For some reason this morning, I thought of Howard. I don’t recall his last name, but I remember a lot of late night conversations. I hadn’t thought of him in a long time, and this time I connected it with some lines from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.”

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

While in my mid-twenties, I was assistant manager of a hardware store. Howard was the night man in the lumber yard. He looked a bit like Karl Malden with glowing nose offsetting a thin gaunt body wearing a tattered coat; it was the same sort of coat that you see on winos in the street wear, moth-eaten and threadbare. Howard was in his 60s, and irascible. I was forever running interference between him and the kids who worked the nightshift.

Howard didn’t take any shit. His story was a long and complex one, and I learned so much from this man. I got bored easily, so I was forever tearing up the store and building new displays to keep busy. Howard had much experience with this; he used to be a carpenter, and he built all the store fixtures for a major local department store. He passed the tricks on to me, and we talked a bit about his life.

He made enough money as a carpenter to buy a shop in Carmel, California, where he and his wife collected and sold sea shells. Yes, Howard really did sell sea shells by the sea shore. It was quite a lucrative business, but he developed a disease. He was an alcoholic. Howard lost it all, and he told me he was on the streets for over twenty years. He slept in gutters, and fought for survival each day. You could see it in his eyes. Howard was always aware of everything around him; you couldn’t sneak-up on Howard.

When I knew him, he was in the program. He owned nothing, save a rusted bicycle that he rode to work each day from a flophouse downtown. Work for him was a joyous and happy thing, and we crafted a lot of displays together. He was always on time, and always ready to work. He didn’t share his stories easily; it took a lot of coaxing to learn this much. The kids at the hardware store had no idea that such a wealth of life experiences was right there at their fingertips, but I listened and learned from this tattered coat upon a stick.

A few years later, I heard that Howard was hit by a car while riding his bike and became an invalid. I didn’t know how to contact him. I’m sure he’s gone by now. But even as a grumpy old man his soul did sing. And he lives in bits and pieces, in my memory.