A wealthy man finds his teenage twin children mocking an old man with a drinking problem and teaches them a life lesson.
Jade and Justin were bored. They usually lived in L.A. with their mother, and spending the summer with their dad in the doldrums of New Orleans was a bore. There was no one to hang out with, and their dad had confiscated their phones and laptops.
For such a wealthy influential man, their dad was a bore, just like Louisiana. He worked, he hung out with these really lame musician types — and not even cool rappers — old-style old geezers who played the blues and jazz.
That afternoon, Jade and Justin were irritable with the heat but too lazy to go swimming in their dad’s pool, so they decided to go exploring in their dad’s huge Garden District house.
At the end of the huge garden with its old trees, they glimpsed a small house that might once have been the groundskeeper’s cottage. As they came closer, the twins heard the sound of a hoarse voice humming.
Sitting on an old chair outside the cottage’s front door was a very old man. He had a huge bag at his feet, and he was carefully sorting tins and bottles into two separate piles.
“Hey!” Justin cried. “You there! You’re trespassing!”
The old man turned to look at him with a surprised look on his face. “No, sir,” he said. “I live here, Mr. Kerning lets me live here.”
Jade walked around the old man and stepped through the door of the cottage. The house was tiny, no more than a bedroom, a bathroom, and a small kitchen. She looked around at the shabby but clean interior with disdain.
She opened the fridge. It was well stocked with food, as were the kitchen cupboards. The wardrobe held a few worn but clean clothes, neatly hanged.
Jade walked back out. “This isn’t so bad! We should ask dad for this place to hang out in. It would be cool.”
The old man shook his head stubbornly. “No, sir, Mr. Kerning said it was mine, for as long as I needed it, and Jason’s a man of his word.”
“Jason?” spat Jade. “How dare you speak of my dad with such familiarity, you old wino? He’s an important man!”
The old man cringed at the hate in her voice. “Yes, miss,” he said. “I know that. He’s a good friend to me, a really good friend.”
Justin scoffed. “My father, a good friend to a man like you?”
The old man gathered a few shreds of pride and said with dignity, “I used to be a dancer, soft-shoe, and tap, and I sang the blues. Some people knew my name, yes they did, and your papa was one of them.”
Justin looked the old man up and down. “A dancer? You? That’s a joke.”
The old man shook his head stubbornly. “I was a good dancer too, I even danced in Paris. Yes, sir.” The man turned his back to the twins and continued sorting through the junk in his bag.
“What’s that?” asked Jade.
“Why miss, this is tins and bottles…I sell them, to get money – for food.” the man said.
“Food…” Jade looked over at Justin knowingly. “Tell the truth, you sell these to buy drinks, don’t you?”
The man hunched his shoulders. “Don’t you go telling your papa! I told him I was on the wagon…”
Don’t mock someone for their frailties.
“I tell you what,” Justin said smiling a nasty little smile. He reached into his pocket and pulled out $200. “You see all this money? You dance for us like you danced in Paris, and if we like it, you get these $200!”
“Yes,” said Jade. “We love dancing, so why don’t you show us some moves?”
The old man straightened up and stared at them, at their near-identical smirks and the mocking malice in their eyes. Then he looked at the money in Justin’s hand and he licked his lips and nodded.
“All right then, young ones,” he said. “You want to see old Freddo do the soft-shoe? I’ll show you how it’s done.”
He stepped back from the garbage bag and onto the porch. He stood with a sudden dignity as if some invisible spotlight suddenly shone on him. He snapped his fingers to set the rhythm and started humming in his hoarse voice.
He started dancing, moving with unexpected grace, but his legs betrayed him. He stumbled, staggered to stay uptight and Justin laughed coarsely. “Famous dancer my ass! You’re an old drunk is what you are!”
“Don’t be nasty,” Jade cried gleefully, “That’s old Bo Jangles!”´
The old man stumbled to a stop. “You said you’d give me the money!” he whined. “If I danced, and I did!”
“No money, old man,” said Justin. “I said if we liked it and you STANK!”
“JUSTIN! JADE!” a voice thundered behind them. The twins turned to find their father standing there and looking anything but pleased. “You apologize to Mr. Baxton!”
Justin’s mouth hung open. “Apologize? To some old drunk?”
Mr. Kerning marched the twins to the main house and sat them down for a talk they would never forget. He told them that long ago, before he made his money and met their mother, he’d been addicted to alcohol.
He’d hang around the old jazz bars and drink every night, and it had been this old man who’d taken him to his first AA meeting, and put him on the road to a healthy life and success.
Back then, Freddo Baxton had been legendary as a singer and a dancer, but he’d taken the time to help a young man he saw was on the same road he’d been on all his life: the road to self-destruction.
“I’ve stayed sober but Freddo fell off the wagon many times, and as he got older, his voice went, and he couldn’t dance anymore.” Mr. Kerning said. “But each time I’ve been here for him.
“That could have been me, it could be you one day. A person’s frailties don’t make them despicable or unworthy of respect. What makes them unworthy of respect is lack of compassion and character.”
Mr. Kerning decided that Jade and Justin had too much time on their hands and not enough to do so he cut off their allowance and made them work in the soup kitchen he ran for the rest of the summer.
Meeting and speaking with the people who had been discarded by society made them realize that misfortune can touch any life, any time. They returned to Los Angeles in the fall as more thoughtful and better people.
What can we learn from this story?
Don’t mock someone for their frailties. We are all vulner
able to life’s difficulties and can fall by the wayside too.
Always repay kindness with kindness. The old dancer had helped the twins’ father overcome his addictions, so Mr. Kerning looked after him.