Published December 02. 2012 4:00AM
Place us side by side-or on opposite sides of the café counter, where you'd more likely find us-and we appear to have nothing in common.
He's a 65-year-old man, I'm a 29-year-old woman. He fought in Vietnam, I know a few Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans, mostly cousins, neighbors and friends of friends. He's retired, except for the odd job here and there for a friend, paid in haircuts or under the table. I started working for a living just a few years ago.
For both of us, these are the lean years. Trevor relies on Social Security checks to get by. When he takes the bus from his Groton neighborhood (he doesn't own a car) and walks through the door of the chain café where I occasionally don a black apron and plastic name tag, he and I both know whether he'll be frugal or carefree with his money. We need only look at the date.
If it's right after the first, he's just received his monthly stipend. He'll splurge on coffee, instead of hot water for the tea bags he brought in from home. He'll shuffle in front of the bake case in his tan Dockers, white tennis shoes and tucked-in, neatly pressed plaid, collared, button-down shirt and luxuriate in the selection. He'll almost always order the oreo brownie, and maybe a blueberry scone. He'll happily place a dollar bill in the tip jar, making sure I see him do it. Often, he'll leave a tip when the month is old and he's low on funds, despite my protests.
Last year I found out he was into astronomy, and I told him I write this column, which it turns out he read regularly but hadn't connected the name and face behind the counter to the name and face on the column. At that moment, we'd found common ground besides coffee grounds. I began bringing him my old Astronomy magazines and letting him borrow my DVDs from The Teaching Company, essentially an entire college astronomy course in 10 neat little boxes.
Trevor has more than a decade on my father, but he can be childlike in his demeanor. A typical night plays out like this: I'm scurrying about trying to serve customers and complete the overly populated closing task checklist meant for two people, and Trevor is trying to show me a picture in an astronomy book he found over in the science section, or ask me for my schedule, or repeat something he's told me a dozen times. Sometimes, there's too much going on and I lose patience.
He levels the playing field without even trying, though. His veneer of self-deprecation and bewilderment masks an astute brain. He still mentions my mistake in a column back in March, in which I wrote that Jupiter is four billion miles from Earth. (Pluto is only three billion, Trevor reminded me, so that can't be.) He knows about constellations, orbital periods and telescope slew rates. He asks me for the brand of my telescope and binoculars almost every time he comes in, usually after greeting me with a boisterous, "Hey, astronomer!" which he'll continue to do several times throughout the same evening, every time he passes by the counter.
At sunset, if it's not too cold, I can see him through the plate glass window, sitting outside lost in his thoughts, watching the sky change, looking for the first star of the night. He often suggests I haul my beast of a telescope or binoculars to the café when I'm working so we can observe together in the parking lot.
When Venus transited the sun in early June, I put in for the wrong evening off from the café. I decided to forgo a switch and go in anyway, since the building housing the café is on a hill with magnificent sunset views. I brought binoculars and a square of shade-14 welder's glass. It was slow, so I stood outside in my apron clutching my gear, and Trevor and I prepared for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But, of course, it was cloudy with no signs of clearing. Throughout the entire transit. Which wouldn't happen again until the year 2117. Trevor and I took turns standing vigil, watching for an unlikely break in the clouds. By some act of God, one came. We dashed outside and passed the gear around before the clouds could remember their pact with Murphy's Law. We called out to random passers-by and customers in the parking lot and made them come look through the binoculars and welder's glass.
There it was, something none of us would ever see again. Venus in daylight. A small black circle overlaid on the bright orb of the sun, like a mole on a face. For a few minutes, we all stood there-Trevor, me, Sandy the cashier, a cluster of customers and a few stragglers in the right place at the right time-connected by an astronomical event happening millions of miles away. Then the clouds returned, and the view disappeared for 105 years.