H1 element

Poignant Story of an Enduring Friendship




​The Friendship

A personal essay by Paul H. Belz

A macabre, solitary figure shuffled along the mall’s first floor promenade on a cold, gray, January morning. Spindly legs supported a short, attenuated body. Deeply wrinkled, sun-ravaged skin; sunken cheeks; bearded chin; an anemia-triggered yellow pallor; an overall swarthiness; hirsute arms and legs; hard, deep-set hazel eyes framed by heavy black brows; the juxtaposition of youthful looking, thick, jet black hair with otherwise crumbling features; and an oxymoronic swaggering shuffle; this grotesque confection was surely concocted by Hollywood to play the monster Moriarity in Sherlock Holmes. He spoke with no one and disappeared after forty-five minutes.

It soon became apparent during this winter of 1996 that he would become a daily nine o’clock apparition at the mall. My eyes were persistently and irresistibly drawn to him, as he moved with the shuffle that displaces the youthful gait of the arthritis-ravaged elderly, because his villainous appearance was paradoxically accompanied by a vague aura of nobility. After a few weeks, I proffered a mallwalker’s protocol-appropriate “hello” and we exchanged banalities about the weather. My initiative was to be generously rewarded over the ensuing three years.

Our first conversation debunked my imagination’s licentiousness. His name was Paul; he was a recovering heart bypass patient; and he was walking to save his life. I liked him immediately and never gave his appearance another thought.

His swagger was residual from a life of glamour, travel, beautiful people, music making, political intrigue, criminal indictments, acquiring wealth, and losing wealth. He had been a world-class musician and business partner to a protégé and close political operative of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s.

Fate would lead him on four tumultuous voyages on the ocean of life which would challenge his character, test his relationships, reconfigure his values and leave him lost at sea in a desperate search for the essence of his being. His primary navigational tool was a friendship which served as an omnipresent beacon providing reassurance whenever hopelessness reached the Rubicon.

Born in 1924, the odyssey which ultimately brought this Baltimore native into the realm of mallwalkers began during his high school days at City College H.S. City was an elite Baltimore public school in the 1940s and 1950s, producing an extraordinary proportion of Baltimore’s twentieth century leaders. Only Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which specialized in pre-engineering studies, rivaled City’s academic reputation. Its sports program was second to none, and it boasted of a talented marching band to complement its fearsome football team. In this milieu of excellence, un-athletic and unscholarly Paul found peer respect through his prowess with the trumpet. He graduated from City in 1942 with a passion for music, indelible habits of partying, hard drinking and smoking, and a friend named Harold.

The Peabody Conservatory of Music embraced this passionate musician and melded his improvisational instincts to a craftsmanship sufficient to produce a marketable star. He graduated from Peabody in 1946 and after further refinement at the Julliard School in New York, he was swept up in the halcyon days of big band music. His talent carried him to first and second trumpet stints with Stan Kenton, Louie Prima, Harry James, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson and others. Physically attractive as a youth, he lived the good life, with money to burn and a phalanx of adoring girls in relentless pursuit. Trumpet soloists were sexy. Marriage to a beautiful wife and two healthy daughters completed the American dream for Paul. Fortunately life never informs us when it’s as good as it’s going to get.

Dashel Hammonds wrote that “Fame is just a paint job.” An observer can never tell the quality of what it’s covering until it’s removed.

On the day his second four year term as governor of Maryland ended, William Donald Schaefer lamented: “Five minutes before twelve, everyone in the room wanted to be my friend. Five minutes after twelve no one remembered who I was.” Schaefer, however, had shrewdly built bridges to the future in anticipation of the day when the paint would be stripped away. Like a quality New England home, he weathered the changing seasons well because he knew himself well. Early fame can divert young people from the introspection necessary to know themselves and from the planning and bridge-building necessary for the inevitable day when their fame vanishes.

Paul naively assumed his music career would evolve naturally, maintain momentum and flow forever. John Lennon said: “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” Paul “blew his lip out” one day and life happened to him. Just as a major league baseball pitcher’s arm can only withstand throwing a finite number of fastballs before it snaps like an overused rubber band, a major league trumpet player’s lip can only endure hitting a finite number of high notes before paralysis intrudes. As with Governor Schaefer, everyone relished Paul’s company while he had a limelight for them to parasitically share. The opportunities to hardwire his future were limitless. But the sudden injury meant a sudden end to his career, and the illusory friends vanished.

