Writing at a small table in my local coffee shop the other day I looked over the shoulder of one of the regulars. He was sitting in one of the big, soft, comfortable chairs set up in a square in the middle of the room. He was reading the local newspaper – the Portland ‘Oregonian’ – and when I looked closely I saw he was reading the obituary page. One with full color photos.
This moment sent me back in time. In the early to mid 1980s I worked for a youth counseling place called The Drug and Alcohol Resource Program. This was in Stoneham, MA, about eight miles north of Boston. I was just getting sober then, in fact worked for that program a couple of months before I came to the conclusion that I was, indeed, one of the people the program was designed to serve, and made the decision to put away alcohol and drugs. Anyway, I was hired before the program officially opened, and with the other few staff worked to transform a small old machine shop building into a warm, inviting, counseling and resource center, with newly walled small offices and new paint and donated furniture. We also attempted to recruit volunteers to assist in the program’s efforts, and managed to find one. His name was Frank. He lived about a half mile up the main road heading over to Melrose and had an easy walk down to our office every day. Frank was a recovering alcoholic himself, and had been out of work for quite some time when we made his acquaitance.
Frank was an all around good guy. He quickly became a devoted father-like figure to our boss Maggie, and a good friend and sometime advisor to me. Frank was willing to do anything Maggie needed done and asked him to do, but as we neared our official opening there became fewer and fewer of those needs. So, and this went on for the next three years, mostly what Frank would do was come to the office every day, make and drink coffee, hang around and shoot the breeze with whomever was available, and read the paper. Now if you live in the greater Boston area, well actually Massachusetts, come to think of it New England, anyway, you are a Red Sox fan. It’s genetic. So you would often find Frank doing what Red Sox fans do, reading stories about the Red Sox and offering opinions how to fix everything. The other place you would find Frank when it came to the newspaper – both The Boston Globe and the local weekly Stoneham paper – was at the obituary pages. That’s where he went. Every day. All the time. And when asked why he was forever looking at those pages, Frank had this reply.
“To see if I’m in there.”
Frank has been in those pages a very long time now, but I have never forgotten him or his reply. So I thought of Frank when I looked over that guy’s shoulders and saw him reading the obits. And I wondered if he was looking to see if he was in there. And then I had this thought. “I hope I never get caught looking at the obituaries in the paper.” Not not getting caught because I am so sneaky, but because I never want to find myself there. Doing that. I would much prefer to be found reading something like the menu for the lunches at the junior high school next week. That’d be more my speed, more my place in the world, more with my peeps. (FYI – For all you youngsters, local newspapers always printed the school lunches for the following week. It was a community service. I hope some still do.)
I’ll have plenty of time to think about the Obits once I’m a member of that club. But not now. Now I want to be running with the junior high kids. Heading down to Jay’s drugstore after school, or the lunch counter at Sonny’s Pharmacy, to order a ring ding and a coke, and check out the girls. I want to head over to Royal Davis’s house and play touch or even tackle football on the front lawn, right next to Route 6 – the Route 6 that runs all the way from Provincetown, MA to Long Beach, CA . And if I’m too old and achy and slow to play football there, I want to be like the old guy I used to see walking around my hometown smoking a big cigar. Every day. Mr. Baker I think was his name. Out of the house, our from the TV, walking, walking, walking, seeing everything there is to see in my neighborhood, on my streets, in the downtown of my city. I want to be pushing paint around on a canvas,even if when it’s done I laugh and think it wouldn’t make the cut in a sixth grade art show. I want to run to my keyboard and write a story about the people who own the Astoria trout farm really being fish, fish that use humans for bait, and how an 18 year old college freshman girl becames a detective of the strange. I want to go to Pepino’s with my wife and spend $3.75 on the “El Cheapo” burrito for dinner, not just because I’m broke, but because I love that burrito and I love that place and I can look out their windows and see all the homeless folks and feel my heart bursting with gratefulness that I’m not one of them, and feel my heart breaking that they are there at all, and wonder what the hell am I going to do about it. I want to think those thoughts and have those feelings and paint my goofy paintings and write my bursting-with-life-and-aliens stories, and walk my streets and kiss my wife and call my sons and wonder how I can ever afford Christmas presents and then have all the joy of going out to buy whatever presents I can because the joy is in the buying – just like it was when I was 12 years old and went down to the 5 & 10 on the Main Street of my hometown and would pick out 25 cent glasses and cups for my mother for Christmas. Maybe out of my paper route money.
So, I do not plan on reading the obituary page ever, thank you very much. Maybe when I get there. For now I want to live and laugh and try new stuff and write stories that make people laugh and cry and want to get up and fix things, and I gotta keep running ahead of any reaper who would rather have me just sit down and wait.
Excuse me – I gotta head down the street to Royal’s, because there might be a game going on. And I don’t want to miss it. Aches and all.