I first met Clarence in 1996. He was 60 years old but looked much older (except for the twinkle in his eyes). Clarence was a good ol boy from Lubec, Lamoine, Jonesport, East Machias, Winter Harbor or Deer Isle—take your pick. He had a balding dome the color of old stain on a Cedar plank, a friar’s ring of white hair and significant tufts of that same material poking out from both nostrils and each ear. His skin was as rich and brown as good sandy soil, and his face was lined like the pattern left by rivulets on a low tide sandbar. His eyes were special, as blue as an October sky and able to twinkle through good times and bad.
My relationship with Clarence was a little interesting. First, though I was in my 40’s when we met, between his age and appearance and the fact that I thought of myself as still in my 20’s my inclination was to look up to him, to treat him with deference. For his part, though he was the rascal I later found him to be, he carried an old school, lower class sort of subservience (always at war with the rebel inside) in the face of authority (me! Imagine!).
We developed a little dance over time, Clarence and me. He’d show up (following a night or two weeks’ worth of trouble that always involved booze), keep himself a little distant for a day or two to see if he was in fact going to be able to stay for a bit, and then gradually warm up, approaching the counter with a “Can I ask you somethin’?” or a “Can I get your advice?” The topics were inevitably about women, church, where he should live, family, or how long he could keep “fishin’.”
See, Clarence was multi-, multi-generational coastal Maine clan. I would bet money that the roots and heartwood of his family tree went back to the stubborn, poor Scots Irish that England and later Boston would use to squat on and defend Maine’s coast and protect the upper class’ interests. Clarence knew how to do a lot of things including welding, farming, rough carpentry and some electrical work. His most regular occupation was fishin’—for lobster, scallops and fish. He really knew how to drink.
So Clarence would continue to live out a sort of life ritual that included having necessary equipment break down, drinking, getting broke, drinking, falling in love, drinking, falling out of favor with family, drinking, and coming to the shelter. He knew not to show up drunk—I don’t know where his cave was, but he’d wait until he was sorely sober before he’d approach. And every time he did, we would all do the same attempt:
“Clarence, you know how much we care for you, right? You know the booze is killing you, right? When are you going to stop? Want a hand?”
Clarence’s toughness, doggedness, sheer force of will carried him and cursed him. I am certain that he could drag a small outboard over a mudflat to launch it and snorkel for scallops whether he was drunk or hung over. The routine didn’t get “old” enough for him to need to stop at age 60. He would occasionally show up with a one day (AA) chip. I am pretty sure I never saw him show me one for any longer. But again, he respected our standards faithfully and never showed up under the influence.
You couldn’t help but like it when Clarence was around. He’d generally lift every moment. The funniest memories I have include his talking about women. We’d be doing one of our predictable, verbal dances about how I felt he needed to change it up a little and he’d say, “I got me a widow woman. Nice lady, too, from _________. But she’s tryin’ to make me go to church with her, and I ain’t havin’ nothin’ of that.” And then, with or without getting an expression from me that would set it up, he’d pause and laugh. When Clarence laughed, his eyes just lit you up. There was no possible way you could do anything else but grin or laugh with him. No way at all.
The best moment Clarence gave me will be with me until I die. There were 3 or 4 of us at the counter, leaning on it like the bed of a pickup and just jawing away like old fool buddies. Somewhere in the middle of a conversation that included all the usual suspects, and with me feeling like maybe there was a moment in which I could appeal to his own higher self and get Clarence to take a serious good luck at himself and recovery, I asked him, ”Clarence—did you ever have a calling you followed?” I think his answer was, “I dunno. I got a glimpse of it once but then I couldn’t find it.”
Maybe you just had to be there… Clarence, wherever you may be, you touched all of us. Thank you.