Hitching at 100

By David Abel | Globe Staff | 11/23/2003

FROM HIS DEATHBED, WHERE HE ARRIVED on his 100th birthday, Arnold Stephens wouldn't stop cracking jokes, no matter how many of his friends bawled or prayed he would sit up, free of all the tubes and pumps, and shuffle off, like he was hitching another ride to Burger King.

A World War II veteran who reached my age during the Great Depression, it seemed he embodied everything I wasn't, everything I aspired to be.

An unrelenting optimist, Arnold could make the most morose characters laugh, even an oncologist explaining the extent of his cancer. At 30, when he sold gallons of soap during the Depression, he liked to say, "I squeezed the nickel so hard I could make the Indian ride the buffalo on the other side of the coin."

Though he owned an apartment in one of the wealthiest parts of town, a two-bedroom condo that could have fetched more than a half-million bucks and had the word "Royal" embroidered on the brownstone's burgundy awning, he remained a self-described "cheapy" to the end -- eating at "church dinners" after his wife died 20 years before, sticking out his thumb for a ride to Copley Square, or savoring the tapioca pudding nurses served him in his final days.

I met Arnold two years before at one of his church dinners, a soup kitchen a few blocks from his apartment. As I waited for someone else, I couldn't help noticing as Arnold, stooped yet seemingly hale, regaled a table full of grumpy old men.

I walked over to the short man, who sat at the head of a table in a rumpled brown suit, and listened as he told one of his self-deprecating jokes: "I went into the store to buy a piano the other day and asked if I could buy it on the installment plan," he was saying. "They wouldn't sell it to me ... Go figure.''

Then I got a glimpse of how he could eat. The scrawny guy had the appetite of a sumo wrestler. As I watched him move from pork burger to coconut pie, devouring each, I asked if he had enough at home. "I have a microwave, but if I don't have anything to eat, I just starve," he said, pausing for a few long seconds, his saggy jaw unable to conceal the coming smile. "Yeah right."

To be sure, Arnold lived off a meager income - he relied on federal aid just to pay the taxes on his condo - but his pension provided more than enough to eat. I wrote about him in a front-page story about land-rich, cash-poor seniors who scrimped by because either they wouldn't move or refused to hock their homes for so-called reverse mortgages. The soup kitchen's buffet-style free food surely had its appeal, but the real reason he ate there and at other churches was "to meet the fellas," as he liked to say, or "shoot the baloney."

It was hard not to like Arnold, who never had children and whose only relatives were three nephews, just one of whom he saw regularly. His exuberance quickly breached the walls I had come to naturally build as a reporter, and I soon found myself dropping by his dust-covered apartment, not to check up on him, but to chat. It didn't take long before we became pals.

One thing I never could understand, though, was what possessed a man in his late 90s to hitchhike.

Arnold, of course, had a simple explanation. "A man has to get around," he would say, his squeaky voice rising and falling with every syllable.
Like many seniors, especially one who spent his life traveling through Europe and Asia, Arnold thrived on going places, which made it particularly hard to give up driving. In fact, he remained behind the wheel until only a few years before, when he was 95. But he lived in a big city, I noted, wasn't it risky? How did he know he wouldn't find himself in a dangerous situation? He didn't think much about it, because it came down more to dollars than sense: He refused to waste money on a cab. So, for pragmatic reasons, he took to hobbling out to the curb, sticking out his thumb, and waiting patiently. "People are nice," he said with another disarming smile. "They're all my friends.''

I learned a lot over the two years I palled around with Arnold. There would be lessons about life, and death.

He presented a model for a man who could live contentedly with few material possessions. The passage of time, whether it slowed late at night or sped up when he looked at a calendar, never tormented him. He could be as comfortable with silence as with a deep conversation. He knew how to laugh and how to tell a joke; but he also knew how to listen and how to comfort. And unlike many former soldiers of his generation, he never hid his affection, often telling me of all the friends and family I brought to meet him, "Tell them I love 'em."

Nothing - other than cute girls and good food, of course - gave him more pleasure than giving presents. More than anything else, he liked to record old movies and send visitors home with tapes. Whenever I asked if I could bring him something, all he wanted were blank videotapes, which he always insisted on paying for. On each tape, he wrote "Gift," just in case, he explained, the FBI started asking questions. He would also make presents of cameras, the disposable kind, because he thought it important we all hold on to memories.

