Thursday, February 5, 2004
I answered an ad and that's how I ended up sitting in a coffee shop I never go to, across from a man with long yellow hair, a patchy beard and a strange habit of calling himself a "silly old man" even though he is barely 50.
He wore a brown overcoat and a Coast Guard cap and he had the loud nasal breath of a man burdened by his own weight.
It was the year that Mitch Albom published the book "Tuesdays with Morrie." In less than 100 pages, he told the story of a young man and an old man who meet once a week for conversation at the end of the older man's life. When the old man dies, there is a bittersweet sadness for something lost but something gained. And Morrie's thoughts are immortalized for as long as Doubleday decides to keep his memory in print.
I think that's where "Stan" got the idea to call the college and ask for a student writer (enter me) who would spend one day a week with him and listen to his life story.
I was to write it all down, and it would be a last gift to his family and friends before he died.
Which would be soon, he said.
I was still in college, and it was the first time anyone had paid me for my writing. An old artist taught me how to write a contract for "commissioned work" detailing how many revisions I would make and who would own the final product and how much I would be paid. Back then, I decided I was worth $10 an hour for interviews and $20 a page for writing.
For a student struggling to become a writer and a man on a pension, it was a fortune.
We met in the basement of the Portland Public Library among the stacks of historical documents and drawers of nautical maps. He told me what he was proud of in his life -- a career in the Coast Guard that took him from St. Louis to Baltimore and finally Maine. But mostly, he listed his regrets.
He wanted to be a philosopher, but an early marriage ended those dreams of a life of contemplative thought. He told me how his only son died after a year of life, and how his marriage failed not long after.
Over the months, I became his confessor, and I quickly realized that he was fumbling for redemption.
With each interview, he brought me books by obscure philosophers, books about the Battle of Trafalgar (his favorite subject) and CDs he thought I would like.
What he wanted from me, more than a writer of his biography, was a student. He wanted to share the wisdom gained by a life wasted.
"Stand on my shoulders so you can see a little farther," he said.
Instead, he found a power struggle.
I was young and looking forward to life. He was only 50 but ready for his life to end. I wanted him to realize he could start again.
But I was wrong about him. His life was over. He was right.
He was dying.
We met at a cafe for a late lunch. He showed up drunk and teary-eyed. He told a rambling story about a vacation he took to Scotland when he was young.
"I'd love to go back there," he said.
He ordered a turkey club sandwich, and I watched as he was barely able to eat a bite of what he was given. I recognized something I had seen before at a homeless shelter -- the late stages of terminal alcoholism. That was our last meeting.
I never published what I wrote, and I never heard back after I mailed him my final draft. I didn't know if he died, and I didn't want to know.
All I have from that time is a document on my computer called "This is life," which I haven't opened for years, and a picture of the man whose biography I was hired to write.
In the picture, he is sitting on a couch in front of a huge picture window. Outside, you can see the fenced yards of Westbrook, Maine. But all you can see of the man is a silhouette of his stringy hair.