Sitting with my laptop open in front of the East Boston library on a pleasant Summer morning without headphones is an invitation to be bothered by strangers, I guess. Sure enough, as I struggle through a sentence in an essay I’ve just begun, someone does.
Muttering unintelligibly in a thick Boston accent about the earth’s tilt or some nonsense, a man’s voice breaks through my concentration like a sledge hammer into drywall. I barely look up, tossing only a courtesy smile his way. Thinking he’ll keep walking, I continue pecking away on my laptop. He stops. Ignoring the dozen or so open chairs and benches that line the library’s façade, he plops down with a whoosh into the Adirondack next to me and began to comment on everything from the humidity to Bernie Sanders to “transvestites.” (apparently, his view on the latter has become more accepting after meeting someone beginning the gender reassignment process)
As he talks, I type, managing only terse responses of “uh-huh” and “yep” to his scattered rants. I’m annoyed. I glance at the clock on my computer. The library opens in 20 minutes. Then I can finally get back to my important work.
“I just finished drug rehab.”
His words stop me. I finally look up from my important essay. The man is balding and gray and wearing those prescription glasses that turn into sunglasses outdoors. He says he’s 66, but he looks much older. He reeks of smoke and the things people use to mask the smell of smoke. I don’t really know how to respond.
“Oh, really? Wow.”
It’s all I know to say. His all-too-familiar story begins to spill out. Healthy, married, and working as a high-level computer programmer, 16 years ago he slipped a disc, was prescribed opiate painkillers, and got addicted. He’d lived hard during the 1970s, he tells me, but never got addicted.
“Pills, man,” he says, shaking his head.
He tells me that before his injury he’d been a competitive distance runner, able to complete a 10K in about 38 minutes. His secret addiction stopped him in his tracks.
“I couldn’t tell anyone,” he says. “I was embarrassed.”
After his latest relapse and overdose, he says his wife of 45 years tossed him out. He’s now living at a sober house in Eastie. He smiles when he says they’ve begun speaking again.
“She just has to see that I can do this.”
How does a guy his age stay on the wagon? Working through all the steps of the treatment program and not skipping any, he says. Brand new to the neighborhood, he has yet to attend a meeting here. I suggest one that I know of, and give him a name of a friend to ask for. He’s appreciative, though doubt remains.
“At my age,” he says, “I’ll either die from this or get sober.”
The conversation returns to running. I tell him I ran the Boston Marathon in April. He says he used to love running the Falmouth Road Race each year. He misses being able to run six-minute miles. A few years after his addiction began he started running again and was sober for eight months before a knee halted him again – and he fell back on drugs. I’ve heard replacing your addiction with a similar obsession like running can be effective, I tell him.
Where do you run in the neighborhood, he asks? I tell him about my go-to loops. I tell him there’s a 5K coming up next month that I’ll be running, and would he like for me to email him the details. He would. I write down his email address.
The librarian unlocks the front door. Waiting readers begin to pour in. My new friend groans as he stands up, pausing in front of my chair.
“I’m John, by the way,” he says.
“Steve,” I reply. “Good luck with everything. You’ve got this.”
UPDATE: I received this email from John:
FYI. I just ordered new running shoes and they should be here on Monday. I am beginning to get my endorphins flowing already just thinking about it although this is some weather to start running in. Must remind myself to go easy for a while. (Like I would have a choice!) Running in this oppressive humidity. Like we discussed...this 5K will be my carrot stick kind of thing....NICE! AND THANKS
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