Wednesday, January 1, 2020

I love this life

To paraphrase humorist Lewis Grizzard's book, Bob is dead and I don't feel so good myself.

Bob was one of our regulars. He would come into the library every day. He was 83, usually wore a Berkeley ball cap, and would walk slightly bent over in a kind of shuffle. Short steps. Out of the corner of my eye I'd recognize his gait immediately.

He acted like he was going to live forever. He was curious about everything. Science, human nature, politics, movies. He was auditing a class at Pomona College on physics or genetics or something, taught by a 92 year old professor. He was so impressed with this 92 year old's mental acuity, I think because he saw his future in the guy.

Libraries have a lot of regulars. We desk staff give them nicknames, since we often don't know their real ones. I have found, through Facebook, that this habit is universal among library staffs. Humanity is on full display in a library, and not always at its flattering best, so the nicknames tend to be negative. More so if the person is difficult to deal with. 

Bob did not have a nickname. He was Bob. He would come up to the Reference desk three or four times during my one-hour shift, to tell me about a movie he loved, or hated with a passion, or the things he was learning at Pomona, or a trip he took to Yosemite with his nephews. He loved Yosemite. Snow. Mountains. The Sierras. He was having a house built up in Northern California, one of those where they join two prefab pieces together. He would regale me with problems he had getting the locals to hook up the plumbing, the electrical, make it inspection-ready. 

"I don't know why I talk so much," Bob would say often, with a smile, curious even about himself. I got the sense there was no one else in his life who was listening, truth be told. He mentioned a wife on the east coast. I didn't pry.

He was kind of a sprite, with an elfin face and a ready smile. He showed me an application he had printed to audition for America's Got Talent as a singer. I questioned him about his vocal training. Those singers on that show are as good as it gets, I said. He was mildly offended that I would insinuate that an 83 year old with no training might not make the cut, entirely confident in his skills. He thought they wanted him to sign away too much privacy in order to get on, though. Eventually he backed out.

You can hear Bob sing. He had a YouTube channel. He liked to upload videos of himself talking about different topics. In one, he stands outside his house and sings "What A Wonderful World." He did have a nice baritone, untrained though it was. He would not have gotten on TV with it, but that song, in particular, absolutely summed up his philosophy of life. 

Bob was an elementary school teacher in Berkeley in the 1960s, during the school busing era which Kamala Harris mentioned often in her recent presidential bid. He had mixed race classes, and was fascinated and angered by the differences the economic situation of a kid could make in his educational progress. He wrote a book a few years ago which details his philosophy of educating children, and thoughts on race. He was not a talented writer, I'll be honest, but he makes clear that injustice really upset him. 

Nevertheless, he was a born optimist. "I love this life," Bob would say almost every day with a smile. It is what I will remember him most for. 

He was a veteran, and proud of it. He was also proud of still being a federal employee; he led large group tours at a famous landmark several times a month. He loved interacting, loved answering questions, loved sharing his enthusiasm for the epic science and art which went into constructing such a wonder.

A year or two ago, late at night, Bob heard a commotion outside his house. He stepped out to see a teenage boy a few doors down, naked, handcuffed, being held by police on his front porch. They were searching his house for the drugs he was reportedly dealing. It was a freezing winter night. Bob was outraged that the police felt it appropriate to display him to his neighbors that way, in what seemed like intentional humiliation, intimidation. He resolved, on the spot, to become a lawyer. To fight the injustice he saw not just that night, but from people in power at many levels in our country.

Turns out no law school wants an 83 year old student. His travails in applying and getting rejections became another topic of our daily conversations. He did not think in terms of well, even if I get a degree, I'll be 85 or 87, and how many years could I actually practice? It never crossed his mind. The point was, he needed to have the power to right wrongs, and this was the way, and the math did not come into it. 

It is why I am writing about him. For Bob, the math did not come into it.

He shuffled when he walked, but he might as well have been 20 in attitude. He did not seem to be ignoring reality. It just didn't occur to him he should consider his age in making decisions. 

In November my fellow librarians began to ask each other, "Have you seen Bob?" Several weeks went by, and I noticed he had several books and a DVD overdue, something which would never have happened were things O.K. I began to hope he was laid up after a car accident up north, or sick with a bad flu. 

Finally I typed up a letter asking about him, looked up his address, and dropped the note in his porch mail slot. I discovered he only lived a few blocks from the library. A few days later, his friends, residents of the house where he lived, came to the library and told me the bad news. A few weeks earlier, Bob had apparently felt poorly, called 9-1-1, and had been taken to the hospital. He died after a heart attack. 

It was hard to believe. He was thin, like a distance runner, and never got sick. He was going to be that lawyer. I believed it. He had a former student, now 60 years old, who was a lawyer, and maybe he would sponsor Bob for law school, he said. Always working an angle, philosophical about any setbacks. He was so much about the future, I believed if anyone could finally manage to live forever, it was Bob.

And then he was gone. His house up north, nearly finished, will never be lived in. The group tours will go on without him. I will not see him come around the corner of the reference desk, his signature ball cap bobbing. The idea is appalling.

The last books he had checked out, and never gotten to finish, were both stories of racial injustice in America. 

I am not surprised.