Instead of a hardwired future, a frantic jury-rigging process began. The beacon in the now turbulent sea remained his loyal friend and soulmate Harold.

Serendipity smiled on Paul when he was given an opportunity to learn the food brokerage business in partnership with Robert G. “Bobby” Baker. In addition to his partnership with Baker, in 1953, he founded and managed his own firm in Towson, Maryland. He spent the 1950s learning this lucrative albeit corruption-plagued trade.

Bobby Baker, meanwhile, positioned himself as a protégé and a primary political operative for Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), the majority leader in the U.S. Senate, and by many accounts the most ruthless and skilled to ever hold that position. Baker obtained the important job of secretary to the Senate majority. His burgeoning wealth and power enabled him to build the glamorous Carousel Hotel, one of the first high-rise beachfront hotels in Ocean City, Maryland. By all appearances, Paul had joined forces with a rising star.

Fate had other ideas.

Republican Senator Barry Goldwater’s bid for the White House ended in a landslide victory for LBJ in 1964. The one campaign issue of Goldwater’s that did find a receptive public was his attack on political corruption in Washington.

History presents compelling evidence that the close 1960 election was brokered and purchased from the Chicago mafia in a secret meeting with Joe Kennedy. The Teamsters union subsequently delivered enough votes to put Jack Kennedy into the White House.

Searching for a “smoking gun” to use in the 1964 election campaign, Republicans uncovered what they believed to be an illegal campaign contribution of $25,000 made in the 1960 election by Bobby Baker and Matthew H. McCloskey, then treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. Republicans charged Baker with influence peddling and conflict of interest, and began the most titillating Congressional probe in years.

Every aspect of Baker’s life was investigated, and he was pursued relentlessly. Bid-rigging and kickbacks were alleged relating to the construction of the Carousel Hotel. The IRS investigated for tax evasion. Baker resigned his Congressional post in October, 1963, ostensibly to devote full time to his legal defense. In reality he was removed by the Democrats in order to defuse Goldwater’s corruption issue.

Baker was to be defended by the prestigious Washington law firm of Edward Bennett Williams, whose defense strategy alleged illegal wiretapping by the government.

Paul was dragged into the fray by virtue of his association with Baker. His emotional nadir arrived when a pending witness in a trial concerning Carousel Hotel corruption was killed when his light airplane mysteriously exploded over the waters off Ocean City, Maryland.

Paul, convinced that his partner had arranged to have the witness killed, began to entertain fears for his own life because of what he knew and might have to reveal to avoid prison. Paul was essentially honest, but his desire to make enough money to maintain the lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed during his music career led him to adopt a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” position with regard to Baker’s activities. Paul’s immense legal fees allowed him to narrowly avert prison, but consequent debts compelled him to declare bankruptcy, which in turn sullied his name, destroyed his marriage, and left him broken in spirit.

Recovering from a nervous breakdown, he became reclusive and hesitant to make new friends although ironically he persisted with his food brokerage business, for which people contact is the life-blood. He gradually became active in the local Republican Party, espousing new-found conservative beliefs which were truer to his essence than his more expedient democratic liberalism had been.

His legal battle and attendant financial losses took a crushing toll on his family, culminating in an embittering divorce. Paul confided to me that his wife had destroyed all of his music records and personal recordings and poisoned their two daughters against him. Twenty years later, vituperation spewed forth and hatred etched every crevice of his face at the mention of her name.

Twenty years of a normal but austere lifestyle—relative to his earlier jet-set life—included marriage in 1975 to a career woman who loved him unconditionally. He said he never truly felt worthy of his second wife although he professed to love her deeply. I suspect the reversal of gender roles contrasted uncomfortably with his macho past, and he never felt fulfilled with a wife who was the primary breadwinner. Being needed, not needy, was essential to his psyche. He was deeply grateful to her, but accepting her help diminished his self-respect.

He was only truly comfortable in the company of his alter ego, Harold.

In 1995, fate struck another crushing blow to Paul, but this time it included his lifelong friend. Both men had to undergo dangerous heart bypass surgery.

