Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Every community has "characters".  Stuart was one of ours.  His skin was red and weathered like leather, from years of working on the rooftops of the neighborhood.  He was disinclined to wear shirts in the heat of the day, which led to many disagreements with the afternoon staff at the Bakery.  Sometimes he would clamber out of his peach colored pickup and drape a t-shirt around his neck like a cowl, a one finger salute to the "no shirt, no service" rule we tried to stick to as a reputable establishment.  His cutoff shorts were sometimes so miniscule that they were more revealing than the average human would have been comfortable with.  Not Stuart.  He was comfortable.  Always smoking, he would lay his half finished American Spirit down on the brick of the sidewalk outside, and often leave it there when he left the shop - hands full of coffee for himself and sometimes his crew.  Stuart was in Recovery, and sometimes when Tyler and I were wrestling with our Saturday morning hangovers he would comment sympathetically on the bitter pleasures of drink.  Nobody ever begrudged him his cigarettes, because we all knew he'd given up far worse demons.  

A few weeks ago I ran into Stuart at the Giant Eagle, as I often did.  We chatted in the checkout line about the aches and pains of manual labor, he told me about his health problems, I complained about my wrists and elbows.  He was sympathetic. I didn't know it would be the last time I would have a real conversation with him - how could I know?  I remember his ropy arms in that t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, his beak of a nose that reminded me of the crying Indian in those commercials from the seventies.  How he called me "girl" and "honey" and always gave me a smile even when I could tell he was pissed off about something or other.  He was short, and wiry, and had an air of determination about him that I have noticed in many of the laborers that come into the Bakery on their way to to their workdays.  

When I came in to work this morning - late - the first thing Danny said to me after "good morning" was, "Did you hear that Stuart died?" And I said no, and he told me what he knew - that Stuart didn't show up for work on Monday and one of his crew went to his home and found him dead in his kitchen.  It was so shocking, so unexpected, so sad - it left me feeling hollow and listless.  

When Johnny Cash died, I heard it on the radio.  I was working on the poolish, kneeling over those buckets of flour, yeast, and water, blending them the way I do every day, with my hands.  I cried, like I had lost my Grandfather all over again.  I sobbed over those starters, stopping every so often to wipe my eyes on my sleeve, sobbing again, stirring still.  Today I couldn't cry, I think the meds I am on keep me from crying real salt tears, but I did the same thing.  When I think of Stuart, I think of WORK with a capital W, I think of long days climbing ladders in the sun, of swinging a hammer or pulling a hook billed knife through tar paper, through shingles.  I think of him yelling at his workmen, I think of him bringing them coffee.  I remember the sidelong smiles he gave me when I came out into the front of the shop carrying trays of scones, of the kind words that were never demeaning and always bolstering - he recognised that I worked hard, I labored, just like he did -  to bring worthwhile things into the world.      

My compatriots at the bakery are waiting to hear about funeral arrangements for Stuart.  I hear his daughter is coming in from out of town - I didn't know he had a daughter, I didn't even know his last name till today.  And though I hate funerals in general, I will go to his funeral, if just to tell his daughter how awesome her father was, just to be a body in the room remembering this guy who touched my life in a small way almost every day.  

Rest in Peace Stuart Cobb.  You were a real character.

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