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Know thy neighbor

Published: Monday, July 7, 2014 11:32 a.m. CST

I have a regret. I’ve always been told not to dwell on regrets, but if I don’t learn from them, then it’s a waste of an emotion. Like many regrets, it began at a bar. Thankfully for me, this regret does not involve a night of debauchery but a missed opportunity.

I was at UpDown in Des Moines. For those of you unfamiliar, this is a place where millennials and generation X’ers such as myself can go to relive our childhood. The place is filled with arcade-style video games, TVs playing movies from the early 1990s and projectors turn the walls into giant Nintendo 64 Mario Kart tournaments. It’s a bit of a nerd fantasy.

I was at the token machine preparing for a round of Simpson’s Arcade when I made eye contact with a young man. He appeared a bit nervous and perhaps socially awkward. I said hello, and he replied with the same pleasantry in a thick sub-Saharan accent. He was by himself, and following our exchange, he quickly walked away.

Later that evening, my friends and I needed a reprieve from the thumb crunching arcade games, so we retreated to the retro-80s plaid sofa in the corner which doubled as a Super Mario Bros. gaming station.

As we played on the console television, I noticed the man was sitting in a chair next to us, staring outward into the sea of bar patrons. We made eye contact a few more times, and a look of hesitant eagerness came into his eyes. He was still alone. A bar employee came up to the man, pat him on the shoulder and asked if he was OK. He replied simply, “yes,” and the bar associate moved on.

As he sat there I kept repeating in my mind, “Invite him to play, Mike. He looks like he’d enjoy the company.”

I wanted to hand him the controller, but I lost my opportunity as he walked away, and we didn’t see him the rest of the night. Maybe it was the journalist in me, but after he’d gone I wondered who he was and what was his story. Or it could have been my regret for not extending a hand.

I thought of the man again this weekend while covering Prairie Days in Prairie City, as I saw what true community is about. People were embracing in the street like they hadn’t seen one another in years. I recall a one man saying to another, “I’m glad you came down here because you would have been in a ton of trouble.” People were even yelling my name from across Garden Square, patting me on the shoulder with good greetings.

I may be new to town, but this felt like home. But I think back to that basement bar where I could have brought a piece of community to a quiet young man. Could I have made him feel at home?