Brush with Greatness: The Snowman
Bob Dylan once called him the greatest living songwriter. He died in 1980, at the age of 39, of a heroin overdose a week after his birthday. He had been on and off heroin for twenty years. I met him in Clinton Iowa about a dozen years before his death.
Whenever I wanted something or wanted to do something, I could do it because I was always doing things to make money. My dad had strict rules about giving us kids money. Usually his answer was, ‘No, that’s not important!” He always said if I wanted to waste money on silly things, I needed to waste my own money.
In the summer I mowed a lot of lawns and trimmed plenty of bushes and trees. In winter it was shoveling snow. I not only liked to play in the snow, but I also loved to work in it.
Every time there was a snowstorm coming, I would always ask Dad to wake me up when he got up for work. One of dad’s rules was that I had to shovel our sidewalk before I went to make money by shoveling other peoples walks.
I was lucky because I lived in between two of my best customers. I would start with the sidewalk at the back of our house and work my way to the front. Once I hit the big public sidewalk out front, I had four houses in a row, including ours, that I shoveled every time it snowed. Just East of our house was Mrs. Schwarz and then Bock’s next to her. The Olson’s lived next door to the west. I would shovel three houses down the street and then come back and do Olson’s on the other side of us. I didn’t even need to ask first. I made a deal with all three of our neighbors that every time it snowed, I would automatically shovel their walks.
While I was shoveling on Ninth Avenue, my best buddy Bobby would be shoveling on Eight Avenue. When Bobby got done with his two houses, he would come over and help me finish the ones I was doing. After those were done, we worked together the rest of the day. Bobby and I would make phone calls and knock-on doors the night before. We were smart and did our pre-labor work, so we always had several jobs lined up. We worked good together. People always liked the way we did a nice clean job of clearing away the snow. We would never admit it in those days, but we did listen to our father’s advice. They both told us if we did a good job our customers would remember and would hire us again. We followed their advice and it kept us busy, especially when we got a heavy snow.
Bobby and I always worked together as a team. We would split the money we made right down the middle. Then we would decide how to spend our money. We went to the movies all the time. We would buy model cars to build. We also bought our own shoes, Converse Chuck Taylor’s of course. My dad wouldn’t spend the money on Converse shoes because he thought they cost too much. Then one day he really looked at my shoes and he was impressed by the workmanship. They were made better than the cheap tennis shoes you got at K-Mart. That didn’t mean he started buying the shoes for me though, he figured I was already buying my own and that was how he liked it. When my uncle Enrique saw how well they were made he started buying them for his boys.
We always worked up an appetite doing all of that shoveling. We usually headed over to Mama Seals Café. Once there, our meal usually included a cheeseburger, French fries, soda or some other tasty drink and of course something sweet like Brownies or chocolate cake.
One time after shoveling heavy snow for a few hours, we decided it was time to eat and we headed for Mama Seals. As we went around the end of the chain linked fence at Hilbert’s Standard Service Station, we almost stepped on a guy who was sitting in the snow shivering. He wasn’t wearing a coat, hat or gloves. He looked like an arctic explorer in the movies. His hair and face were covered with snow and encrusted in ice. He looked like he was half frozen.
Bobby asked him if he was alright. He looked up at us and said he was cold and hungry. Bobby said, “We’re going to get a cheeseburger. We’ll buy you one if you want to come with us?” He shook his head yes and got up. He was in bad shape.
We walked in and sat down at our usual table. Lisa came over and took our order. Lisa was a little older than we were. She was Mama’s daughter. We told her we wanted three of everything. She already knew what we wanted because we went there quite often.
Lisa went to the kitchen and almost immediately Mama came out and looked curiously at the three of us. She came over and started talking to us. She found out that our new friend was a guy named Tim. He told her that he was traveling from New York to San Francisco. He said his car broke down in Chicago and he accepted a ride from a couple that were headed to Denver.
Mama continued asking questions and we found out that the man and woman that gave him a ride, stopped on the other side of the bridge to stretch. When he got out of the car, they jumped back in and took off. He said his clothes, guitar and his coat were in the car along with his money and driver’s license. He didn’t know what to do, so he walked across the bridge. He said he had almost given up when we came along.
Mama said she was sorry to hear his story. She fed us and didn’t charge us a penny. She didn’t even charge me or Bobby, we ate for free that day. When we were done eating, she brought out a coat. She told Tim that a trucker left the coat there about a month ago and never came back for it. It was just an old jean jacket, but Tim acted like it was the best thing ever. Mama said to me, “Why don’t you take him up to that place by the school wear those nuns live.” She was talking about the convent.
She knew I went to St. Mary’s school. So, the three of us trudged up the hill to the convent. Sister Mary George answered the door. Tim told her his story and she had us sit down and wait until they could get somebody to help Tim.
A few minutes later Father William Wiebler came through the door. Father Wiebler was a young hip priest. Instead of wearing the usual single colored robe when celebrating Mass, he would wear multi-colored robes with a paisley print or psychedelic swirling designs. He also used words like “groovy” in his sermons.
Father Wiebler looked at Tim and made a weird face. Father said, “It’s nice to meet you Tim. Please call me Will.” Then he took the three of us across the street to the Rectory where the priests lived. After discussing Tim’s situation Father Will had us sit in the living room while he made some phone calls.
When Father Will came back, he said Tim could take a Greyhound Bus to San Francisco, but it would be a few hours before the bus got to the Clinton bus stop. Father then brought us all a bottle of Pepsi and said he would be right back.
A few minutes later, Father Will walked into the room carrying two guitar cases. He said to Tim that a lady from the parish had given him a guitar after her husband died. He told Tim he could have the guitar. Tim seemed to be overwhelmed. He opened the case and pulled out an old acoustic guitar. He said “Man, this guitar is beautiful.” According to Father Will it was a 1934 Martin. Then Father Will opened his case and pulled out his own guitar. He asked Tim if he wanted to play a few songs. Tim said, “I don’t know what to play?”
Father Will started playing a song and said, “Do you know this one?” Tim smiled real big laughed and said, “Yes I do.” He played the song. I didn’t know the name of the song, but I did recognize it as a song I had heard on the radio. All these years later I can identify that song as “If I Were A Carpenter”.
I also know now that the guy who wrote that song is Tim Hardin. Tim and Father Will were laughing, singing and talking like they had known each other forever. Bobby and I left while the two of them were still playing their guitars and singing. A few weeks later, Father came up to me in the school hallway and gave me an envelope. He asked me if I could give another one to Bobby when I saw him. I said I would. The envelopes had a hand-written note and a ten-dollar bill inside. Both notes said the same thing, “Thanks for caring. You made a difference.” Signed Tim Hardin.
I held onto that note for years. I must admit that somewhere I lost track of it. However, I will never forget about that cold and snowy day when I shared a cheeseburger with Tim Hardin.