By Rachel Mendell
Ralph Mulberg was litmus paper. Wherever he was, you could tell the hearts of the people around him by what they said and did.
I first saw Ralph when our family moved here in 1997 and I heard rumors about his history when I started writing for the paper in 2004. But I didn’t really meet Ralph until I was working for Cheri’ Laughbaum at the Off Center Café in the Uptowne.
I had been instructed that even if Ralph didn’t have enough money, I could still serve him his ice tea and donut (sometimes a large muffin). He would give me what change he had, usually exact change, with that slow smile of his and a quiet “Thank you.” We always made sure he had napkins and asked if he wanted a refill.
He didn’t let his aches and pains bother him. He didn’t let the cruel jesting of the teens (who liked to pour honey in the salt containers when my back was turned) bother him. Crossing busy streets and braving 598 traffic didn’t phase him. With determination he continued with his plan for the day.
When you looked closely, there was a wisdom in his eyes. I think he knew everything. He wasn’t oblivious to the chaos around him. He knew what people whispered in his presence. He knew some motorists were angry and honked when he crossed the street where there was no light. I’m sure he cared about all that, but he didn’t show it.
What that litmus paper did was show me the acid in my heart. I admit I felt a small frustration when he walked into the café. It meant that I must meet the challenge of serving him. It meant that I might have to listen to the kids (and adults) say mean things. It even meant that some customers would walk right back out the door the minute they spotted him sitting in his regular chair.
I am relieved to tell you that I met that challenge each day he came in. I also have to say that the acid has been neutralized because I served him. Ralph taught me a few things about life. Walk where you want to with determination. Follow your plan for the day, but be open to change. Don’t let the heartless words of others ruin your day. Be prepared by wearing your orange-yellow suit and taking your essentials with you in your wagon. Be generous and let others share what they have with you.
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