I don't recall the first time that I met him. It almost seems as if he has always been there. Sitting silently at the counter, having his one cup of coffee, and bantering with one of the waitresses or just talking quietly with another person. I had introduced him to quite a few of our regulars who like him just came in to be with one another. Through this interweave of personalities that grace our counter, Gene had become a friend.
Through funny coincidences, one of his closest friends; Harry; would often come in right after him and sit in the very same chair that he had sat in. Harry would ask if anyone had seen Gene and we would all get a chuckle out of the irony of it all. I remember the first time that I saw them sitting together. I walked over and introduced them with a smile. "Gene, this is Harry. Harry, this is Gene.". They took up the joke and shook each others hands saying, "Nice to meet you.".
As was the case with Harry, Gene and I had very little in common regarding our lives and political viewpoints. I felt that Gene must have been a union man as he seemed to have deep seeded Democratic ties but when we talked of things he seemed to on the surface agree with many of my conservative viewpoints. I told him once that he was actually a closet conservative which brought a smile to his lips when he said, "No way.".
Harry and I would often tease him over a radio host that he had much disdain for, Rush Limbaugh. We would accuse him of listening to him in private when no one else was around. On one birthday, I took a computer generated picture of Rush, wrote "To Gene, With all my Love, Rush" on it, and placed it in a picture frame. Gene would joke how it was put on his desk, pointing towards the wall. He said he might make a dart board out of it.
I knew very little of Gene's work life, only last week running into a mutual friend who had worked with him in the railways. The only thing we had talked about was a time when he had owned the store at Lake Billy Chinook. He told me that only to let me know that he understood some of the inner feelings of leading a crew and working with the public. He told me that he did not envy my position.
Most of the time, the crew and customers around him teased Gene. He seemed to enjoy the attention. I would always ask him if he wanted more coffee even though I knew that one cup was his limit. He would just smile and say, "No thank you".
In all of our time together, we only seemed to have one real deep serious talk. Gene had found out that I was battling cancer. In a very knowing way, Gene asked me how I was doing. When I said, "OK", he said, "Really, Lyle, I understand more than you know. You can talk to me.". For a bit, we had a very deep conversation of the fear and struggle that goes along with the word. Then, when someone outside our conversation stepped into our circle, he seemed to pull back from the deeply caring person to the smiling almost mischievous imp that loved to tease and be teased.
Everyone around him seem to love him for who he was. Judy had a sort of standing joke with him over a spoon. I am not sure where that came from as it seemed to be a personal joke between the two of them. In a card that we all signed for him the other day, she placed a spoon in it knowing that he would understand. Regardless, customers and help alike seemed to enjoy being around him. If I was sitting down with a meal, I would often sit next to him and we would banter back and forth, often about our wives and our kids. Deep down, I could feel the love that he had for his family as he knew that I had for mine.
On a Christmas card once, his close friend, Harry, had wrote to me a thank you note for what he said was being there for Gene. He said that Jake's met allot to Gene. I recall thinking as I read that the feeling was mutual. Gene met allot to Jake's.
In many ways, I have always looked at Jake's as a sort of mission. I have even made the statement that if Jesus were here today, he would be pouring coffee at our counter. We seem to have such a wide variety of people, personalities, and needs that grace it on a daily basis. Some quiet like Gene and others who seem to bring out loud talk and laughter from others around them.
I recall one customer once who stopped me as I was pouring coffee. "You are the guy on the radio", he said, "And this place is just like you said. It feels like home when you walk in. Do you pay those guys up at the counter to just sit there and joke and laugh with one another?". I smile as I realized that those same enduring parts of what is Jake's actually pay me to be there.
Gene went into surgery the other day. The surgery was lengthy and involved. Tonight, his body struggles to hang on. The doctors battle to keep the inner infection at bay and his family must decide on what is best for him.
I awoke a couple of hours ago with a deep pain inside. I knew it was a sort of sympathy pain for my dear friend who lays in the bed up in the hospital. I had so many enquiries yesterday, that I finally called Harry up last evening. His wife first answered the phone and when she realized it was me thanked me for what all I had done for Gene. She said that Gene's wife had told her that Jake's was the bright spot in Gene's daily life. I thanked her but reminded her that it was not me but the entity of Jake's itself....both employees and customers alike.
So, tonight, I find myself introducing you all to yet another angel who has graced my life. I pray for God's mercy and will in his situation. And for his family and the decisions that they must make. A tear wells up as I realize that at least in this life, I may never get the chance again to sit and talk with him. I wonder if their will be a big coffee counter in Heaven. I kind of hope so.