Arnold also loved to drive around. He knew his way around town better than the most adroit cabbie, and every drive to the supermarket, where he insisted on pushing around his own cart, or wherever else, included a history lesson. As we sat in traffic in my VW Bug, which he called "Herbie," he would tell me stories about horse-drawn fire engines or the great molasses flood in 1919. Later, amazingly, he would e-mail me - one of his nephews gave him a computer - things he forgot along the way.

Other than the computer and an old TV,
both of which always had problems, Arnold lived in a cramped apartment strewn with cat litter. Paint peeled off the old, warped walls and the place hadn't seen a renovation since before man set foot on the moon. But he got along fine, shopping for himself, making his own meals, and scrubbing all his dishes. When he had the energy, he changed his sheets and did his own laundry. He also looked after his roommate Janna, an infirmed woman 30 years younger, who began renting a room from him and his wife in 1958, and never left.

As his 100th birthday approached, I asked Arnold what he lived for. "Burger King," he said at first, only partially joking. As much as he savored the hefty portions at soup kitchens, or the spare salads and cooked cabbage he served himself at home, he liked to go out to eat, often treating himself to baked potatoes at Wendy's or French fries at Burger King. When we went out together - his favorite place was the Old Country Buffet, which he loved for its all-you-can-eat buffet - it never failed to amaze me how much he could pack down, how second helpings often turned into fourth helpings. Arnold easily swigged more than five cups of coffee at each meal.

I pushed him for a more serious answer, and he said this: "Some people live for pretty girls. Some live to eat. Some like to go to the movies. I like all of those. But it's my friends that matter the most."

After all the years, I asked whether one lesson stood out, some piece of wisdom he most wanted to pass along. He looked at me intently and said: "To be more tolerant."

He also spoke of love.

"It's the biggest joy in life," he said. "There can't be too much love."

About three months before he died, Arnold complained about some pain, and I took him to the local Veteran's hospital. A test, his doctor told me, showed he had an advanced stage of bladder cancer. I found myself in an odd position, one I hadn't expected.

It was up to me to break the news.

I figured it was best to first ply him with something to eat, a muffin and a large coffee, which he devoured. When we spoke about the prognosis, Arnold never showed a sign of fear, nor did he ever lose his sense of humor. He favored aggressive treatment, he told me, and despite growing aches and pains, he wanted to live.

As he underwent nearly a month of radiation treatment, I watched in awe as he refused to complain and flirted with the nurses. When I asked how he felt, he insisted: "Fantastic … Excellent - with a capital K," a saying of his I never quite understood. Did he need or want anything? He'd smile and say: "Bring me a bag of gold."

A few days later, I called to wish him a happy birthday.
There was a long pause, and it sounded like he was struggling to hold the phone. Then I heard this: "Dave, I can't breathe."

An ambulance took him to a nearby emergency room, one of countless elderly people rushed to hospitals on any given day for trouble breathing.

The night before, security guards had thrown me out of the same hospital for a story the paper assigned me to cover, a relatively routine event for me. This time I cleared past the guard station and found Arnold hooked up to an array of machines, with a huge breathing mask pumping oxygen into his lungs, now full of liquid.

All I could do was try to impress upon the doctors and nurses the preciousness of this man. Then, before his nephew and a friend from his church arrived, a resident asked me whether he should be resuscitated if his heart stopped, or if necessary, intubated with a ventilator.

I wasn't sure what to do - I had never conceived of having this kind of relationship with someone I wrote about for the newspaper. This definitely wasn't taught in Journalism 101.

Five days after his 100th birthday, I stood outside his room in the intensive-care unit and listened as nurses marveled at his improved health. Doctors suggested he might soon be well enough to return home. As I prepared to leave that afternoon, Arnold turned to me, and over the sound of pumps and monitors, he said, "I love you."

That evening, a nurse called. Arnold's heart rate climbed sharply. He had no more than 10 minutes to live, the nurse figured.

I raced to the hospital. When I arrived, the machines had been turned off and the tubes removed from his arms.

He was dead.

Alone with him, before his family and other friends arrived, I kissed his cold forehead and thanked him for prying open my heart, for showing me that poverty, old age, and disease doesn't have to sap spirit.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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