Ironically, their dual misfortune would create a confluence of events which would allow them to spend more time together than ever before in their fifty-year relationship. It would enable them to grow spiritually closer and lead Paul to what I believe was the discovery of his true essence and that long-elusive inner peace.

Unbeknownst to him, he had traversed the Buddhist-prescribed “Eightfold Path” toward Nirvana and learned that wealth, fame, power, sex, pleasure, and material acquisitions could never bring enduring peace and happiness. His final battle for life itself was to culminate in the realization that what he really spent his life searching for externally was ultimately to be found within.

I believe it’s commonplace to take seventy-four years—Paul’s age in 1998—to experience that epiphany, and sadly, it’s a lesson that’s virtually impossible to convey to younger generations. Each individual has an intrinsic need to travel life’s blind alleys toward happiness before inevitably discovering that the well-spring for that emotion is within. It’s a difficult search, and by comparison, finding the purest gold, the biggest diamond, or the largest oil field becomes a childishly simple challenge.

During his three voyages through the tempests of an abruptly ended music career, a business venture leading to the precipice of prison, and a personal cyclone of bankruptcy, divorce and emotional breakdown, his beacon had been his soulmate Harold. For his fourth voyage, which would traverse a sea of physical devastation, Harold would not be his beacon but his shipmate. Harold had found inner peace and happiness long ago. On this final voyage, he would lead Paul to life’s ultimate discovery—oneself.

They both used St. Joseph’s Hospital in Towson and Dr. Garth R. McDonald. They worshiped that doctor. Both survived the risky surgery and were ordered to walk forty-five minutes a day at the mall. They concurred that there was less pain associated with the surgery than one experiences with a root canal procedure on a tooth. Neither deluded himself about the relative dangers of the two procedures, however. Both men understood that in the aftermath of the surgery, they faced a future clouded by the specter of sudden death. They achieved an enhanced appreciation for each moment of life and for simple pleasures which formerly meant nothing to them.

In Paul’s case, the mallwalking regimen was designed to help his body fight a desperate battle for survival against a life’s accumulation of self-inflicted abuse. He began walking alone about a month prior to Harold’s initial appearance at the mall. I’m uncertain whether pure love of life or fear of separation from the only reality he knew propelled him to persevere. My uncertainty was borne of witnessing a survival strategy of self-canceling tactics, including the endurance of painful medical procedures and follow-up exercise, while simultaneously stressing his body with cigarette smoke and artery-clogging food. He wanted to live, but on his terms. His new found inner peace was enigmatic in that regard.

The shared experience the friends were embarking upon would reap the spiritual reward of a new dimension of intimacy for their relationship. They could now empathize with each other in ways that even their wives could not: comparing treatments, medications, encouraging signs, and ominous symptoms. Healthy people have an easily depleted reservoir of patience for listening to medical minutiae and the treatment chronologies of sick friends and relatives. When the empathy circuit-breakers of others flipped off from overload, Harold and Paul became mutually priceless outlets. They began walking as a mandate from their doctors, but they endured walking because they treasured the time together. Each was the only person in the other’s life issuing no demands and rendering no judgments. Harold was not going to nag Paul about his continued smoking. Thoreau said: “The most I can do for my friend, is simply to be his friend.” These two old comrades achieved that exquisite chemistry, and Paul had come to realize that mobs of adoring fans, perfectly executed high notes, and material wealth had been red herrings in his search for contentment.

Though spiritual soulmates, they were a visual odd couple, creating a comical Mutt and Jeff appearance as they strolled the mall. Harold was tall and lighter-complected with the alert, dancing eyes of a politician assaying a crowded room at a fund-raiser. He had an aura that would draw people in. Possessed of a strong, arthritis-free gait, he inexplicably swayed from side to side and had an exaggerated, impatient arm-swing, the cadence of which was faster than that of his feet. Paul was short, dark complected, with eyes that rarely changed focus, and he had that arthritis-induced shuffling gait. The visual effect of the two moving side by side put me in tear-producing laughter then, and its memory does so now. What allows me to escape irreverence and arrogance with this assessment is the fact that they were always embroiled in laughter themselves, self-deprecation and teasing insults being their humor of choice.

