IT OFTEN SEEMS to me that the Grapevine should have a feature similar to the "most unforgettable person" series in the Reader's Digest. Each of us can tell, not only his own story, but also the stories of outstanding AA members who have influenced him.
The man I would pick as a "most unforgettable person" died in Detroit nearly ten years ago. He had almost no family, and many of his older friends have also passed on. But the handful of AAs who still remember him may recall his practice of sending AA-birthday cards to members with Easy Does It neatly written below the birthday messages. For this reason, I will call him "Easy." It is slightly similar to his nickname, which in turn was derived from his last name.
There was nothing dynamic or spectacular about Easy. He was somewhat moon-faced, with sparse hair and ruddy cheeks. He had a wheezy voice, and ordinary speaking sometimes seemed to cost him considerable effort. At times, too, he appeared rather nervous and unsettled. But he always had a way of bringing himself under control, and his friends usually thought of him as a calm and relaxed person.
I believe that I was impressed partly because Easy and I represented the extremes of age. I once heard an authority on alcoholism say that the very young and the very old are difficult prospects for AA; both are hard to reach. Well, I was one of the very young and had stopped drinking in 1950 at age twenty-four. Easy had been past sixty when he joined AA. Granted, that is not "very old" in today's world. But it is unusually old for an alcoholic who is still drinking. The hard fact is that few alcoholics can live as Easy did, on Detroit's skid row, and survive until their sixtieth birthdays. Most of them die much earlier.
There was also the fact that Easy was destitute and alone. His only family, so far as I knew, was a still-loving sister and a long-estranged daughter. Anybody looking at him, as he must have appeared when arriving at AA's door, could hardly have been blamed for assuming that Easy's recovery chances were very poor indeed.
I heard him give his complete story only once, so I am hazy about the details of his early life before drifting to skid row. But I do remember that he had once worked for the post office and had lost that job through drinking. Thus, he was coming into AA at the very age when he might have been thinking about retiring on a good pension. I'm sure that this thought must have occurred to Easy.
When I met him, in late 1950, he already had several years' sobriety and had become one of the stalwarts of a group in Royal Oak, Mich. People from other groups would mention his name if they knew you were visiting the Royal Oak meeting. He loved to stand near the doorway, greeting people as they arrived. He was always neat and well-dressed at the meetings, and actually appeared to be prosperous.
I was surprised, a few months later, to learn that he was the night clean-up man in a restaurant. You might think that he would have felt some self-pity at having to work so hard when he should have been in retirement. Instead, he often marveled at his good fortune. He would point out that he was permitted to take all of his meals at the restaurant, which was a rather good one. He was often mistaken for an affluent businessman while having dinner in the late afternoon. Near the restaurant, he had a clean furnished room in a pleasant bungalow, where he was treated more as a member of the family than as a roomer. His sister did his laundry, and AA friends drove him to meetings.
He explained that the night cleanup work really wasn't difficult and that he often used the solitude to reflect on things he had heard at meetings. In the early hours of the morning, he would have coffee and whatever food he liked from the kitchen. Once a year, he treated himself to a pleasant vacation, going to Pittsburgh or New York and staying in a good hotel. In later years, in Pittsburgh, he met an elderly lady who became his sweetheart; but for some reason they never married.
He made friends wherever he went, and people felt drawn to him. I am sure that the source of this attraction was the peace he had found within himself. He often told me of the secret life he had with the Higher Power he had found upon joining AA. This Higher Power was always with him, whether he was mopping floors in the lonely morning hours at the restaurant or strolling about a hotel lobby on vacation. If things went wrong, he would talk it over with his Higher Power, and very soon the pieces would come together again. I think this was why he could regain his composure so quickly when something upset him. He was not above being knocked off balance; in fact, he was probably more sensitive and vulnerable than most men. But his Higher Power was always nearby to restore poise and serenity.
There were some painful things that he had to accept. He made a great effort to bring about a reconciliation with his daughter, and he never really succeeded. This bothered him for a long time, but he always talked it out at AA meetings. Characteristically, he took most of the blame himself.
I knew him for twelve years, sometimes seeing him quite often, and then again, not more than several times a year. Once or twice, I dropped in for a late cup of coffee while he was cleaning the restaurant. He always had the power to raise my spirits and restore my faith in the program. There was something in his simple gratitude and fundamental honesty that set everything straight. He also brought dignity to the cleaning work, and it occurred to me that the restaurant owners were fortunate to have such a trustworthy, steady man on the job.
Then, in his seventy-seventh year, one of the great shocks of his life hit him. He was told one day that his employment at the restaurant was being terminated. Apparently, the new manager was afraid Easy would die on the job, and did not want to arrive in the morning to find a dead body in the building. When Easy learned this, he was so amused that he retold the story at meetings.
He added that the manager had lectured him about wasting his money on expensive vacations, when he should have been saving it against the day he could no longer work. Easy could not accept this kind of advice. "If I had it to live over, I wouldn't change a thing," he would say. "I always had a feeling that my Higher Power wanted me to have those vacations, and I'm glad I took them. I think I did the right thing."
It was now the fall of 1961. He made inventory of his savings and discovered that he had about $1,500. By using great care, he could live through the coldest months without working. He talked it over with the Higher Power, and decided to rest for the winter.
Then his Higher Power used another AA member to direct him to an additional source of income. Easy learned he was entitled to monthly Social Security payments. He was also entitled to a substantial lump sum in back payments. It was beginning to appear that he never would have to work again.
But he did work again, at least for a few months. Early the next spring, a committee of AA members asked him whether he would consider serving as manager of their club in downtown Detroit. The job included a room, meals, and a small salary.
After talking it over with his Higher Power, Easy agreed to give it a try. An AA drove to his rooming house and helped him move his belongings to the club. But when Easy arrived at the building, it was in such a shambles that he almost cried. The bedroom was the worst. As he went to sleep that night, a terrible thought struck him: "My God, I'm back on skid row again!" The only thing that restored his equilibrium was reminding himself that his Higher Power had never let him down.
And sure enough. He didn't. A group of club members organized a working party and helped Easy clean the place up. Others arrived with better furniture and new curtains for his bedroom. Within a few weeks, the place sparkled, and Easy's living quarters were as fine as those he had enjoyed before.
That's where he was when my wife and I saw him for the last time. He was the happiest man in the city of Detroit. The clubhouse was really like a home, filled with kind and generous friends. Every now and then, a deadbeat would show up and put the touch on him for a five or a ten, and Easy would laugh about these incidents. "If it wasn't for AA, I wouldn't have anything to loan," he would say.
He walked with us out to the porch of the clubhouse. He nodded pleasantly to his neighbors and then turned to us and said, "It's just like having your own home." He stood there proudly, with his hands in his pockets, as we got into our car, and then he waved to us as we drove off. "Easy Does It!" he called out, with a chuckle.
I had the feeling that I would not see him again. But there was no sadness in that feeling. Easy had lived the good life and fought the good fight, and now he was in retirement in his own home. He could only marvel at his good fortune. We could only marvel with him, sharing the warmth of his simple gratitude and fundamental decency.