The Duke

Rachel Richardson - Milford, Ohio
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, May 25, 2015
Rachel Richardson

A chance encounter in a coffee shop introduced writer Rachel Richardson to a man who had many stories to tell. Ms. Richardson came to understand that everyone has a story, and our lives can be enriched by listening to the stories of others.

Themes: community
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They called him “the Duke” although there was nothing stately about him. He’d stagger into the coffeehouse where I wiled away my nights. Tripping down the steps, he’d catch himself, hitch up his sagging pants, straighten his coat and launch into a tirade of John Wayne impressions. His face would transform and for a moment, despite the threadbare, stained overcoat and grizzled face, I could swear he was John Wayne.

“Due process is a bullet,” he’d bellow in a gravelly voice. Shifting his weight, he’d drawl, “Out here a man settles his own problems.” Energy spent, he’d stumble into the nearest armchair, fighting the allure of sleep with a complimentary cup of joe and attempt to strike up a conversation with whoever sat nearby. One night, it happened to be me.

“Whatchu writing, sweetheart?” he asked, noticing the journal in my lap. I could smell the alcohol on his breath, rank and sickeningly sweet. “Nothing,” I smiled, setting down my pen. “What’s your name?” “I’m Dave,” he replied, puffing up proudly. “I’m a Vietnam veteran, you know…”

His eyes focused in on my face, revealing a hunger for human companionship. “Tell me about it,” I said. And so he began. With a tincture of melancholy, Dave spoke of a life filled with possibilities never realized. He paused often, overcome by memories. His was a sadness that has grown weary and forgotten itself.

I met with Dave many times that winter, amidst a swirling haze of cigarette smoke and freshly brewed hazelnut. At 2 a.m., coffee baristas would break out like wardens, anxious to close down the shop. Stepping out the swinging wooden doors into the sludgy streets, I would turn towards my car, watching Dave lurch and reel to whatever warm and dry spot he could find.

I last saw Dave what feels like a lifetime ago, although it has only been three years. The coffeehouse that felt like home to so many of us has since closed. I’ve asked around about him, but other than a homeless man who told me Dave had been picked up by aliens and dropped off in Italy, no one knew of “the Duke.” It’s as if he existed only in my memories.

As the weather begins its blustery descent into chilling temperatures and the sky turns gray, my thoughts turn once again to Dave. I wonder if he is warm enough in his worn hand-me-downs, if he is hungry or lonely. I think of him silhouetted against the urban sky, trudging his way towards the unknown. I wonder if somewhere, someone else is listening to crazy John Wayne impressions or if the bottle has gotten the better of him.

I believe that everyone has a story, a series of significant and insignificant life events. Yet many don’t listen. I mean really listen. Our narratives are all alike in one way or another, inextricably linked by the bonds of human experiences. Only by listening to others can we come to understand.

Writer and historian Rachel Richardson lives in Cincinnati with her husband and a herd of mischievous cats. She continues to share the stories of others as a reporter with The Cincinnati Enquirer and acts as a voice for children in foster care as a volunteer guardian ad litem. She still believes some of the best stories are found by being open to each other and the world around us.

Recorded by WVXU in Cincinnati as part of their local This I Believe series