June 3, 2011

Death of a Desk: A Craigslist Connection of the Heart

Furniture – by owner: Desk Available

FREE to good home – one large office desk (walnut finish), which is in good condition except for two broken handles for the drawers.

Perhaps not the most poetic description I’ve ever written, yet I hoped that this short introduction would lead my beloved old desk to a new home. In the process of remodeling our home, Heather & I realized that there really was no longer a place to keep this icon of thinly-veiled particle board, and, with her usual immaculate taste, Heather had already picked out a stunning replacement made from reclaimed Indonesian rainforest wood.

I had a very special relationship with this desk – in a way I gave birth to it, assembling it myself with varying degrees of attention to the included instructions. A testament to my do-it-yourself prowess, nobody would ever mistake my craftsmanship for that of a professional – clear evidence that I should indeed keep my day job as a kirtanwallah.

Strange as it may seem in this day and age, offering this desk was only my second foray into the world of Craigslist. My first one felt like kind of a disaster – we offered our old fireplace insert FREE, and in a matter of just a few hours I found myself buried under over 60 replies. Most of these were from scrap metal hounds, and I knew that I really wanted to give it to someone who could use it for its intended purpose. So I sifted through the myriad e-mails, called a few folks, and was able to find someone living in the Oregon Cascades for whom it was truly a perfect fit.

So I was more than a little surprised when I checked my e-mail a few hours later and had not received even one inquiry about the desk. I wondered if maybe I had not described it in sufficiently glowing terms, or if the photo I posted wasn’t showing the desk’s most flattering angle.

Returning to my computer a few hours later, however, I was pleased to find the following succinct e-mail in my inbox:

I am interested in your desk, when possible call me at your earliest convenience, 503-xxx-xxxx, Ioan, Thanks.”

I quickly got on the phone and was greeted by a deep and pleasant voice with a thick and melodious eastern European accent.

“Hello, this is Ioan.”

“Oh, hi, Ioan! This is Benjy, the guy with the desk on Craigslist.  Are you still interested/”

“Oh, yes, this desk is going to be perfect for my daughter. My wife and I, we come to pick it up, OK? Where you live?”

“We’re in southwest Portland. Where are you coming from?”

From there we made arrangements for him to come a considerable distance to our home, but I still had one lingering concern.

“How big is your car? This desk is really huge, you know.”

“Oh, no problem! We have big SUV, we come and pick it up.”

“Great! See you soon.”

When Ioan and his wife arrived, we tried every conceivable angle of approach, but it eventually became clear that this desk was NOT going to fit in his Isuzu. They had come all this way – clearly smitten with the desk – and now it looked as if their daughter might wind up with a different desk after all.

And we had been wrestling with my problem-child desk in the midst of one of the rainiest nights in the rainiest March on record in Oregon.

That’s rainy.

But …

I decided that it would be worth the trouble to load the desk into our tour van and take the forty-minute drive to their house. So Ioan and I managed to slide the overweight veneered behemoth back into my garage (did I mention that it was raining?), back my van up to the door, and load the desk into the van.

After a zigzag tour from the extreme southwest of Portland to the hills and hinterlands of its northern suburbs, we arrived at Ioan’s house just as the rain was mercifully letting up for a moment. We smiled at each other as we walked up to the front door of his palatial home. I quietly wondered to myself why someone who had the means to have a house like this was looking on Craigslist for a desk such as mine.

Shortly after walking in the front door, I glanced at the interior doorways of the house and the tight turn at the bottom of the stairs we had to ascend to get to his daughter’s room.

Something wasn’t right.

Since the inception of my home remodeling project, I had been in the habit of carrying a tape measure with me everywhere. I decided to see if the desk would make the turn and, more importantly, if it could get through the narrow doorway to his daughter’s room.

A cursory measurement confirmed my fears. Ioan’s persistent smile faded as it became clear that this desk was never going to make it into his daughter’s room.

But just for a moment.

