It All Starts on the Back of a Napkin

Gratitude is free. Giving takes effort. But sometimes, a napkin is all you need.

If my grandmother were alive, I would call to tell her I got pizza delivered today. Half pepperoni, well done. She would be proud.  

The pizza was not for me, though, but for my friend Joanne, until recently solely referred to as Rick&Joanne.  

I met Rick&Joanne almost three years ago at our favorite neighborhood sports bar.  My husband, silent, staring aimlessly at the bottom of a Coors Light bottle, a mix of panic, doom, and remorse permeating the buffalo wings and air around him.  I, on the other hand, chipper as per usual, sipping on dive bar Pinot Grigio and focused on the football game blaring on TV.

From across the bar, a heavy Queens accent called over to me, “Hey Kid, what’s wrong with him?”  I looked up and saw Rick&Joanne for the first time, an elegant silver haired couple, bomber jacket for him, red silk kimono for her, both with twinklers for eyes and radiant beams for smiles.  “Ah,” I said, eager to commiserate, “we just bought our first house, everything is breaking, and the contractors just delivered their estimate, which is over our budget.”  

I vainly expected sympathy.

Instead, I got vodka and a napkin.  

A few moments later, Rick&Joanne sent me a cocktail, proceeding to fill the air with boisterous laughter and hoots of excitement as they reminisced over decades of vintage homeownership tribulations. At some point, practically all their ardent fans had joined in one or another of the stories, the bar reverberating with genuine humanity.  

Before long, Rick&Joanne slid over another cocktail, this time in the form of a cocktail napkin, hollered over to the bartender, Joe, for a pen, and insisted I write down my name and number.  This could become creepy, I thought, but their one-two combo had filled me with a familial warmth.  Or maybe that was just the vodka.

What did I have to lose, I mused, glancing over at my still brooding husband.  I scribbled my number on the napkin and slid it back over, old school style, with a round of drinks for Rick&Joanne in thanks for ours.

The next morning, I received a text telling me to come to an address not far away from our said new, vintage home.  Utterly intrigued, I told my husband to lace up for a quick run.  Pitter patter, pitter patter, we went under a crisp November sky, the steam steadily billowing out of our mouths until at last we arrived and bewilderment took our breath away.

Standing a quarter of a mile down the driveway in front of a megamansion castle stood Rick&Joanne, arms in the air, smiles plastered on their face.  “You made it!” they exclaimed in unison.  We did, but to and for what we still did not know.

Rick sauntered over, today in a vintage FDNY jacket, slung his arm around my husband, pierced him with his baby blues, and said, “Kid, what do you need to fix up your first home? Let us help you.”  

We stood there, dumbfounded and, quite frankly, looking for the ‘catch,’ until Rick&Joanne told us to close our gaping jaws and get to work, dropping a power drill in my husband's hand and sledge hammer in mine.  We had never held these tools, my husband and I, and definitely had no idea how to use them, or let alone, where.

Nonetheless, Rick&Joanne began to tour us through this newly renovated megamansion which, the very next morning, was to be torn down, entirely demolished into rubble and headed to the dump, simultaneously educating us in Construction & Demo 101 alla Rodney Dangerfield along the way.

Turns out, the owner of the joint was an intimate friend from Vietnam, and upon hearing our woes at the bar, Rick&Joanne asked if they could gift some of the soon-to-be debris to us. Brand new Miele washer and dryer, twenty solid wood doors, and refrigerator bigger than our entire house, decades old trees, a diving board, carrera countertops, you name it. All offered to as a gift for no other reason than that thin little cocktail napkin.

Perplexed and pulsing with adrenaline, we went to work.  “Just do,” they told us. And do we did.

Hours later, now all covered in dust, dirt, and grime, Rick&Joanne poured coffee&cognac into small styrofoam cups, those same cups they use after Church to accompany the donuts, evoking a spiritual conviviality, one that was more potent than the power tools we had just learned to use. Our collective laughter carried into the sunset, with their truck, now loaded up with tens of thousands dollars of supplies for our dream home, sheepishly parked in the background.

The day’s work may have been done, but the day’s purpose was just beginning.

Rick&Joanne are modest people, from modest backgrounds, with modest means.  Yet, they are extraordinary when it comes to being present, unabashed when it comes being generous.  They remind those around them that when you are truly there, listening, sharing, caring, you can, and should, wholeheartedly give.  

Gratitude is easy. Giving takes effort.

Rick&Joanne are grateful not for gratitude’s sake but for life’s sake.  Generous not for their conscience but as their purpose.  That ubiquitous, thin, 3”x3” square that they sent over was not just a piece of tissue but instead an invitation, a reminder to not be grateful, but to take the time and energy to actually give to others, whether with appliances, vodka, doors, laughter, or pizza.

To our utter dismay, Rick suddenly passed away last week. Between the bagpipes and tears, I wondered how many of the other friendships surrounding us at the funeral had started with a cocktail napkin.  Knowing Rick, I am willing to bet almost all.

Thankfully, though, Rick&Joanne are now not just part of our life; they are quite literally part of our home, a permanent fixture reminding us to put in the effort it takes to give.