aged man with wire rimmed glasses and a shiny bald head.
“It’s Monday,” Grandpa says, as though he knows how these things are.
“Yes,” the man says, “Mondays.”
I’m not sure if he’s trying to humor grandpa or if Mondays are busy days for banks, or if it’s not a question worth asking, but grandpa is just happy to be helped and less than two minutes later he’s got some bills in hand and is ready to leave, all smiles.
He shuffles towards the door and waves to a teller in the back. I recognize her too, she has a tall son named Andy whom I used to attend Chinese school with. A few months ago Facebook told me he was married and now seeing his mom at the bank, where my parents met her some twenty years ago, makes me think both how much and how little has changed.
“Leu Bo Bo!” she says, “I’m so sorry for the wait. I would have helped you personally but I was stuck with a client.”
Grandpa laughs and waves away her concerns, “You have your work, you have your work,” he says, though I can tell he’s pleased by the treatment he’s getting.
She sees me and smiles, “Good to see you too, Betty. Are you your grandfather’s driver today?”
I smile and nod, “Yes I am. Yes I am.” I hold the door open for grandpa, and motion for him to go through first. Chauffeur, doorman, the whole nine yards.
Grandpa grins sheepishly as he waves goodbye to Andy’s mom. But he’s proud. Everyone else at the bank drove themselves.