Person: August Crabtree
drink: tall brewed coffee from Starbucks
August Crabtree is a well-known face at the Campbell County Public Library. As a loyal patron for the past five or so years, he’s read an impressive number of books and just recently he’s started bringing in 4x6 prints of photos he’s taken around town to sell to the librarians for two dollars a piece. My mother is one of those librarians.
My mom has gotten to know August over the years. He’s a straightforward and friendly guy who isn’t shy about his difficult past. August is an unemployed, recovering alcoholic, with chronic depression and anxiety—not exactly someone a mother would recommend her daughter have coffee with. However, my mom assured me he was a genuine guy and said I would enjoy his perspective so I agreed to a meeting.
Since he doesn’t have a phone so my mom had to wait until he came into the library to see if he’d be interested in coffee. He was game and told my mom to have me head to the Starbucks downtown and ask for a latte for August, “They’ll know what she means” (it meant an extra hot, extra foam latte). He would wait for me at the City fishing lake in his beat-up red Toyota pickup. He didn’t want a coffee shop because they won’t let him smoke.
I tried to keep my apprehension for the situation out of my mind as I trekked to Starbucks before circling the lake looking for a truck that fit his description. My roommate who had joined me on my road trip out west was with me. She was going to catch up on some reading while August and I talked. As we got out of the car, he yelled in a scratchy and slightly high-pitched voice, “Well you’re late! I’ve been waiting,” then let out an friendly laugh to show her was joking. His appearance—cutoff button shirt tucked into ripped jeans, hair pulled back into a small ponytail, and a mouthful of worn-out teeth—caught me off guard, but the non-threatening laugh put me at ease. I introduced my friend and handed him the coffee. He asked if I’d brought sugar, I apologized but he said not to worry, he’d figured I would forget so he brought his own.
He pulled two packets of white sugar out of his pocket and poured them into the cup. Then he searched for something to stir the coffee. His best option was a half burned stick of incense from inside his truck; he stirred a few times and tossed the incense back in the truck. Satisfied, he took a drink and let out a startling yelp. I asked if there was something wrong and he enthusiastically replied, “Nope, It’s perfect!”
Before I could suggest finding a place to sit he announced, “I have a skinny ass and I can’t sit down long.” I pointed to a bench near the water. “In that hot sun! I had a heat stroke in Arizona and now I can’t handle the sun, let’s just sit right down here in the grass.” Then he reached into his old truck again, grabbed two seat cushions from the drivers side, threw them in the grass and took a seat. I had no choice but to follow suit.
I thought I would give an introduction to myself, explain why I wanted to have coffee, what the purpose of the project was, etc., but I never had the chance. He was telling me stories before I even had time to get situated. My mom had told him that I liked photography so he handed me his Pentax camera with a long lens and showed me how to go through the pictures. While I was doing that, he put another packet of sugar into his coffee, this time using the pencil in his front pocket to stir. I asked him a few basic questions and before I knew it, his story started to unfold.
August, who is 54, spends a lot of time at the library because he loves reading. The habit is an effect of his chronic depression. It started years ago a time during a time when he started to lose his “zap”. It happened slowly, his workdays started to dwindle until he only had the energy to work an hour a day. Besides sleep, his only activity was reading—sometimes a book a day. He started in the non-fictions before moving to science fiction and later books that explained the human condition—about his condition. With the help of proper medication and time, his “zap” has returned for the most part and the knowledge he picked up from the countless books has stayed with him.
He mentioned alcoholism so I asked about that. He originally started drinking because it took the edge off his depression, “It stopped me from going crazy and blowing my brains out” (my mom later told me August isn’t one to manipulate the truth—he tells it like it is). But what was saving him was also killing him. Right when he would start making decent money and turn his life around, he would drink too much or end up back in jail. Things finally reached a breaking point that left no other option than the turbulent process of Alcoholics Anonymous. After numerous setbacks, he finally sobered up and he’s been sober for the last 25 years.
At this point in his meeting, August got up without saying anything and walked to his truck for a big Folgers Coffee can. He sat back down, opened the can, and pulled out a cigarette butt. Then he took a popsicle stick with a small slit in it and a lighter out of his pocket. I had wondered how someone without a job could afford cigarettes; he was about to answer my question. He took a cigarette butt from the can and wedged it into the slit in the popsicle stick so he could light it and steal the remaining few puffs from the end. During the course of our conversation, he stopped three times to go through this methodical process. Then he’d jump back into his story as if he had never stopped.
I asked him how he spent his free time since he doesn’t have a job. He said he’s trying to find a job—he’s been in construction his whole life and can build anything—but he does spend a lot of time “musing over things.” He frequently thinks about methods to get better. He also thinks about how he got sick in the first place. He understands the nature of chronic depression, but that’s not what he attributes his troubles to. He said what got him depressed and drinking in the first place was not following his bliss. The fear of judgment from his friends and family stopped him from pursing his true interests. The lack of passion in his life created a hollowness that he used alcohol to fill.
However, alcohol was a temporary solution. Through the difficulties of his life—depression, alcoholism, jail, unemployment—and his reading and musing, he’s realized that the path to happiness is following your passion. Passion is what feeds the soul, what fills the hollowness. Following bliss is the secret to preventing destructive habits. That’s the reason he shows up at the library with photographs; sharing his arts brings him joy. August asked me what I was passionate about, which caught me off guard. It’s a trickier question than it seems and I couldn’t organize the dozens of thoughts floating around my head into a coherent sentence so I replied with, “I’m not exactly sure, I’m still in the process of finding out”. He told me not to worry, “you’re young, which means you have the world by the balls, you’ll figure it out (August has an affinity for the f-word, but I left it out of that sentence).
His simple point resonated with me—in a year I’ll be diving into the real world job market, between now and then I better come up with a better answer to that question than “I’m not exactly sure”.
That wasn’t the only point during the hour that August surprised me with his complex and canny statements. The more it happened, the more I realized how I had underestimated August. I never would have guessed he would be giving me detailed accounts of historical events, talking about the sustainability of civilization, or reflecting on the human condition. At one point explained the science behind how the mind works and even drew me a diagram depicting how the subconscious and the body work together and communicate through dreams. He is a man with wisdom to share. Yes, the wisdom might be unconventional, but nonetheless, I came away from the experience with a broader perspective of life, hardship, and a reminder that we are all fighting some kind of battle and could benefit from a little compassion.
To be honest, under other circumstances, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to talk with August, but I’m glad my mom suggested it. August helped me realize that if I let assumptions and outward appearance dictate whom I choose to talk to, if I judge people and stay within my comfort zone, I am going to miss many valuable—and colorful—conversations.