O'Neil paused to suck a Tootsie Pop, which he'd plucked from a passing housekeeper's cart. "This is the greatest country on Earth," he continued, "but we can be better. That is going to be your job." He held my forearm like a banister. "In my day we changed some things. Now it's your turn to change things. And you'll do it. I know you will."
When I confessed that it wasn't in me, or in my generation, to change our channels manually, much less to change the world, he invoked the memory of his grandfather Julius, born into slavery in South Carolina and owned by a man with the surname O'Neil.
"Grandpa used to tell me he loved Mr. O'Neil," he said. "And I would ask him, 'Grandpa, how could you love a man who kept you as his slave?' And Grandpa said, 'He never sold off a mother from her children, he never sold off a husband from his wife.' And Grandpa—this is before all the doctors and all the medicine we have today—lived to be 102 years old."
Was this good genes, I wondered, or something greater? I had come seeking the secret of a life well-lived and felt I was getting closer. So I asked. And when the old man, once again, took my arm in his hand, I felt physically linked in that paper-doll chain to all who had gone before me.
"Love" he half-whispered, as if sharing a confidence. "Love, man. This is the whole thing."