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41 years later, David Stein’s small kindnesses stuck with me | COMMENTARY

He was older — a senior when I was a freshman. We must’ve known each other from the school bus, though I don’t recall sitting next to him. I see him easing down the aisle, backpack slung over his shoulder, ball cap on backward; neat and athletic.

David Stein and I became friends on the neighborhood basketball court. He was a better player than I. He also celebrated loudly — beaming — if I got past him for a layup.

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It was 1980 in Friendship Heights, where the shopping centers and high-rise apartment buildings of Chevy Chase begin, just over the D.C. line.

Sometimes he drove his father’s red, convertible Fiat, and we’d tool around Cleveland Park or Tenley. Sting was on the radio pleading with Roxanne, and, riding along, I felt older — closer, maybe, to being like David.

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Among friends my age, I hid my self-doubt behind different poses: a brooding hardhead one day, a mouthy wiseass or reckless showboat the next, corkscrewing my skateboard down the Jenifer Street garage, first to the bottom, then walking out of Paul’s Liquors with a pint of Seagram’s in my underwear.

David wasn’t pretending to be anything other than who he was: good-natured, sure-footed, easygoing. And with him I felt I could be myself.

Once I accompanied David to a doctor’s appointment where he got an allergy shot. The nurse was young and pretty, and the two of them bantered in a way that made me think she liked him. After she pressed a Band-Did on his arm, he flexed his tanned biceps, grinning.

Another time, he warned me about leaving my Reese’s candy wrapper in the car because his father would be pissed. It was hard to imagine David being unnerved by anyone, even his father, and I was sure that, whoever his father was, David Stein had long ago won his pride.

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At home, my father and I argued. A mathematician, he could be a hard, unforgiving man, especially around matters of learning. In our family, knowledge was the tacit currency by which you rose or fell. Real learning, he believed, should be accompanied by suffering. And I had not suffered, so I had not learned. Or vice versa.

That year, my family’s old and much-loved Irish setter died. During lunch in the school cafeteria, some classmates joked that the dog had been mashed up and put into the steak and cheese subs on the menu. Smelling blood, they kept on, asking how I like my dog meat, rare or medium. I laughed along with them, but it wasn’t funny. Ninth graders were jerks, including me sometimes.

On the basketball court I told David about the kids in the cafeteria. He listened, scowled — “A-holes” — and shot a smooth jumper.

Swish.

In his disgust he was, as usual, my ally.

Our games of basketball went on, along with occasional rides in his father’s car. The school year ended. Summer came and went. David left for college, and I never did see him again. Not surprising really, given our age difference.

The flame-colored basketball arcing off David’s fingertips, his father’s red Fiat, the chasm that opened between my father and me — all this happened 41 years ago.

But we don’t forget good people.

And David Stein’s kindness — which seemed like a small thing at the time — has stuck with me, carrying a warmth that radiates still.

Adam Schwartz (adamschwartzwriter.org) has taught high school in Baltimore for 23 years. His debut collection of stories, “The Rest of the World,” won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House 2020 prize for fiction.

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