Paul never shouted when he chatted with Harold, but his voice possessed some weird attribute which made it reverberate throughout the mall. I always heard Paul before I saw him, sometimes from two levels above. Only one other mall acquaintance’s voice of the hundreds I’ve met has the same quality. It always made it a bit disconcerting to walk with him because I knew the general mall population could listen at its pleasure. Fortunately, Paul always whispered when the conversation struck a politically incorrect theme.

The two pals truly savored their time together, walking seven days a week, excepting the Wednesdays that Paul traveled to Virginia during the phase-out period of his business. He officially retired from full-time work in 1996.

On a typical morning, the first of the two to arrive at the mall would patiently wait at a Nordstrom food court table for the other. They didn’t want their time together shortened. After walking, they rested and chatted for about half an hour before departing the mall. When either missed a walking session without forewarning, the other would anxiously telephone later in the morning to insure the absentee’s well-being.

Despite their slow pace, I felt privileged to be welcomed on their walks several times a week for close to a year with conversations covering politics and current events in general, local characters, business dealings, sports, families, women, and of course, health. I always left laughing.

Harold was the retired, long-time manager of a prominent stationery store, first in downtown Baltimore and later in the suburbs. The suburban store was in the heart of the financial and legal district of Baltimore County, so Harold got to know every legal and political figure of substance in the area. A registered Democrat, although a conservative one, he ultimately ran the financial campaigns for three successful county executives. The septuagenarian unsuccessfully ran for political office as a lark in 1998 and garnered over 14,000 votes to demonstrate the respect in which he was held in Baltimore County political and community circles.

He grew up in a black neighborhood in Baltimore City and loved to tell stories of how his black friends would look out for his welfare within an unfamiliar and often hostile culture. He had a far deeper appreciation for blacks’ frustrations than did Paul. His family ties were also much warmer. He incessantly spoke fondly of his arthritis-wracked wife Louise, his son Jeffrey, and his granddaughter Jenna, a purported soccer and swimming phenom. He wore a beeper and carried a cell phone at the mall, spending part of his retirement days running errands for various family members. Paul, on the other hand, rarely broached family topics. He felt unworthy of his current wife, hated his former one, and spent only nominal time with his two daughters’ families.

His favorite discussion topic was politics. Paul was a huge fan of Baltimore County’s second district Republican Congressman Bob Ehrlich, Jr., and on frequent occasions he tried without success to get me—a lifelong registered Republican—to accompany him to parties and fund-raisers. Local political activism became his primary retirement diversion.

As time passed, the animated, joyful ambiance the two radiated became infectious, and the number of warm, daily greetings they received from fellow mallwalkers multiplied steadily. If their families grew weary of their medical play-by-play conversations, there were always empathetic, patient listeners on the first floor of the mall—the only floor they ever walked.

The two septuagenarians eagerly teased and flirted with mallwalking women. The funniest relationship involved June, a beautiful, young Korean-American lady. June lived in the wealthy Ruxton area of Baltimore County and arrived daily at the mall wearing bright, expensive, multi-colored spandex exercise outfits. She carried hand weights, walked rapidly and performed all sorts of wild gyrations with her arms as she moved.

In a decidedly Oriental touch, she would exit the mall on bitter cold winter days and perform bizarre exercise rituals just outside the entrance doors. An eccentric third-floor mallwalking surgeon once disdainfully dismissed her as “the worst walker in the mall,” after assessing the risk/benefit ratio of her unconventional regimen. But Harold and Paul thought she was “hot.” She sometimes joined the men for chats at their table after walking, and “tease and rejoinder” was the relentless conversational dynamic.

June met Harold with his wife one evening, and the following day conveyed to Paul her shock at the youthful appearance of Harold’s wife. The implications weren’t lost on Harold, and Paul never let him forget it. Both men were disconsolate when June sold her home and moved away. Each blamed the other for frightening her out of town.

The two men and their wives occasionally dined together at elegant restaurants, and I always looked forward to their critical reviews of the evening’s particulars. I once asked if the maître d’ had favored them with a good table at the restaurant the previous evening, and Harold retorted: “Are you kidding? With Paul along, we had to go to three restaurants before one would let us in!”

