A lesson for lonely hearts on Valentine’s Day

I was a hopelessly shy, tongue-tied introvert. Marianne could very well have been the prototype for the amiable and gregarious “CBS This Morning” star Gayle King. Somehow we got together.

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David and Marianne McGrath at their wedding in 1972.

David and Marianne McGrath at their wedding in 1972.

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The late musician and storyteller Harry Chapin composed one of the best Valentine’s Day songs ever written, “A Better Place to Be,” about a man who could not believe his good fortune when a woman way out of his league chose to be with him

“You see, she was so damned beautiful she could warm a winter’s frost,” Chapin wrote. 

I heard the song decades ago and have never forgotten it.

The speaker was a night watchman in a factory, with not a lot going for him, and I felt pretty much the same way.

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Like the watchman who was, “not much of a mover or a pick-em-up easy guy,” I could not get a date. Not that I was getting multiple refusals, but I was too acutely aware of my physical and social flaws to even ask for one.

I don’t believe I was hideous. My brother’s wife Michelle, in fact, told me I reminded her of Arnold Schwarzenegger, though I don’t recall the “Terminator” having thick eyeglasses or a bad complexion. 

And though I had just made the freshman dean’s list at my college, I lacked either the cleverness or the confidence to even speak to a girl.

Except for Marianne. With her, I was able to look straight into her eyes when she initiated one of our conversations:

“Clean up in Aisle 3, David,” or, “Can you help this nice lady with her groceries,” or, “Please don’t place the eggs in the bottom of the bag.”

She did all the talking, of course, in her supervisory role as the head cashier at the Jewel food store in Evergreen Park Plaza, where I was a bag boy.

A secretly infatuated bag boy, that is, since just like the mystery woman in Chapin’s song, my boss was beautiful. Not flamboyantly, like Scarlet Johannson, but more subtly, like Mandy Moore: dark hair and eyes that said, “Can I help you?” even when she wasn’t actually saying it to customers. 

Not only was she way out of my league birds-and-bees-wise, but our personalities were so diametrically opposed that I wondered if I might have born on a different planet and shipped to earth as an infant.

For while I was a hopelessly shy, tongue-tied introvert, Marianne could very well have been the prototype for the amiable and gregarious “CBS This Morning” star Gayle King. Not only personable and chatty, but sincerely interested in every human being she met. It was no surprise that the line in her checkout aisle was always the longest. And she knew many of her customers by their first names.

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My one consolation in our being worlds apart, was that I could idolize her from afar — by which I mean at the end of her counter, where I stood in my red tie and white apron, holding a double brown bag, watching each of those shoppers’ happy faces when it was their turn with Marianne. And though I spent most of my life in those days feeling invisible, this was the one place where I didn’t mind.

Right about now, Sun-Times readers — more astute than average news consumers — are already guessing that Marianne and I somehow ended up in each other’s arms. And they would be right. It happened when we were both invited to the wedding of another Jewel employee and found ourselves together and alone at the after-party in the groom’s parents’ rec room. The question, of course, is with so many debonair and interested men available, why on earth would she choose me? 

In Chapin’s love song, the incredulous midnight watchman asked the bewitching beauty the same question: Why would she consent to go home with a dud like himself? In her reply she hinted about disappointment and loneliness in her past, and said that being with him might be a “better place to be,” and that “‘Lovin’ someone is a better way to be.’”

All of which may have gotten her to thinking, since when the watchman returned after getting breakfast for him and his new love, he found she had gone, having left this note: “It’s time that I moved on.”

Meanwhile, in real life, I never asked Marianne the same kind of questions. And we remained together happily ever after.

The lesson being for other lonely hearts out there on Valentine’s Day: Self-pity can only be self-defeating. Unless, of course, you make your living as a songwriter.

David McGrath the author of “South Siders” and is among contributors to the book “Chicago Exposed,” a collection of Sun-Times news photos recently archived by the Chicago History Museum. Email him at mcgrathd@dupage.edu.

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