I spent the last three months of 2017 searching the internet for a car to buy. My old car, a 1990 Toyota Corolla, had almost 270,000 miles on it and the calls to AAA and various friends for rides when it died were getting on my nerves. My buddy Lex, who had spent the last 40 years buying and selling everything from cars to pen knives, offered to help. He had helped me get the Corolla 15 years ago and now he was excited to help me get a car that hopefully had been built in this century.
For the next three months, Lex sent me to links to cars all over the country. Auctions, CraigsList ads, classified ads, there wasn’t a corner of America that Lex wasn’t poking his nose into to find me a car. He routinely flew all over the country to pick up all kinds of vehicles that he would drive home to Seattle and sell at a profit. It’s a weird job but Lex was great at it.
Finally, a week before Christmas we found the perfect car. It was a 2010 Prius that the Helena, Montana city government was selling at auction. At first, I thought it was one of those drug deal cars sheriffs confiscate sometimes but Lex, in his wisdom, assured me that no drug dealer would drive a Prius as they make terrible getaway cars. I went nuts for 10 days watching the auction as Lex called me every day to make sure I didn’t bid too early. “Pauly,” he said, “You gotta swoop in at the last second to get these cars. Don’t tip your hand too soon or they’ll know you want it. Ya gotta be sneak up on these deals.”
So I kept to the shadows as the auction neared its closing date. In the final 60 seconds, I swooped in and got the car. I couldn’t believe I’d done it. It went just the way Lex said it would. “That’s how we do it, Pauly! That’s how we do it!” he yelled at me over the phone when I told him I’d won.
Two weeks later he told me wanted to drive down from Burien where he lived and take me to SeaTac so I could catch a flight to Helena and bring the car back. I said, “Lex, why don’t I just drive up to your place and park my car there? You only live five minutes from the airport.” Lex was having none of that. He had just scored a great deal on a late model Cadillac with all the options and he wanted to show it off. He was so happy when he picked me up at 6am that morning in Olympia. The seat warmers were going full blast. The dashboard was all lit up telling us how much air pressure was in the tires, what the temperature was in the trunk. It was probably calculating my BMI as I settled into the seat. “Pauly,” he said, “One day we’re going to get you a car like this. You’re going to go to all your shows in style.”
As usual, we talked about a million things on the ride up. I remember telling him how proud I was of my son that he was going to college and Lex said he couldn’t wait for my kid to move out of his mother’s house. My son grew up mostly with me but when he was 20 he moved in with his mom. It didn’t bother me that he moved out. What bothered me was what he moved into. The first week he was over there he said he lost the cat on the kitchen counter. When I went over there to see what he was talking about I saw immediately how you could lose a full grown cat on a kitchen counter. You couldn’t even see the counter for all the dishes, food and small appliances that cluttered it. The entire house was that way. I knew it had gotten worse over the years when my son would come home and mention it occasionally, but I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten.
Whenever Lex would ask how my son was doing I would tell him how angry I was that my kid was living in such a place. It was one of the few things that still upset me about my son’s mom. We had worked through most of our problems and had come together on a lot of stuff, but this hoarding business, it really upset me. And Lex heard all of it. He wanted my kid to move out as much as I did.
When we got to the airport he gave me a hug and off I flew to Helena to drive my new car home at 10 below zero. I called Lex multiple times during that drive to ask him what some mysterious icon meant that would pop on on the dashboard.
“It just means the tire pressure is low. You can make it home, no problem,” he told me at midnight. At 2am he returned one of my texts as I was climbing a pass in Idaho. “I have no idea what the B means on the shifter. It’s probably something goofy the Toyota engineers thought of after a night of drinking just to mess with us. Keep it in D all the way.” Meanwhile, I knew he was Googling the letter B to make sure I wasn’t going to slide off the road and into a ditch somewhere east of Coeur d’Alene.
I got home 13 hours later and collapsed into bed. I called Lex the next day to tell him I was safe. He said we had to meet up soon at his favorite Starbucks so he could see the car. Over the next few weeks, we made a lot of plans to meet up but could never make it happen. And then one day he stopped returning my calls. And my texts. And my emails.
Finally, I drove up to his house to see what I’d done to upset him. We’d rarely argued and even then one of us would always call the next day and work things out.
As soon as I pulled into his driveway I knew why he had always come down to my place and had never asked me over to his. The yard was full of cars. Some wrecked, a few maybe still working. I walked to the side of the house and saw piles of junk alongside it. I walked to the back and saw so much garbage leaning against the back door no one could have gotten through it. I peeked in one of the windows and saw papers stacked up to the ceiling.
I banged on all the doors and windows but there was no answer. I called 911 and asked them to do a welfare check. I said, “I think something’s happened to my friend.” The dispatcher transferred me to a police officer. I told him where I was and heard him flipping through some papers. Then he said, “I’m sorry Mr. Currington. Something did happen to your friend. We found him in his bedroom a week ago. It looks like he had a heart attack.”
Lex was 60. He lived alone. He had laid on the floor for two days between his bed and a pile of stuff with his hands clutched to his chest before anyone found him. Lex had made plans to take another friend to the airport that week. When he didn’t call the day before the flight to confirm the pickup time his friend got worried and called the police. It was that friend and the police who found him.
The last thing he wrote me was a text saying that someone had noticed he’d lost some weight. For months, Lex had been thanking me for inspiring him to lose weight. I’d been talking to him about it since I’d joined Weight Watchers in 2007. I’d tell him what meals I was making for the week. He’d tell me about some new diet he was trying and then a few weeks later he would noticeably stop talking about it. Now, after 10 years of stops and starts, he was finally getting in shape. You could hear the joy in his voice when he’d call to tell me some new milestone he’d reached. “Pauly,” he said once last winter. “I walked three miles today. I’m so grateful you never gave up on me. I’m finally turning it around.”
And there I was, so proud of myself for getting my friend to eat healthier and exercise, but in my arrogance, I managed to push him away just enough over the years that he never let me see his home. He didn’t want to see the look on my face when I saw how he lived. I was kind to him but he saw me be unkind in my judgment of others. And it was enough for him to keep me at a distance.
Lex’s last message to me wasn’t really a text to tell me how much weight he’d lost. His last message was when I walked up to his house and realized he was never going to invite me in. He had humbled me in death by reminding me of all the times I criticized others without realizing I might also be criticizing someone I cared for. What I thought was shared righteousness was actually the undermining of a friendship. Not by a lot. And not enough to end it. It was just enough to make me feel like I missed an opportunity. Maybe if I hadn’t been so proud of myself for not being “one of those people” Lex would have felt safe admitting to me that he was one of those people. I know it wouldn’t have helped him live any longer but I bet it would have made his life a little lighter.
And that’s the kind of story we’re looking for this month. Tell us about a time when you were humbled. What happened? How did you deal with it? Did it change how you walked through the world afterward or did it just keep you from doing that thing again?
Remember to keep it clean, practice out loud and on friends as much as possible, and time yourself so you know it’s under 8 minutes.
Here are the rules and guidelines for telling a story if you haven’t seen them in a while.
I hope to see a bunch of you on Thursday, March 22 at Roy Street Coffee and Tea