So there I was, spacing out behind the counter somewhere around half past eight in the evening. It must have been a Sunday, tail end of my 84-hour week and preparing for the next. At least that's what it felt like.

Business was as slow as a snail crawling through a puddle of molasses but we were desperate for any kind or amount of cash flow so I'd just stick it out in case some stray customer walked through the door. Sundays were spent goofing off on the state of the art 286 computer or rearranging stacks of tickets. No bosses showed up and the phone might as well have been unplugged. Hell, even the flies stayed outside on days like that. It was just me and a copy of VGA Planets. On days like that I didn't get much more than the odd lost tourist anxiously looking for their boat.

The port was almost closed. Only one or two departures remained after which the city would revert to being a quiet place, forgotten by God and everyone else who didn't have to take the boat. I don't think I'd seen another human being either in the shop or walking past it since three o'clock. Most places and ticketing agencies had closed hours earlier or not opened at all. And then this bloke wanders in asking for the way to Athens.

The man in the moon came down too soon

Let me tell you, this fellow looked like he'd been on the road for months. Or on the moon. He'd just gotten off a ferry from Brindisi with nothing but a battered knapsack, not one of those fancy fifty-pound contraptions that Canadian backpackers travel around with and certainly not a second change of clothes. He wasn't sure where he was going, save that he had to go through Athens to get there. Which really didn't help since you had to go through Athens to get practically anywhere. He was also evidently in wine (of the inexpensive sort), which didn't help the situation either.

In the end I managed to get him to admit that it was an island he was looking for. So I rattled off the names of some of the more popular destinations, those teeming with Italians and Germans at that time of year. We eventually settled on Mykonos.

"Yeah, Mikolos."
"Mykonos."
"Yeah, that one."

He then revealed that he was bumming his way there. His name was Maurice and he was from Bournemouth. He didn't have any drachmas to pay for the ticket to the island but had already made enough on the streets of Patras since getting off the boat to pay for his way to Athens. I told him he'd have to take the bus, the last train of the day having left two hours earlier. He was as unruffled about having to take the more expensive means of transportation as he'd been about everything else, including the prospect of being stuck in a hole in western Greece for the night.

There are some people who are irresistible. You simply become interested and get into conversations. He was one of those people. You know that they have a story and that they won't tell it to just anyone. You have to earn the right to hear it.

Sit us down.
Tell us a good story.
Sing us a song that we know to be true.*

I had no lame company policy to deal with as regards dealing with customers, paying and non-paying alike. I was in charge of the shop, more or less made my own hours, and could do whatever I liked, be as helpful as I cared to be, and invite whomever I wished. Smelling a good yarn, I left the counter and disappeared into the water closet. Maurice watched with amusement as I prepared my special kind of frappé coffee and handed it to him. Yeah, we were so poor we made our coffee in the WC, the sink in there was the only source of water. And we walked ten miles through the snow to get to work, even in summer. Uphill both ways. Uh-huh.

He had set out from home several months earlier. He set out with only twenty quid to cross the Channel to Calais. There was no particular aim or motive to his wanderings. He was going across Europe and what's more he was going to do so drunk. He begged his way through France and spent some time in Barcelona. He met fellow travellers, shared a bed or two, drank wine, and begged what he needed. He went to lengths to explain that he was straightforward about it. Didn't pretend to be needy, never insisted and didn't try to guilt trip anyone into giving him something. He just asked people in the street for money, plain and simple. As casually as you bum a fag from a pal in the same room.

At one point I made a motion to pull a thousand drachma note out of my pocket. I don't do this often. I'm generous with buskers and others who sing for their supper one way or the other but "spare some change" will get you nowhere unless I have credible evidence that you deserve my hard-earned change. "Don't do it," he said, "I won't take it." I wasn't a cheap hit. I was now a temporary companion on his journey, and he took no money from his friends. Only strangers could pay for this trip.

He'd been an accountant, he said, back home. One day he flipped. Quit his job and took off almost as bare-arsed as his mother bore him. He spoke earnestly, the coffee having sobered him up a bit. I made him out to be around twenty-threeish.

He had stories. Stories from France, from Italy, from Spain. The policemen in Malta who refused him entry because he was broke and escorted him back to the ferry to Italy, smiling all the time. Wine, park benches and other travellers. Wanting to go to "Mikolos" and having no idea what he'd do once he got there. He spoke with the dreamy zeal of Odysseus on his voyage to Ithaca. He spoke like a stoned prophet sitting on Pythia's tripod.

