Remembering Howie, who had a real zest for life

‘MAKE THE MOST of your regrets and never smother your sorrow,” Thoreau said. Each spring those thoughts return along with the warm weather.

Howie was an interesting fellow, and as interesting fellows go, offered interesting conversation. He was a dying breed, the philosopher/craftsman, a man equally adept at quoting Lao Tzu as he was building the most impressively artistic garden gate you’ve ever seen. Dos Equis’ “the most interesting man in the world” is but a thin fictional caricature of the real man Howie was.

“I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made,” James Bond said in “Casino Royale,” the original Bond book. Howie didn’t say things like that; he lived them. He didn’t drink much, nor often, but when he did it was always a treat. The conversation could go from women to Hemingway to ’68 Pontiacs, back to women, before heading off into existential thought. I always felt richer after a night with Howie.

One day a mutual friend came to see me, a man just as interesting in his own right. Often I use this space to comically characterize the downside of the restaurant business, but the enormous upside is all the interesting people you get to meet. He told me Howie was sick, a brain tumor, inoperable and terminal. I was shocked.

The next time Howie came to see me, his large, well-made and very cold cocktail was on the house. Howie, never at a loss for words, told me the whole story, from his collapse in a shopping center up to his present diagnosis.

“I am not losing hope,” he said. “I am going to explore some alternatives.”

I cried, certainly not then and there, but later during my late-night ride home.

I helped him with some information I had about alternative therapies. Like I said, you do meet a lot of people in this industry.

He did some other things on his own, things that perhaps only a carpenter with a working knowledge of Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” might undertake. He also went to his regular doctor. Howie was a lot of things, but he was no idealistic fool.

A few months later he came in late as he had so often done before. We didn’t talk about his illness. We spoke of his love for artisans. Howie certainly loved things well made and he had a great appreciation for beauty, be it four-wheeled, two-legged or one-cubed.

And he always made me laugh. After the stories and the laughter I asked the inevitable.

“What’s up with your health?”

“You are never going to believe this, Jeff. But it has completely regressed. I went to the doctor the other day and he said the tumor was completely gone.”

A modern-day miracle, I thought. And it was sitting right there in front of me. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

“All change is a miracle to contemplate, but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant,” said that darn Thoreau. Sometimes smart people are just annoying.

Howie attacked his reprieve with a zest for life rarely seen. Like a man possessed he skied every weekend that winter. He came in more often than before. He took big draughts of all that life had to give.

One night he came in just as I was going on break.

“My expectation was to see you, dude” he said, in that odd mix of education and vernacular so peculiar to philosopher/craftsmen.

“Dude, we always have next time,” I said echoing same.

I didn’t see Howie the next week, nor the week after.

A month later our mutual friend visited.

“I guess you heard about Howie,” he said.

“Sure, it’s a freakin’ miracle.”

“What are you talking about?” he said looking at me oddly.

“What are you?”

“Howie died last week.”

“He was cured,” I said barely getting the words out.

Our friend merely shook his head. No.

To this day I don’t know if Howie really believed he was cured, or if he just didn’t want anyone’s pity. I do know that if I had to do it all over again, I really wish I had never taken that stupid break. Every darn day.

“To regret deeply is to live afresh,” is something else Thoreau said.

I don’t think I believe him anymore.