Once upon a time I met a drunken sailor who saved me from myself and all the other bad things that were going on in my life. I was ten or eleven years old, and he was in his mid-thirties. The kids in the neighborhood called him Mr. George. He was different from all the other dads in the neighborhood, partly because he wasn’t a dad, but mostly because he looked different when he came home from work. Mr. George wore a suit every day in a community where most people didn’t even own suits; or if they did, they had been hanging in the back of their closets for so many years that they no longer fit anyone.
Mr. George had a fancy title too, but nobody could remember exactly what it was. All they knew was that he went to work at the Baltimore County Board of Education during the day, and he hung out on his boat or Wilhelm’s most other times. Wilhelm’s was the restaurant downstairs from Mr. Tony’s delicatessen. Mr. Tony used to sell me chicken necks really cheap so I could go crabbing when I came home from school and on weekends. The deli was nice, and it had all sorts of everything. And the restaurant downstairs always had fresh meat. That and cold beer, hard liquor, and a ho-hum assortment of wines–red, white, and blush. For a long time there was a dock outside the restaurant where people tied up their boats and went inside Wilhelm’s to eat dinner. Sometimes people just tied up there and drank cold Pabst Blue Ribbon out on their boats, smelling the aroma of Wilhelm’s steaks wafting out the restaurant’s open windows.
Mr. George lived on the third floor of an apartment building on the edge of the playground, and he had a view of all the important activities that took place on any day in our community, along with a view of the laundromat roof, all three dumpsters, his sailboat, and Dark Head Creek, a small tributary of the Chesapeake Bay at the very end of Middle River. He mostly just slept in his apartment, except on Sundays and major holidays when he stayed inside and cooked fancy meals. Once I went up to visit and found him chasing lobsters around on the kitchen floor. There were even more in his bathtub. Holidays were fun at Mr. George’s place. His choice of wine for such special events was Mateus Rose, which was still better than Boone’s Farm or Manichewitz. He enjoyed his drink while sitting out on his porch, which was liberally seasoned with seagull poop. In retrospect, I imagine he liked the view from his porch because he had such a great view of what he called “God’s Little Patch.” He sounded sarcastic every time he said it, as pirates often do, but deep down inside I knew that’s how he viewed this place we all called home. George understood our community and the people who lived in it just like he did the tides and the weather. He always had his finger on the pulse of our little neighborhood. He knew its ebb and flow.
Even in the middle of the winter you could see George putting around on his boat, a thirty-foot Alberg. His boat was all white with blue trim, with a lot of teak trim on deck. Her name was Angel. He usually found things to do on his boat, including cleaning the inside on the coldest days, occasionally venturing outside just long enough to check the bubble lines that kept the water from turning to ice around the hull. Mr. George was so much a part of that sailboat that if I didn’t see the two of them together, I’d naturally assume that he and the boat had floated out to sea, or both of them had simply vanished. When I was a little older, he invented things that had to be done on his boat, and then paid me to do them. It usually involved cleaning stuff that didn’t need to be cleaned, or organizing things that didn’t need to be organized, but I appreciated it. Not just because I had no money, but because he cared enough to notice.
And so the years went by.
George and I had completely different notions of who he was. In my young, idealistic mind, he was the father I felt I had been missing–or at least the replacement for the one I had at home and could never relate to. George saw himself as a pirate of sorts. Not the raping and pillaging kind, or even the type of seagoing vagabond who spent a lifetime plundering and amassing huge quantities of booty. No, George saw himself (and rightly so) as the crazed captain raising his weathered, misshapen sword up to the heavens as a warning, never abandoning ship, never even lowering his mainsail, no matter what the threat or what the cost. he never once saw his actions as a consequential rebuttal to mankind or society, or even God. He was just going against the grain.
George raised me, like it or not, as a pirate’s son. And as I got older, I went through life fighting the fights he could no longer bear witness to, or had simply forgotten about over time. And when I lost a fight, as I often did, I had the gumption to peel myself off the asphalt, cough out chunks of gravel, dust, and stale beer, and suit up for my next stupid mistake. George taught me not to quit.
He and I have taken turns taking care of each other for almost half a century now. He has matched my periods of insecurity and financial distress with his own variety of self-destructive behaviors, some of which I was ill-equipped to deal with, especially when I was younger. But I tried. And now that we’re both much older, I’m using the strength that he has given me to keep myself emotionally intact while watching him age in ways where I can be of little help to him. But still I try.
The thing about pirates, or even sailors who cuss and drink too much, is that the forces of nature eventually come to collect their own booty, even when the treasure chest is mostly empty. When the parrot on his shoulder withers to bone and dried feathers, and his peg leg has been ravaged by hurricanes and blinding sun and sea salt, and is reduced to fine sawdust carried hundreds of miles off the starboard bow by ocean winds–then he’ll know it’s time to come ashore. No need trying to tie the boat to the dock, because that wood is also gone.
Fighting the good fight for a lifetime beats the hell out of giving up altogether, but it leaves a man bruised and bloody and tired, but usually with a silly grin on his face.
George turned eighty-three years old today. He no longer drinks, nor does he sail. But he continues to save me from myself, even when I’ve assured him that I no longer need saving, or that I am totally beyond the benefits of such a futile endeavor. Still, he persists. And although I know he does the things he does for all the right reasons, I can’t help but wonder if his motives are somewhat rooted in the years he lived in God’s Little Patch. Perhaps he’s not a hero, or a pirate, or a father, or a drunken sailor, or even a knight whose armor has gotten dull and rusty over years and years of battle. But perhaps he’s all of these things.
Or maybe he’s still just going against the grain.