“It’s OK. I take this desk into my room. This desk, it’s a very nice desk, you know? You look my house … I have nice house, I don’t put junk in my house, you know what I mean?”

“I’m glad you like the desk so much, Ioan! Let’s do it.”

After verifying that the desk would indeed fit through the door to his bedroom, we went back to the van to retrieve the desk just as the rain started up yet again.

Grunting, wheezing, and stumbling, we made our way up his front walkway with the desk and up the stairs to his porch. As we got to his front door, it seemed that we would have to angle the desk in – just so – to make it into the entryway. So we twisted and turned … and watched helplessly in horror as three of the drawers of the desk fell over the edge of the porch, shattering on the cement below.

We stared at each other in disbelief.

“Don’t know what to do. No way I can fix this desk now. It is ruined.”

As I heard his words, I’ll admit, I was feeling more than a little frustrated. A less-than-skillful-or-diplomatic part of my psyche was providing me with a long list of barbed responses that, thankfully, never passed my lips.

As if to punctuate the dying gasps of what remained of my desk, the rain started to pelt us with increasing intensity.

“So sorry. I feel so stupid – this desk, ruined …” Ioan’s voice trailed off into the wash of wind and rain.

“I must invite you in my house … you like coffee?”

I am a very dedicated devotee of the bean – make no mistake. Especially after spending hours hauling a now-deceased desk all over the Portland metro area.

“Uh, sure, Ioan. Thanks.”

“My wife, she makes really good coffee. Come in, let’s talk, you get dry, huh?”

“Sounds great.”

We walked back inside, and Ioan introduced me to his mother-in-law, who had an extraordinarily bright presence, and told me much through her eyes even though she spoke not a word of English. I also got to meet his two young boys, one of whom was a cheerful toddler (wearing only a superhero T-shirt and diapers) who beamed when I commented on how much he resembled the mythic icon that adorned his chest. The older, more serious child didn’t really seem to know quite what to make of me. From what I could tell, his reticence was rooted in disbelief; his view of the world didn’t easily incorporate men who were actually larger than his father.

The four adults sat around the dining room table as coffee was served. After my prior experiences with Bosnian coffee, I expected a rich dark Turkish brew, but it seemed that the modern Transylvanian equivalent was more akin to Nescafe with non-dairy creamer and an extraordinarily generous helping of sugar.

Slowly Ioan’s story began to emerge.

“You know, I used to have great business … I was car wholesaler … now, with the economy … well, I haven’t been able to pay my mortgage for three months.”

For the first time, Ioan’s wife Cosmina chimed in. “I was working in a medical office as a receptionist. Now that job too is gone. I’ve been looking for months, but there is no work for me.” She stared down at her coffee, swirling creamer into her cup in tiny spirals.

Ioan’s mother-in-law looked on sadly, adding a great deal to our conversation without saying a word.

“This is nice house, don’t you think?” Ioan continued.

“Yes, it’s wonderful … a great location, too …” I replied.

“Probably we lose this place, you know.”

Cosmina focused even more intently on the swirling patterns of creamer in her cup in the deafening silence.

“So what kind of work you do?” Ioan asked.

I went into the best description of kirtan that I could, given that it seemed so far removed from the experience of anyone in Ioan’s family.

As I spoke of having toured around the world for eight or nine months a year for the past decade, Ioan shook his head in disbelief: “So you make a living this way?”

“Well, it’s up and down, but yes, it’s what I do. I feel so lucky that I have the opportunity to follow this path.”

Ioan’s countenance brightened visibly and he asked where he could hear my music. I told him about our website, and, feeling suddenly inspired, I went on, “Ioan, I’d like to invite you and anyone in your family who wants to come to our kirtan downtown this weekend – as our guests.”

“Thank you – we will come if we can. It sounds wonderful. But for now, I know you are busy and need to get home. I help you put desk back in your car, OK?”

“OK, it looks like the rain is letting up for a moment … let’s do it!”

