Cup 23

Person: Barry Litwin

Location: Wild Boar Coffee, Fort Collins, Colorado

Drink: House coffee

Life ain’t always beautiful, but it’s a beautiful ride. 

I met Barry at a coffee shop in Fort Collins, Colorado—a city only 40 miles from my grandma’s house, where I was staying for a few days during Christmas break before flying back to Michigan.

I’d found Barry through my high school friend Emily. A few weeks earlier, she had emailed me with information about a friend of hers I had to meet: a former Wall Street man who had worked as a trapeze artist, and was now in vet school at Colorado State. It was a recommendation I couldn’t pass up, so I sent him an email and we set up a meeting. 

I let Barry pick the location. He chose Wild Boar Coffee—the epitome of a college-town coffee shop: friendly and relaxed baristas, slightly offbeat feel, crowded with students behind laptops or notebooks at every table.

It was clear Barry was a regular; he’d saved a great table next to the fireplace. We sat down and he got the conversation rolling.

“Okay, what did Emily tell you about me. We’ll start with that, and then I’ll fill in the gaps.”

Sounded like a good idea to me. I told him the few facts I knew and he chuckled, “Alright, you’re close.”

He paused, collected his thoughts, and started unraveling a story that began with him as a young boy in Pennsylvania. He was one of six kids, the son of a steelworker and a mother whose aspirations of college and a career had been cut short when the war had forced her to leave high school for a full-time job. Although Barry’s parents hadn’t had much money, they had exposed their kids to the arts, and emphasized the importance of hard work and a good education.

It was expected that all six kids would go to college, so Barry had worked two jobs—in the botany department of the Carnegie Museum during the day and at a steel mill at night—to save money to go to Penn State, where he had met a girl he followed out to California after graduation.

He had intended on marrying this girl, but—as it so often happens–life hadn’t gone according to plan. Their relationship had fallen apart, and Barry had moved to Anchorage to be a flight attendant manager for a regional airline. He’d stayed for a few years before moving to the Caribbean where he’d worked as a dishwasher when he wasn’t busy swimming in the ocean or cycling along the beach.

His parents had been appalled that their college-educated son was washing dishes, but Barry had needed time to think about what he really wanted in life.

He’d finally decided on law school—but stumbled on a different opportunity before he got around to applying. On his way home from the Caribbean, Barry had stopped briefly to visit a close friend, a doctor in St. Louis. Barry hadn’t thought much of the meeting, but a few weeks later the doctor had called to say one of his patients, a very successful stockbroker, was looking to hire an assistant.

The Broker was a brilliant older man who had gone blind from an illness. When Barry had sat down to hear more about the available job position, he’d said that, in exchange for the right salary, he would be willing to commit five years to the brokerage world before continuing with his plan of attending law school.

The Broker had laughed, which had caught Barry off-guard—it wasn’t the typical response to receive after accepting a job offer. But, as Barry was about to learn, this man was anything but typical; he was a difficult and high-maintenance employer. (One of his co-workers would later tell Barry no prior employee had ever lasted more than one year.)

It hadn’t taken Barry long to find out why. Barry told me that if I watched Scent of a Woman followed by The Devil Wears Prada, I would have a good sense of what working for this man had been like. Despite the pressures of the job, though, Barry had endured. He had committed to five years and he wasn’t about to leave early.

He had also changed his mind about law school; he’d decided he wanted to be a broker. After exhausting 12-hour days, he would spend his nights studying to earn a brokerage license. After his five years were up, he’d left his job, joined a competitive brokerage firm in St. Louis and built a strong clientele.

At this point in the meeting, I was captivated by Barry’s story, and anxiously awaiting what came next.

He continued on, saying that while he had been working as an investment broker, he’d become involved with a small regional high-end circus, through charitable and cultural volunteer work. One night, he’d asked if he could view the tent from the trapeze-platform after a show. Once up there, the performers, whom he’d gotten to know as friends, had told him (as a joke) that they wouldn’t let Barry back down, unless he flew. “Okay,” he said.

They’d harnessed him in, gave him a few tips, and let him fly.

When he had landed in the net at the bottom, the circus crew was in disbelief—he had perfect form, which Barry explained had come from his dance experience. (He had started dancing at age 12—initially to win a bet—and continued dance classes for seven years afterward.) The performers told him he should start training, so he did. Now he became a very successful stockbroker by day … and a trapeze artist by night. To top it all off, he’d met and married the love of his life. 

Unfortunately, there was trouble on the horizon. His spouse of 12 years developed brain cancer, a battle that would not be won. We didn’t talk much about their relationship or the cancer, but what Barry did have to say was poignant: having the love of his life die in his arms had changed the way he saw the world. He now appreciated life in a different way, and savored each moment.

That was why when he realized he was no longer happy, after post 9/11 regulations changed the brokerage industry, he had decided to change directions yet again.

A few years earlier, he’d taken a trip to visit a friend’s ranch outside of St. Louis, where he discovered he had a skill for working with horses. He had always been impressed with how the trick-riders in the circus were totally dedicated to their horses. He had developed a strong connection when he began to work with horses himself. When he was ready to leave his job, he had decided to follow his passion and find a way to work with horses full time.

To Barry, it didn’t matter that he would have to go back and take undergraduate classes with students half his age. It didn’t matter that getting into vet school would be a major challenge, or that he would be in his mid-50s before even starting his practice. He knew with complete certainty it was the right choice, and he had a laser-sharp focus to make it happen.

After nearly an hour of conversation, I’d finally found out how Barry had ended up in Fort Collins. His story was unlike any I had ever heard. Not only was it fascinating, he had an incredible presence as he told it. He is one of the most kind-hearted, energizing and understanding people I’ve ever met, and he told the story in a way that made me feel like anything was possible.

He also reiterated something that has been a reassuring reminder since: Everything happens for a reason, although sometimes we don’t understand the reason until much later.

Barry doesn’t believe in coincidence. It might seem like his life has been a series of disjointed events and strange twists of fate, but he says that all of his unique experiences have been leading him to this point in his life. As for his fate, it is the result of hard work, ingenuity, and the courage to be open to new people and experiences.

I left the meeting with an odd feeling of tranquility. Coffee with Barry was a reminder that my life isn’t going to be perfect; I will go through difficult times of uncertainty, experience painful loss, and encounter unexpected change. But with persistence and the right attitude, life goes on and gets better.

Like the Gary Allan song says, “Life ain’t always beautiful, but it’s a beautiful ride.”