“Did you hear, Jernigan? Sylvio came with me to a meeting last week.”
It was springtime in Burlington, and Sammy was speaking to me from the shotgun seat. He was one of those once-a-month grocery shoppers: I had picked him up at the Price Chopper with a teeming shopping cart. The man was big and gruff, with thick lips and a voice perpetually hoarse from decades of unfiltered cigarettes. Not that a filter would have made much of a difference.
“I’ve been asking him, you know — encouraging him — for years,” he continued. “And he actually came. Jesus, I couldn’t believe it.”
We were returning to Sammy’s waterfront place, which goes by the evocative address of “Wharf Lane.” This big apartment house used to be simply “57 Maple Street,” which doesn’t have quite the cachet. I believe it’s managed by the Burlington Housing Authority; a lot of the residents are disabled or low income or both.
Sylvio was Sammy’s old friend and, like Sammy, a longtime customer of mine. Their other commonality was alcoholism. Sammy had been battling it his whole adult life, often attaining months or even years of sobriety. For Sylvio, it hadn’t been a battle, or, if it had been, it was one he’d lost years ago. So getting him into an AA meeting was indeed big news. One step at a time is what they say. And this was Sammy in a nutshell, trying to help out a friend. Nobody, in his world, was unsalvageable, no soul a lost cause.
“Hey, Sammy,” I said, as we sped down the long St. Paul Street hill, “you still working at that furniture restoration shop?”
“Yeah, I am, but just on and off. It’s the knees, man. The standing has become, like, intolerable. I got to get ’em replaced. You know, they do that now.”
Sammy had worked for years in a small Williston business bringing antiques back to life. He must have been skilled at his job, because the shop owners kept him employed through the years despite his ups and downs.
The thing is, though, Sammy’s knees would never be repaired. Even as we spoke in my taxicab last spring, the cancer was progressing through his bloodstream. Just around the time of the winter’s first snowfall, he passed away. I found out when Sylvio called for a ride the week after.
“This is Martha,” Sylvio said, as he and a middle-aged woman stepped into the backseat of the cab. “Martha is Sam’s sister. She’s up visiting from Massachusetts.”
“Good to meet you, Martha,” I replied. “You up visiting Sammy? How’s he doing?”
“Jernigan,” Sylvio jumped in, “Sammy died last week. I guess you hadn’t heard. Martha’s up to clear out his apartment.”
“Oh, jeez,” I said. “Sammy’s passed away? Oh, man.”
The news hit me harder than I would have thought. That moment — hearing of a death of someone you know — is like a spacecraft blasting into warp speed. Someone is here and then — whoosh — they’re gone in a blur of light and sound.
In that very instant, I understood what Sammy meant to me. We weren’t close, but we did have a connection. I could say God broke the mold when he made him, but I think that applies to every soul. Sammy walked among us in all his beauty and imperfections — the guy could be difficult, particularly when he was off the wagon — and now that unique expression of humanity was gone.
“I’m so sorry to hear this, Martha,” I said, recovering my social graces, such as they are. “My condolences. Sam was a good man.”
“Thanks,” Martha said. “I appreciate that.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Just up to city hall,” Sylvio replied. “Martha has to pick up a death certificate. She needs that to take his things. It’s a legal thing.”
“Is there much stuff?”
“Not really,” Martha replied, and I could hear some anger in her voice. “I think stuff has been stolen, I really do. It’s wicked obvious. A few weeks before he died, I spoke to Sammy on the phone and he told me he had a winning $500 scratch lottery ticket he was holding on to. I don’t know where the hell it is! We searched the apartment high and low. Somebody musta stole it.”
A part of me wanted to say something to her. I’ve seen this a few times: When a loved one passes, the surviving family members can get fixated on some aspect surrounding the death, like the doctors screwing up or something not quite kosher about the will or estate. Sometimes, it seems to me, this can be a way to avoid feeling the grief.
But I kept my mouth closed. First of all, it was absolutely none of my business — though, to be real, that simple truth doesn’t always stop me.
More importantly, I realized, So what? At this point, if Martha’s focus on a supposed lost lottery ticket was her method of dealing with the loss of her brother, what was wrong with that? There are no steps, no road map, no right or wrong way to cope with pain.
As we drove toward city hall, I thought about Sammy — how could I not? Every time I had dropped him off, it was the same routine. He’d pay me the fare and throw in a great tip. I knew the guy wasn’t exactly well heeled, so this touched me.
“Thanks so much, Sam,” I’d say, pocketing the cash. “You really take care of me, man. I appreciate it.”
“Hey,” he’d say, that big crooked grin on his broad face, the sad brown eyes twinkling with some light from God knows where. “Cabbies gotta eat, too, ya know.”
In that very instant, I understood what Sammy meant to me. We weren't close, but we did have a connection.