It isn’t every day that I feel completely inspired about what I want to do with my life, what I want to accomplish, and what I feel would make me full of passion. Tonight, I was struck by happenstance when I was completely inspired by a complete stranger.
I was walking in downtown Portland and went to my favorite place, a go-to location for me. The Maine State Pier is the home-base for the public ferry terminal, and also where water taxis and schooner companies dock. But it is also a hub for all kinds of people to congregate. There is a multitude of island residents, tourists (especially in the summer), homeless people, teenagers, smitten couples, and random bystanders that appear lost in thought. There are bikers, skateboarders, children, fishermen, and pretty much any combination of a human being you could dream of. This melting pot of society provides such an interesting slice of life that it’s impossible to go to the pier and have the same experience twice. Add in the salty smell of the ocean with the fishy odor resonating from the fishing boats docked at the next pier south, the seagulls calling for attention, and random bits of live music from the nearby bars and restaurants, and you have the perfect mix of a port town life.
I make it sound like it is always buzzing with people, but that’s not the case. On a typical summer day, the previous description is accurate. But tonight, it was far more desolate. The ferry terminal benches had a few lonely stragglers, waiting for the “last-call boat” as the locals call it. Essentially, it’s the last boat that leaves the mainland each night and brings island-dwellers back home. The little cart that advertises the day sails from Portland Schooner Company and sells t-shirts was empty and closed for the night, and the lights on the pier revealed that there was only one other person on the pier, at the very end. He was hunching over with a hand-held flashlight and fiddling with items on the grainy wood planks of the pier. My long time friend Brittany and I, who visit the pier on a regular basis, continued walking at a safe distance, and sat down overlooking the water’s edge on the lumber beams that flank the pier. As we talked about whatever was on our minds, we were both distracted at this man’s focus on whatever was on the ground. He kept moving things around, picking up things and dropping them, and shining the flashlight on his work.
I told Brit that I wanted to offer him help, but at the same time, I didn’t want to in case he was drunk or angry or something. As per usual, my super-observant-self noticed that there was indeed a brown beer bottle laying on its side about 2 feet from where the man was squatting. Britt got a text message from her boyfriend who was down the pier about 50 feet that said “what are you guys talking about?” So to make fun of him for being ridiculous and sending a text message when we were within hearing distance, I yelled to him and said “the beautiful evening,” with a hint of sarcasm that was purely evident. Out of my peripheral vision, I could see the man look up and smile, clearly in agreement. Britt walked over to talk to her boyfriend and our friend Charlie for a few minutes, and I was left to absorb the night by myself.
The man got up and walked closer to me, where there was a bike laying on the pier, next to a fishing bucket and a pole. He stopped, leaned over and picked up the rod, casted it gently into the water, and smiled at me. I asked him if he had been looking for something. I never knew that the conversation which followed would change my outlook on what I wanted to do with my life.
He explained to me that he had lost his glasses, and couldn’t figure out how to bait his hook and tie the line because he could barely see. After serving in a nuclear submarine in the Navy in his earlier years, he lost eyesight in one eye due to radiation poisoning. He now has to bike everywhere because his eyesight is too poor to drive a car. His 35-year-old son is currently serving in Afghanistan, and tonight, he was fishing for mackerel.
To think that had this conversation not occurred, I would have left the pier thinking he was a man who was down on his luck, perhaps even homeless, fishing all alone at 11pm because he had nothing better to do; made me reflect on the significance of stories. Had I not asked him if he was looking for anything, I would not have learned about this man who served our country.
He was such a gentle man, just a crusty fisherman who was enjoying his evening, even though he was essentially blind. I realized after talking to him that I was essentially the blind one, until I had this conversation. He said that he had served in the Navy for twenty years, and I chuckled and said that he served in the Navy for as long as I have been alive.
“You’re a youngster, then eh! You going to college?” was his simple response. I told him that I was already in school and would be a junior this year. Creighton was a familiar name to him. He asked me what I was studying, and he responded as most do when I say “theology and journalism,” because he looked confused and said “well that’s an interesting mix. If I wasn’t leaving for the Navy, I would have loved to study theology in college. So fantastic.”
This man continued to surprise me by the minute. I asked him if he had a way to get another pair of glasses, because I didn’t know yet if he had a home. I was about one centimeter away from driving to a local pharmacy, buying him glasses, and coming back to where I met him. But he explained that he had about five pairs at his home (to my relief) because he always lost them.
A few minutes later, Britt walked back over, told me that the guys wanted to leave, and we got up. As I walked away, I told him to enjoy the rest of his evening, and he smiled and reciprocated.
I have never been so struck by happenstance and by the immediate sense of passion and inspiration that this man provided for me. Just ask Brittany, because as I walked away, our conversation was flurried by my monologue about how much I want to write a book simply documenting these moments of randomly meeting people that can change your life. I truly believe that everyone has a story to tell, to write; to share – and that I may be the person who is meant to listen, to write, and to re-tell to a larger audience than just the depths of their mind or mine. I can say with confidence that tonight, I have been inspired, and you can fully expect to hear more of this plan in the months to come.
But “for now, we are young. Let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we see.”