So we went back out and managed to load the remains of the desk into my van, not talking much, just grunting and groaning and figuring out how to maneuver this overweight hulk of particleboard into the vehicle.

We succeeded in our task, and I went back inside to say my farewells to Ioan’s family.  Both of Ioan’s sons gave me hugs, while Cosmina shyly shook my hand. Cosmina’s mother smiled at me from across the room, then returned to the task of mending her grandson’s clothes.

Ioan and I walked onto his front porch, and, unexpectedly, he put his arm around my shoulder.

“I’m so sorry about the desk,” he said. “So stupid …”

Wordlessly the two of us looked out from his porch, listening to the rain and the improbable call of a bird that had not yet gone to rest for the night.

“You know,” he went on, “we come into this world naked, and with nothing. We leave the same way.”

I nodded in agreement, looking out into the rainy darkness.

Almost as a sigh, he continued, “And all that happens in between is a gift from God. What we do with this gift … it is up to us.”

I looked over at Ioan. His face was open, childlike and serene as he looked upward, and I couldn’t tell in that moment whether it was rain or tears that streaked down his face.

“I couldn’t agree more, Ioan.”

We stood in silence a few moments more as the rain began to abate, looking outward at the sparkling fog of our breath, illuminated by his porchlight even as the misty rain droplets absorbed our prana into the fullness of the dark beyond.

“It was so generous of you to give me that desk, and to go out of your way like this to help me and my family – I’m sorry … such a nice desk … so stupid …”

“Please don’t worry, Ioan. These things happen. I loved meeting you and your family, and really hope to see you this weekend at our kirtan.”

“Thank you, my friend.”

With that, Ioan reached his other arm around me in a warm hug, whispering, “Thank you.”

With that, we parted and I made my way to my van. I turned to wave goodbye one last time, but he couldn’t see me in the dark. I started my van and could still see his silent silhouette in my mirrors as I started home.

During the long drive back, I reflected on all that had just happened, and felt wave after wave of gratitude washing over me. I had been given the most precious of gifts – connecting deeply (and unexpectedly) with another human being, another soul – when all I had expected to do was get rid of a desk.

And, I realized, I could have chosen to see the whole thing as some kind of disaster, or at least a waste of time. Yet Grace had afforded me enough patience through the process to allow the gift to reveal itself.

I decided that I wanted to reach out to Ioan one more time. When I returned home, I sent the following e-mail:

Hello Ioan,

Although things did not work out as we might both have wished today, I do want you to know that it was a great pleasure to meet you and your family!

May you be blessed with rich abundance – and soon!

Please know that you are in our hearts and prayers … bless you!


Less than an hour later, I returned to my computer to find this message in my inbox:

Hey, we are thinking the same as you guys, I already did go to your site, and we listen the music, it is awesome, God bless you, and do not worry about anything, we are in God hands, and he says birds have nests, and animals have caves, how about my sons, they will have always roof above their heads and food on the table, and bad time and good times come and go, and we will talk in 50 years from today and we will laugh, about what was going on those days, let’s hope, we can make it next saturday and listen live your beautiful music, Thanks a lot for your good intention, and imagine we have the desk already and we are so happy, and everything is wonderful. God bless you again!

Thanks, was a pleasure to listen to your music.

At the end of our kirtan that weekend, Ioan and Cosmina walked up to the stage. Once again, Cosmina offered me a demure handshake.

Ioan came up and hugged me unreservedly. “That was beautiful, really beautiful. Thank you so much for inviting us.”

As he opened up his arms and stepped away, I saw the reflection of water droplets on his cheek.

But this time it wasn’t raining.

Note: I changed peoples’ names in the article to protect their privacy. I chose the name Ioan throughout the article for the husband and father. The Romanian name Ioan is derived from the Greek Ioannes, which means “God is gracious.” I chose the pseudonym “Cosmina” for his wife, the feminine form of the Romanian word “Cosmin,” which means “order” and “beauty.”

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