Harold had a comic gift for derailing Paul’s self-pity. When Paul speculated that Harold’s funeral would draw hundreds of admirers while his own might embarrassingly count Harold as a solitary mourner, the quick rebuke was, “Don’t you take me for granted!”

In retirement, Paul continued to enjoy listening to jazz, calypso, and religious music, and he glowed with pride when he treated himself to a new, black Pontiac Grand-Am convertible automobile. One day, not long after that purchase, we coincidentally arrived simultaneously at a suburban Subway store. After smoking an artery clogging cigarette (he claimed the doctor allowed him ten per day) and devouring an artery clogging submarine sandwich, he enthusiastically showed me the minutiae of his new car’s engine, its sporty wheel covers, and luxuriant interior features. It was the male equivalent to being ushered by a proud mother into a hospital’s nursery to hear assessments of a new baby’s physical attributes.

In 1998 he got involved, as a wronged consumer, with a major scandal involving the Publisher’s Clearing House, which used elderly icons Ed McMahon and Dick Clark as pitchmen.

The object was to entice people into buying magazines in return for the possibility of winning sums up to ten million dollars. The literature used deliberate ambiguities to intimate that magazine purchases were required to qualify for the contest.

When lawsuits inundated the company, spokesmen used those ambiguities as escape routes. With similar contests proliferating, it was vital for sponsors to get direct mail recipients to open the envelopes they received. Toward that end, Publisher’s Clearing House convinced enough elderly people—with blatantly misleading envelopes and letters—that they were guaranteed winners, that some took out loans and flew to Florida to collect payoffs. The scam became national headline news in the print and electronic media, and lawsuits pummeled the company.

Paul was one who had collected a garage-full of magazines in an attempt to win this contest, and he alleged to have a letter guaranteeing that he was a winner. He spurned a large class action suit filed in Maryland and managed to get a prestigious attorney to represent his individual case on a contingency fee basis.

I’m not sure whether this far-fetched grab at quick wealth fueled hopes of repaying his second wife for her support and alleviating attendant guilt or whether it was a frantic attempt to regain some of the glorious lifestyle of his big-band days. I hope it was the former motivation. Paul felt certain of winning a settlement in this case and was making plans to spend the money. He said he would stay in Baltimore because it had the best doctors in the world.

Then he awoke one morning—blind. He was terrified and bewildered as to what was happening, but the vision returned after ten minutes, and so he didn’t call his doctor. He knew it was an ominous symptom. When the blindness recurred a few days later, he called his doctor in panic.

He had suffered strokes and underwent immediate analysis which indicated a 90% blockage in a vital artery. Five hours of surgery returned him to mallwalking in a few weeks, but he sensed the end was near. His internist began juggling dosages of Prozac in a futile attempt to treat depression. Paul persistently displayed visible tremors.

My last long chat with Paul took place just outside the mall near the Silver Diner’s entrance. I encountered him smoking a cigarette and calmly enjoying a gorgeous, warm, fall day. His tremors had stopped, and he seemed at peace. It was a crisp, blue-sky day with those fluffy cumulus clouds that can transfix you into whimsical searches for recognizable shapes. We had a long pleasant chat about life in general. He thanked me for being a good listener and added that he missed my once regular companionship.

I stopped walking regularly with Paul and Harold after I cut my own workout from two hours per morning to one. I simply needed to walk that one hour at a faster pace and preferred a route encompassing all four levels of the mall. My contact with the two had dwindled to occasional brief visits at their table or a short lap with them to discuss a current event. Paul’s profuse thanks on this day gave me the eerie premonition that he was actually saying goodbye.

I cried when I read the obituary announcing his death. He had become a friendly part of the mall’s personality that I took for granted. On an overcast October day in 1998, his heart failed at age seventy-four, and he died at a suburban Baltimore medical center. I cried again as I stood alone at his grave-site the day after the funeral. It was a cloudy, gray day, much like the one when I first saw him at the mall. He was buried in Parkville, Maryland, under the shadow of a large American flag which dominates the center of the cemetery. He was buried in an old family plot next to his father, whose name he shared, on a nondescript, stark, treeless lawnscape.

His departure was abrupt. I hope his trumpet accompanied him. I hope Harold had a chance to say goodbye.