A Broken Life: Cam, 29, is Out of Jail, Jobless, Broke, Alone -- and That's the Good News.
He caught my eye as I sat in the Nu Cafe in Worcester, Mass. looking over a song I had written a few years ago, seeing it as crap, and wondering what my March story was going to be.
Dressed in black, necklace to the waist, chains swaying at his side, multiple bands on both wrists, tattooed arms, his outfit cried out, "Look at me!" And so I did.
What stood out most to me, however, was the way he wandered around, flitting an eye here and then there, as if he were lost or searching for something, but didn't know what. He seemed so alone, so sad, so longing.
With plenty of other people in the place, he really stood out. I wondered: Who is he? What is he looking for?
His aimlessness eventually brought him over to the second-hand books lining the counter by my table. He strolled along the book counter, picking up a book here and there, turning a few pages, and then moving slowly on.
He stopped at my table. I kept my head down, scribbling in my notebook as if I were in some other world where you don't see another creature inches from you.
"This is a cool place," he said.
I looked up as if I had just become aware of his presence. "Yes, it is," I said. "Very friendly, good food. You can just sit, do your thing and nobody bothers you."
"You come here often?" he asked, using the storied, tried-and-true icebreaker.
"Not really, maybe my third time. But I really like it. I live nearby and may start coming more. It's like an outside office where I can just sit, drink coffee, listen to the music, and get some work done."
"What are you doing?"
"Oh, I'm looking at a song I wrote a few years ago. I hoped it would be something, but it's just a piece of crap."
"You're in music?"
"No. Never have been but I love music. I'm sitting here listening to these great songs and I'm wondering how I might get involved somehow in music."
"Really? I sing and play the guitar."
"You do? Hey, have a seat. Wait, first that's quite an outfit. Do you mind if I take your picture?"
"No, go ahead," he said, and posed for the photo above.
He joined me at my table. We exchanged names. His first name is Cam.
"I noticed you walking around," I said. The first time you've been here?"
"Yeah. Someone told me about it, said it was a great place to hang out. It's a straight walk from where I live in Kelly Square."
"You walked here? That's a long walk."
"Yeah, but that's okay."
"That's because you're young. How old are you anyway?"
"You look twenty."
He let out a little laugh. "I don't feel it."
He didn't ask my age but I could see that he was guessing. "Tell you what," I said in a semi-whisper, looking warily around and leaning closer. "I'm gonna tell you how old I am but you'd better keep your f-----g mouth shut -- or else. Got that?"
He smiled. "Got it."
"In two months, I'll be seventy-five."
"You're shittin' me."
"What? You never met anyone this old before? You think I should be dead? You open your mouth and you'll be dead!"
With that, we made an unlikely connection, and my new table mate opened up.
Early on, he said, he was a singer with regular gigs and even had a recording contract. "Then it all fell apart."
"Drugs, drinking," he said, "and one thing led to another." Getting caught drunken driving and carrying an unregistered firearm got him two stints in prison of nearly four years.
"I just got out," he said. "I'm broke. I need a job. Do you know where I can get a job?"
He said he went to a community college for two years and has an associate's degree in business. "It's useless," he said.
"What about the drugs and the booze?"
I raised an eyebrow.
"No, really. I'm even stopping smoking, down to about six cigarettes a day."
"Smoking is just as hard to stop as drugs and booze," I said. "What about family?"
Cam said that he grew up in Lawrence, Mass. and his mom and dad still live there with his two brothers and a sister. "They don't want anything to do with me."
He took part of that back. "Actually, my mom calls me even though if my dad found out he'd be pissed. I talked to my mom today."
"So, you're basically alone."
"No, I'm married."
"You're married! How long have you been married? Where's your wife? "
"Eight months. I've been married for eight months. She's in jail. You should have seen her arms when she went in, cuts all over both arms. She did it to herself. Drugs. I can't visit her because of my prison record."
I shook my head in disbelief.
"She's beautiful. Here, let me show you her picture."
He took out a little cell phone and showed me these photos. "You're right," I said. "She is beautiful and the two of you make a nice young couple."
"Listen, if it's all right with you, I might write a story about this. Could you send me these photos?"
I gave him my e-mail address and, right then and there, he sent the two photos to me, shown here.
After a half hour or so, I looked at my watch and said I had to go. "But in case I do write something, I'd like to talk to you some more. How about if we meet here tomorrow at five?"
As we were putting on our jackets -- it was bitter cold outside -- I thought about offering Cam a ride home. He was friendly, easy to talk to, and I liked him.
But isn't that how all con artists are? Was this all a made-up story? Was he was in the Nu Cafe looking for an easy mark to hit on for some fast cash and a car? Had he targeted me, an ancient greybeard sitting alone?
Having been in jail on a firearm conviction, he could have a gun. He needs money badly, now. He's on foot; he needs a car, now. And a gullible geezer's wallet and car are there for the taking.
I saw myself dead in the street with a bullet in my head.
I did not offer a ride. We shook hands. "It was nice meeting you, Cam," I said. "See you tomorrow."
When I got home and told my wife Barbara about meeting Cam, she was not surprised. She knows that I can't resist a story. She was also okay with my meeting him the next day.
"I'm glad you didn't give him a ride," she said, breathing a sigh of relief. "Please promise me that you won't get in a car with him or meet him alone."
I told my sister Ruby about my meeting Cam at the Nu Cafe and that I was going to meet him again the next day. A certified Social Worker with long experience dealing with addicts, she was skeptical.
"Yes, he was an addict," I said. "But now he's stopped doing drugs and alcohol. He's clean."
"They all say that," she said. "You need to be very careful."
Now I questioned everything he said.
But... but I still wanted to believe him. My humanist side -- a big part of who I am -- wanted to reach out to him and help. What if what he told me was true? What if he then went on to rebuild his life? What a story!
Cam did not show up for our meeting at the Nu Cafe. Using the e-mail from his phone, I e-mailed him that the Nu Cafe has regular karaoke and this might be a way to recharge his music career. No reply. So, if by some miracle Cam reads this, let me speak to him directly.
Yes, Cam, I believe you. You have a broken life. But you know what? What is broken can be fixed. I firmly believe that there is no limit to human resilience.
So Cam, where to start fixing things? I suggest that you sign up for karaoke at the Nu Cafe. They have Open Mic every Friday night from 6:30 to 9:30. Go there. Show them what you can do. Sing your heart out, Cam. Sing! Sing! Sing!
When you get up there, don't worry about a thing. As it is every Friday night, the place will be packed and everybody in the place will be pulling for you. There is no friendlier audience. Let me know and I'll be there cheering you on. Sing! Sing! Sing!
With applause ringing in your ears, you may be surprised at how quickly things can turn around. And it would be my honor and pleasure to honor your achievement with a different kind of story. In fact, I already have the headline. Here it is:
A Fixed Life: Cam is Clean, Singing, Reunited with his Beautiful Wife and Family, and Happy. He Did It!
So long and keep moving.
Update, May 15, 2013: Cam did not show up for our meeting the next day. He did not reply to an email. I have not seen or heard from him since. So is he a scam artist? Maybe. Or maybe not. I like to think not. I still want to write that story about a broken and lost young guy who finds his way through singing.
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