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  • As a teenager I worked in a grocery store located in the terminal of an elevated train line. There was a donut shop across from us, staffed by a colorful quartet. There was Paul, the excitable German baker, and the two counterwomen, crusty Josie and innocent, lovely Irene. And then there was Charley Mott, the laconic janitor. One Friday evening I went to the alley for a cigarette break. A drunk approached me and asked for change. I’d seen him around the terminal a few times, and figured he was OK. I gave him what coins I had and turned to go back to work. Charley hurtled past me, tackled the drunk and wrestled him to the ground. He banged the man’s right hand repeatedly against the ground until he released what he’d been holding: a stiletto. “He saw you getting paid earlier,” he said. It was the longest speech I ever heard him deliver.

    I thought I was a hot shit wordsmith in college. Many of my journalism and creative writing instructors thought otherwise. They took great delight in cutting me down to size. So did Professor Philip Klass, but he was the only one who went to the trouble of building me back up again. He patiently taught me to make style subordinate to substance. He was a miser with praise, but even the barest hint of a compliment led me to believe that there might be hope for me yet. Klass was a noted author and an exacting mentor, and I blossomed under his tutelage. By the time I graduated I was a humbler man and a writer for life.

    I met Frank Grey when I was down and out in Toronto. I’d flown in from Philadelphia, convinced that I’d never find a job in film in the States. Frank worked for the Canadian branch of United Artists. He was a large, affable and exceptionally gracious man. He made a few phone calls to some contacts and found someone who agreed to see me the next day. I had enough money to take a cab back to the airport or stay in a hotel, but not both. My panic must have shown on my face, because Frank invited me to have dinner and spend the night at his home. I didn’t get the job, but I did regain a good bit of my faith in humanity. When I heard, a year later, that Frank had died of a heart attack, I wrote his widow and told her how much her husband’s kindness had meant to me. I suspect she got a flood of such letters.

    Charley, Phil, Frank -- I never celebrated you in public before, and it’s too late now to tell you in person, but your grace, your courage and your wisdom have forever remained with me. Every time I reach out to others, I sing your song.

    (Image: "The Son of Man" by Rene Magritte)
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