An Unlikely Relationship

There are moments in life that seem to stand out among the routine memories.  There are people that make an unexpected impact in your journey.  Sometimes this sentiment is expected or wished, but other times, we never see it coming.  When you combine hope with the unexpected, something truly amazing may happen.  This is the story of an unlikely friend that I hoped would help me through my struggles. 

The relationship began almost 3 years ago. No, this is not a love story.  This is a story of a young man in need of guidance and an old wise man willing to share. 

Times were changing, and I was amid a pseudo life crisis.  My marriage was on the rocks, my health was deteriorating from too much Brandy, Scotch, and Weed, and I was in search of an identity other than the athlete (who no longer played organized ball).  This led me to meditation and brainstorming of existentialism.  That led to reading books and, of course, Zen Buddhism.  I walked into the local book store and found Everyday Zen in the back corner. The title was interesting enough for me to hand over a minimal amount of money.  This book was a collection of Dharma talks by Charlotte Joko Beck.  It was edited by a gentleman named Steve Smith, whom recorded the talks and put them into a collection for the world to embrace.  Honestly, there is nothing so profound from the talks that I hold as some mantra today.  At the time though, I needed a friend, an ear to listen, and a mind to bounce ideas off. 

Sitting in my studio apartment, I decided to reach out to Charlotte Joko Beck, but after a few online searches, I realized two things. First, she was off the grid and it would probably be damn near impossible to find her electronically.  I would have to travel to see her, where maybe I would get a single conversation or be encouraged to simply join the Zen practice.  The second thing that dawned on me was the fact that she was not the person I wanted to speak to at all.  In fact, the man who collected all these talks during his own journey of inward reflection was of upmost interest.  I took to the internet in a fury to find the man.  Wouldn’t you know it?  He literally taught at a college 30 minutes from the apartment I sat in, searching for him, Scotch in hand.

The next morning, I called Claremont McKenna College and tried to find Steve.  A very pleasant secretary shuffled my phone call to the correct department, where someone devastatingly told me Steve had retired.  Before I could take another sip of my drink, she mentioned, “I think he still checks his University email though?!” I quickly jotted down the address and opened my Gmail account.       

He responded, though still skeptical about this out of the blue email. He did oblige my request to begin a conversation of intellects. What ensued was a 2-year email exchange. We started with simply getting to know each other and then moved into the deep dark skeletons tucked in my closet. What I didn’t plan for was him to return the favor and share his skeletons of 80 years. Words of wisdom flowed between us like the River Nile. Those moments were beautiful, contentious, and reflective to say the least. He was slowly becoming a friend and a confidant that I trusted, yet had never met in person.

I knew we would eventually meet and I decided to pull the trigger as my marriage began to heal and I moved back home. We set a date and went back and forth confirming the time and location, double checking as if two teenagers planning for their first rendezvous.   

The morning of, I found myself excited when I woke up.  I just felt like it was going to be a good day.  I engaged in my normal routine, had a meeting, and did some work in my office.  Steve’s address kept staring at me from my yellow notepad.  I plugged the address into my GPS Maps on my phone and traffic showed ETA, 30 minutes.  I headed to my car but was never in a rush.  I wasn’t nervous, but I also wasn’t excited.  I was concerned.  I was worried that meeting in person may dilute the quality of the relationship we had built over time, electronically.  I had seen a picture of him and he watched one of my YouTube videos, so, we knew what to expect physically.  But how would we navigate being in a room together, eating lunch, and holding a conversation?  When I first see him, do we shake hands or hug?  Should I be concerned about a 10-minute walk to get lunch at his age?  What if I wasn’t good enough in his eyes or what he expected? But if you haven’t figured it out yet, I tend to throw caution to the wind. 

It didn’t dawn on me until I made the final left on his street that this may have been fate.  Steve lives on Harrison Ave. Harrison is my last name.  Now what are the odds that it would play out in this manner with those specific names. To pile on, his cross street was Berkley, the name of the street where my studio apartment was tucked behind a Taco Bell. Sometimes it all seems like a sick but funny joke. I arrived at his place right at noon.  As I walked to the front door, the hesitation or concern seemed to dissipate.  His wife answered the door and as I stepped over the threshold, a towering older man came around the corner with a pep in his step and intrigue in his eyes.  I smiled and extended my hand.