By the time we were halfway through it was past my usual closing time. Hey, I said, the last bus leaves at quarter to eleven. Let's get you onto it or you'll have to wait until half past two for the night bus. In lieu of cash, he asked me for a favour. He left me his mother's phone number in Bournemouth and made me promise I'd call her and tell her he was alright. Yeah, I could do that much. I'd use the line that got billed to a stinking rich shipping company in Crete.

I tossed the coffee utensils into the sink, followed him outside and locked the door. There aren't many things as relaxing and pleasing as a night-time stroll by the sea late in a Mediterranean summer, even when the seaside is forty yards of concrete docks and a pier. It was perhaps five minutes' walking distance to the bus station.

I never ask people their age nor do I particularly care. "Thirty-eight," he said. He looked younger than I was, and I was more than a fair bit younger. Thirty-bloody-eight. He'd been working at that accounting job for eight years and had had enough. He wanted to reclaim his life and waste it whichever way pleased him, and I'll be damned if he didn't. I say he found the fountain of youth. And he was born with the sun in Aquarius. Like them or not, your typical Aquarian is irresistible as a philosopher.

"I want you to know something," he said.
"Realise that you can do anything. Anything."
"Sure, why not," I replied nonchalantly.
"No, I want you to say it."

He made me say it out loud. He was going to make me believe it, whether I claimed to know it or not. I don't think that I had more than an abstract idea of willpower and determination, not being endowed with much of either. He made me say it. He made me believe it before I did so. In less than five minutes on a half-deserted main road in a crummy port city in the boondocks of Europe I was being handed an epiphany.

"I can do anything!"

He still wasn't entirely sober and thus not quite capable of doing anything himself, so I helped him buy his ticket and got him onto the right bus. I won his argument with the driver about letting him take his bag with him, explaining that he'd had too much stuff stolen out of it in Italy and was really paranoid. They'll eat up anything that makes Italians look bad but don't take kindly to drunken tourists with dirty luggage so we promised it would be stored at his feet and not on their faux-luxurious pullman seats.

I'm pretty sure he made some ticketing agent in Piraeus shake his head the following day when he asked to go to "Mikolos". Not once that evening had he managed to get it right. I then walked home, stopping to buy some ice cream at the corner shop. It had been a good day.

In the years that followed I did some things. I'm not a motivated person, I don't think I expected to do any of them before I met Maurice. I did a few things that people don't typically do. I did some things that people typically do but I never cared about enough. I did manage to lose Maurice's phone number before getting through and still wonder whether he ever checked to see if I'd called.

Random people make a difference in our lives. Not teachers or parents, they're the ones we grow up with. Not employers or relationships, their presence is steady, predictable or expected no matter how often they might change. I mean the people who leave you with only a snapshot, not with a roll of film. The mother playing classical violin on a crowded train. A pizza vendor complimenting you on your choice of partner out of the blue, when that "partner" is someone you just met. The young man with the tie, another story I'll tell you about one day. None left as lasting an impression as this bum whose goal in life was to cross a continent with neither a penny to his name nor a sober day.

You can do anything.

"I have too much to lose. I've put down roots here. I can't tear them up. It would be too much risk. I have to stay the course."


Stagnation.


"Two kinds of people in this world. Those who take risks and those who are too scared to take risks and just whine about how nothing in their lives ever changes. Don't be that kind of person. If you stay in this place the rest of your life you'll become just like the rest of these bozos."


Change.


Dave Malhoit was a clown to many but an inspiration to those who paid attention to the meaning behind his sometimes bizarre rants. He had been many things in his life and gone many places. He refused to be defined by his job, his associations or his town. He had been married three times, trained as a mason and did time with the Coast Guard. For all this he worked alongside me in the post office, filling in as a full time substitute letter carrier but always refusing a regular mail route. He had even quit twice in the past in order to seek other paths but came back when the need arose. It was his last job. It was the last of many, but when his body gave out on him the records would show that his last position was as a mail carrier. It wasn't the right path for me. He knew that better than I did and he was the lone person who rode in support of my complete change of direction.

"We'll see each other again. Don't worry about that. We'll see each other again."

The final words given to you by a man injected with heavy doses of morphine to get him through a special day. It was his wedding day, the final wish of his long time live-in girlfriend. Two months earlier the doctors gave him six months to live. The cancer was eating him alive. There was the shell of a once great man standing before us, needing to go inside for long periods of time to collect his energy. It would be the last time I saw him alive. A week later I moved from central Massachusetts to Orlando, Florida. Two months later he would pass on to his next destination. He stopped to see me along the way. I did not know he had died, but on the night of his death he appeared at my bedside. One last joke from the man whose wit and sarcasm knew no boundaries.

"Hey, I told you we'd see each other again."

