The Italian Soda Man
I spent a lot of time at the hospital as a child. My brother was sick, so we had to go in for exams every couple of months. I remember well the long waiting room stays, catching up on the latest children’s magazines filled with mind puzzles, lame jokes and intriguing art. When the appointment ended, I would take the free sticker that the smiling secretary would offer, and then plod along behind the family: through the colorfully wallpapered hall, out into the spacious main lobby and double glass doors into the parking lot.
It was that final stretch- the entrance lobby- that promised the most intrigue for my young journey. What compelled me about the hospital most was not the stickers nor the magazines, but rather the lobby. The spacious lobby was mostly vacant, except for an old Hungarian man who set up a small stand to sell Italian soda drinks.
Every time we visited, I would follow the old man with locked eyes, absorbing his environment. On leaving the hospital, we would infrequently stop by the little stand and my mom would order a small blueberry drink that was split into two even smaller cups: one for me, and one for my brother.
I would sip the drink and let the sweet berry bubbles hop about inside my mouth for a moment before gulping away the liquid, repeating the process until my small cup was dry. I would then turn to the Hungarian and smile. He always wore a very broad grin, so I never needed to wait for his response to my subtle thanks.
As the years passed, the small, shabby Italian soda table gradually changed. First came a clean cloth to drape over the sides, hiding the plain stand. Next came a small rack of chips and snacks, then candies, then a new stand entirely.
As the stand grew in aesthetics and function, the same Hungarian man kept a steady, wide grin that made his corner ever simple and inviting.
The last time we visited the hospital, we didn’t stop by the stand. I remember walking past, pausing for a quick glimpse. I took in the full scene. The stand was now tall and shiny, beside the old Italian soda equipment stood a gleaming espresso machine, steaming and pouring. The Hungarian man with his beaming smile seemed somehow sad. Maybe it was just me, thinking of how I was losing the old comfort that I once cherished, the passing joy of a simple childhood.