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Significant People in Your Life

Who Simply Seem to Disappear… Like My Dear Friend Ernie

Sometimes it turns out that the gal serving you slivovitz at your favorite dive bar is an Olympic champion with a box full of medals. Sometimes, that guy at the dry cleaners will tell you stories of how he is a deposed prince whose family owns a castle in a Middle Eastern country that no longer exists.

What’s the word? There has to be a word for it. A word should exist for those people who have a momentary life-changing significance in your life — and then suddenly they are no longer there.
Poof. They’re gone. And you never know what became of them.
But their influence and importance remain throughout your life. What’s the word? A word like that must exist — or that word should be created.
I’m not talking about the old college professor you see again at her retirement, and she tells you how she always knew you were going to sort-of make it. I’m not talking about an editor who was a pain-in-the-ass who you meet again decades later, and you realize how important he was to you.
I’m talking about these fleeting momentary connections you have with a stranger who comes out of nowhere, changes your life, and then disappears without a trace.
Mine was Ernie.
A chubby, non-descript man with a few wisps of hair left, Ernie would hold court every day sitting on the bench under the awning of the entrance of Kingsley Manor, which is Hollywood’s oldest retirement community.
“You look like you could use a smoke,” he almost growled at me, as I sauntered out of the manor doors in a daze and leaned against one of the poles of the awning.
I sat down on the bench across from him and he shook out an American Spirit cigarette. I took it, leaned over to have him light it, and then sat back across from him without saying anything. I took a puff. Sighed.
Now, I don’t usually smoke, and if I ever did, it was because I had to have some of the hair-of-the-dog in order to tolerate going into a place. Remember when you could smoke at LA clubs? Before I could ever go into the Limelight or the Viper Room to see my friend’s band play, I had to have a smoke so I could breathe-in the similar air of the club without choking.
That day I met Ernie in the summer of 2009, I was just told that my Mom in the Urgent Care section of Kingsley would not be able to move her arm again, or walk again, after a debilitating stroke a few weeks before. Rosamunde de Mos-Szymanski was a stubborn Dutch woman who cursed her rehab people and didn’t listen to instructions. Or she couldn’t do what they asked, and therefore she lashed out.
Kingsley Manor looks like a foreboding brick building that you can see off the Hollywood Freeway near the Santa Monica exit. It looks like the perfect setting for a horror movie that takes place in an abandoned institution.
But it’s historic, originally opened as housing for seniors as Pacific Home Memorial Hospital in 1950, then renamed after the road that it is on. Known for its Spanish Colonial Revival style, the building has smiling gargoyles looking down at the entrance. Some people have their own cottage on the grounds, some people live in apartments where they can be checked on daily, and some people need 24-hour care, like my Mom after her stroke. As she grew worse, I had no one to talk to about her continuing deterioration.
I sat many hours, many days, with this old curmudgeon who told me he was Ernie — “Sharpshooting Ernie” — I remember. We talked a lot about life and death.
“Be ready, kid, she’s only going to get worse, I’ll be around to talk to if you need to, and I’ll have a smoke waiting for you. I’ll have an ear for you. But realize this is part of life. We all go when we’re ready.”
For years, Ernie became my stopping point before and after I saw my mom. I’d sit there and take one or two of his harsh natural cigarettes and joke with him that I was saving his ass because he wouldn’t smoke so much because I’m helping him out.
Sometimes I spent more time with Ernie than I did with my Mom.
Seeing Ernie became my addiction. I remember telling him about Mom’s new roommate being Elvis Presley’s secretary, and she is telling stories about working for The King.
Ernie was there the first time I came outside after my Mom didn’t recognize me. She told me she saw my Dad, who died a decade before. I burst into tears. Ernie rolled his eyes skyward, crossed his arms. His only comfort was a smoke he lit and passed to my bench.
“It’s life, kid, and she wants to get out of it,” Ernie said. “You have to learn to let her go.”
Ernie told very little about himself but assured me that his life story would make a great book — an even better movie. He knew inside info about corruption in LA politics, with the cops, with religious leaders, with secret societies.
No one comes to visit him, but he has a daughter nearby, he said. She doesn’t like what he did in his past.
“I know where the bodies are buried, kid — I mean literally,” he smirked. “Gangster shit, you know.”
He said he knew Benjamin (“don’t call him Bugsy”) Siegel, and he knew other underground folk. “People you never heard about, people you don’t want to hear about.”
He promised me an interview someday. He would tell all. He has it all written down in a diary hidden in his room.
One day I came out with a funny story I wanted to tell him. Mom gets wheeled to these community activities, and they hold a contest to unscramble words and phrases to make new words and they write the words on a chalkboard. Well, Rose always chose to unscramble letters to make them the most obscene words she could think of.
Ernie wasn’t there for me to tell the story.
A few days later, Mom told me she had a baby with her doctor. She insisted the staff all danced around naked at midnight every night. Ernie would love that story and we’d have a good smoke-choking laugh.
He still wasn’t there after about a week.
I asked at the front desk. They knew nothing.
“Oh, you mean BERNIE. He passed last week.”
I was a bit stunned. Was that the right person? The guy out front? Could I find out more about him? Could I contact his daughter?
Only a grandniece across the country existed, I was told. They forwarded a letter from me to her, but she never responded.
They already threw out the contents of his room.
And his name was “Bernie.” What? He never corrected me. Perhaps he wasn’t even Bernie.
Whoever he was, he disappeared from my life. Just like that.
He wasn’t there for me when my mother finally died a decade ago on June 1, 2014. But, his kind-of-comforting words lingered with me, and I thought more of him than I did my Mom those days after she passed.
In the middle of the night recently, I thought of a word to describe people like Ernie who come into our lives like he did. It was a perfect word, describing him well. It fit so well.
I was going to write it down the next morning, but I forgot.
Just like that, poof, it was gone.

You can find more of Mike’s musings at medium.com/@mikeszythewriter. You can reach Mike at mikeszy@aol.com.

       
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