He smiled and laughed. Then he was gone. The humor of it all was more important than the promise. The next morning I got the phone call. Dave Malhoit had died in his sleep the day before. I already knew.


Malhoit's philosophy had always been that you can do anything you want in life. There are no real boundaries except for those we create ourselves. Some might curse Malhoit, and many did, for the paths he took in life. He left behind wives and family because he felt it was time to move on. He could never settle. He could never really even settle down. He was fifty-nine when he died, joking about how no one really ever wants to be sixty anyway. His body could not keep up with the spirit. He had become very frail over the last few years I knew him, and I never really knew him until he was close to the end. We took him to hockey games and we took him to see Bob Dylan. He put out an incredible buffet to welcome us to his home in order to watch Mike Tyson bite some ears ("These slices of madness leave me infinitely entertained"). He had a terrible habit of leaving his keys in the ignition of his truck, so we would jump in it and park it in random locations all around town. There was a boat in his driveway that could barely float and he would tell long stories about how he caught fish of great size and wonder in it. They were mostly lies that were amusing beyond a shadow of a doubt, and yet there were those he angered with his tall tales. How can you hate Paul Bunyan?

People hated him.
We loved him.


Nine and a half years invested as a mail carrier and I gave six months notice before I left. My departure had Malhoit's full blessing. The rest of my co-workers took to calling me crazy. "The weirdo ain't just weird, he's stupid," was the party line. I just smiled. There are only so many times you can drive over the same roads and open the same mailboxes and put the same bills and magazines into those mailboxes. Thirty-five years of that and you will go crazy.

"Stable, reliable employment
with decent pay and benefits.
Where else you gonna find that?"

That was a moot point. Stability wasn't my main interest. If it had been I wouldn't have killed myself three years earlier. It was time to move on and time to begin a new life. It would have been easier to stay the course and continue the way I had been. I was living in a rented house with a roommate who was a Deadhead. When we weren't sitting at home going through an ounce of weed a week and a case of beer a day he was dragging me to Phish shows or we were dropping acid in the movie theatre. Moss grows on the unturned stone and the creek was getting much too boggy. It was time to move on. The roots were getting deeper and they were growing weaker with time. It was time to listen to the signs and do something different. Being comfortably burned out is no way to stagnate. Then again, there is no good way to stagnate.

There are always obstacles to change and there is last minute redemption. The test of a person is whether or not they can filter the possibilities and arrive at a decision that builds a bridge into the future. There was a siren song calling and the pieces were there, but it was hard to abandon everything that had made up a life for nearly thirty years. The decision to move was made and I packed up what I could not sell or discard. Everything was in high gear.

Then she walks in.

With all the gin joints in all the world... she has to walk into my farewell party. There is nothing quite like saying hello to one person when everyone else is saying good-bye. I had never met her before but the fact that her nickname was "Toad" left me assuming she was some kind of vision of ugliness. I never considered she might be the kind of Toad you got high from kissing. This was not in the program. She flew in under the radar.

You can do whatever you want to, and I could have stayed. You don't experience love at first sight every day and that was the only time it happened to me. That had to be worth something and yet to abandon everything in the plan for her would have put undue pressure on her. It could never have worked. Had things gone wrong for me she would have blamed herself. We had four weeks. We made the best of them. Sunsets on the beach. Long rides through the mountains. Making love every night with desperate passion. Could what was so magical in the short term have worked in the long term? No one can say for sure. There was no way to change course without wrecking the plane.


"You can do anything."

Dave Malhoit reminded me of that almost every day. They accused him of being heartless, cruel and self-centered and yet he had bought a house and settled down in the last years of his life. Why? Because the woman he loved was confined to a wheelchair and she needed the stability. He claimed his dog meant more to him than she did. He told us he did it so his dog would have a yard to play in. A man with a good heart doesn't have to let it bleed in public, but if you read between the lines you'll see it bleed anyway. No one is as cold as they seem to be. We all have a certain act we do to hide our perceived frailties. Aside from those we trust we worry too much that others will take advantage of our soft spots.


Departure.

Arrival.

So different they are the same.

One departure here is an arrival somewhere else. You can be held back by what you see as responsibilities and commitments. You can close the book. You can fill in the blanks and finish what you started. You can drag it out forever and procrastinate your way into stagnation. You can do anything you need to do and most of what you want. The chief obstacle is always yourself. You aren't doing anyone any good being miserable, regardless of circumstances. You don't have to flee. You just have to find the right path. The path may take you away from where you are or the path may take you back inside, where you may truly belong. Unless you travel, unless you take the chance, you will never know.


You can fail before you begin
By not even trying.
You can believe in yourself
And believe you can do it.
You can throw caution to the wind
And let your wings take you where they may.

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