We shook hands and then embraced in a single arm, half handshake hug that lacked awkwardness.  Like two kids on their first play date, we jetted out the door.  I had seen a picture of Steve, but he was a lot taller of a man than I expected.  He towered over me.  Now, Steve is 79 years old, at this point, and I tend to stroll when I walk.  This man was moving fast!  His pace was one of spry youngsters and I wasn’t sure if that was a nervous tick; if he was happy to be out and about; or, if he was trying to get this over with quick and in a hurry.  Apparently, it’s just how Steve moves.   

We walked and talked.  We caught up quickly on all the small details we knew of each other’s lives and families.  We gauged the conversation and level of comfort.  We arrived at the restaurant in Claremont Village after 10 minutes of walking.  We sat and ate, never skipping a beat in our conversation.  I was a bit surprised at the amount of butter he put on his bread, especially when he had a salad for lunch.  He praised me for my new energy, success, and growth.  I thanked him for being there in a time of need and simply responding to my initial email.  We talked life.  We talked sports.  We talked philosophy and Zen, briefly. Really, we simply settled into each other’s company.  As the bill came and he pulled out cash, I wondered if this short visit (he ate fast as well) was over.  We sat and talked for another ten minutes after he paid the bill. He offered to take me by the college or around the quaint downtown village. I played college ball on their field, so I opted for the village. I needed to use the restroom. He pointed towards the back and said he would meet me outside. 

As I exited the bathroom door, I saw Steve.  I don’t mean I saw him as a person standing outside in my line of sight.  I mean I saw the essence of Steve through a plate glass window.  Standing at least 6’4” with sandals and black socks, his blue jeans fitting comfortably, were held up by navy blue suspenders.  He wore a brownish green turtle neck and an olive-green sweater he strapped around his neck to keep him warm.  Strong eyes and a strong jaw outlined a face of wisdom with the gray hairs of knowledge to match.  I simply smiled.  We walked and talked. He forgot my love for Iowa and I forgot he was from Iowa.  We shared conversation and he shared his stomping grounds. By the way, if you ever get a chance to stop in Claremont Village and take the family, it is worth your time.  He obviously knew where we were going.  After a few bends and twists, we ended up at the end of the block where I could see my truck parked in the upper right hand of the street corner.  But the day wasn’t over. He wanted to show me his study.

We re-entered his home and walked to the room in the back-left corner.  There were two chairs.  One at his desk and another that was obviously “his” chair. Before he could sit, I inquired about the pictures on the wall.  He showed me pictures of his grandchildren and his son.  I looked at the other historic family pictures of generations past but failed to ask.  Oddly enough, I never looked to my left.  There was a large flat screen TV surrounded by his library.  How could I miss that?  We talked about his library and a few other topics.  The feeling was evident that the visit was almost over.  Saddened in the uncertainty of ever seeing each other again, Steve mentioned taking me up on a previous offer to come to a football game of the team I coach.  After that, my heart eased in the discomfort of suggesting a regular meeting.  I told him of a friend I have in Iowa whom I speak to on the phone once a month.  I told him I would love to have the same schedule with him, but that I would make the 30-minute drive to have that talk in person.  I think we were both excited.   

Steve: “Well, you can stay as long as you like but I know it is getting close to 2 o’clock.”

Me: “Yeah, I have to go pick up my youngest from school.  But it is December, and next month is January.  So, I will see you in January.”

We both chuckled and headed to the front door.  I embraced Steve like a long-time friend.  He tiredly smiled as I thanked his wife for allowing me to steal him away for a couple hours.  I headed to my car and off I went. 

Steve and I have now met every month, once a month, for the last 6 months. I take the drive and we take a walk to a restaurant. He knows I love Mexican, so he is always trying to appease my palate. We eat and laugh. We then walk to a spot we have dubbed our own; a bench at a small wading pond on the Claremont Colleges campus. It has been a pleasure. I recently got to be a part of his life for his milestone of his 80th birthday.

It is a friendship that continues to grow and one I cherish. There is wisdom all around us in the form of those who have been there before. Take the time to stop and ask to view the world through their lens. It can be the exact sentiment you may need to change whatever is tripping you up or it could simply be a beautiful exchange, leading to a loving friendship.

Thank you, Steve, for answering my email.  Thank you for being there in my time of need and always being a straight shooter.  Thank you for being a kind person. Thank you for being you. Thank you!