I met Scraggle Beard in the '80s while hanging out with my best gal pal Trey in Chelsea.
We're talking pre-hipster Chelsea. The restaurants were not chic little eateries filled with happy gay boys, but dives where you could get super-cheap Puerto Rican rice and beans or Chinese take-out; one joint had both.
Trey and I were in the apartment of her ex-boyfriend, turned guy pal (She had a collection of these.) when there was a knock.
When Trey opened the door, I was pretty sure I was looking at a homeless man who had gotten into the building; as I said, Chelsea was rough back then. He was a tall, skinny guy with a scraggly beard and wire-rim glasses, wearing a dirty derby style hat. He was dressed in what looked like an old man's outfit -- trousers, a button-up shirt, an old suit-vest, all in very bad need of a wash. Behind him, across the hall, the door was open to an apartment, where and I could see a sea of empty Budweiser cans, piled into a mountain. The only thing that kept them from spilling over was a wall of old newspapers.
I was about to slam the door and call the cops, but Trey was surprisingly friendly.
"Yes?" she asked.
Scraggle Beard lifted his hat and bowed slightly, then spoke in a gravely voice that sounded like it should have come from an 80-year-old chain smoker. I was trying to figure out just how old he was. He looked like a young man dressed as an old man for Halloween.
"Pardon me, I was wondering if I could use your TV. They're doing some work on my apartment, and I am missing my favorite show."
"Okay," she said and opened the door, somewhat amused.
Scraggle Beard brushed past us with a nod and went to the living room of the railroad apartment and turned on the TV. The show he didn't want to miss was the old '60s "Batman" with Adam West.
Over the next half-hour, he let out a few approving guffaws and then the show was over.
He turned off the TV, stood up and walked over to us, lifting his hat slightly and bowing. "Thank you very much. Good day."
A few weeks later, Trey called me. "You're not gonna believe it, but that guy from across the hall asked me out."
"What? How did you let him down?"
On that date he had asked her to marry him. She turned him down, but something about him amused her, and she agreed to go out with him again and again and again.
One day she called to say that she did agreed to marry him.
In my usual demure fashion, I had to ask: "For crying out loud! Why?!?!"
"For the rest of my life, I know I will never be bored," she answered calmly.
I was horrified that my best friend was about to marry a man who looked like Fagin from Oliver Twist. I decided to try to get to know him a little better to see what I was missing.
Scraggle Beard turned out to be an artist. He would busy himself either drawing political cartoons that I never understood or building dummies that looked like life-size bodies. He delighted in carrying those bodies on the subway and telling horrified straphangers, "Going to bury Grandma."
I learned that the man I'd assumed to be a pauper was the son of an immensely powerful and well respected politician; the kind of father who's fame brought a lot of attention to his family. But Scraggle Beard didn't want attention for who his dad was. He was anti-social and shy so he really didn't want much attention for any reason.
One night, Scraggle Beard decided to cook dinner. I was told this was the only meal he was willing to make: spaghetti with tomato sauce, to which he added instant coffee. It was an acid reflux nightmare, but I had to admit it was pretty damn tasty.
I noticed something looking at Trey that night that I'd never seen before, a softness. She must have taken a lot of crap carving her path in life.
"Soft" was not a word that I would have used in the same sentence with her, but there it was, soft and a few other words too, calm, peaceful ... happy.
Scraggle Beard had found a way through that wall, and he didn't need a jackhammer; he simply adored her.
I was there for his one-man art show in a super swank Soho gallery, back when Soho, not Chelsea, was super swank. He showcased his collection of dummies, built out of paper towels and some goop he'd invented, which he then turned into presidents of the United States! I'm not kidding.
My favorite was Grant, passed out drunk.
Scraggle and Trey outgrew the apartment and moved into a house in an edgy part of Brooklyn, called Boerum Hill. It's Millionaire Row now, but not then.
One day, I had the privilege of watching Trey come home from the hospital with an adorable, caramel ball of love. I was there for Scraggle Beard's first diaper change. His hands were shaking in terror as he attempted to change his baby girl. It was then, that I felt it again, that thing that had disarmed my friend, his boundless adoration.
The caramel love ball turned into a feisty little girl with enormous energy. One day I made the mistake of picking her up over my shoulders and screaming, "WOO!"
"Again!" she demanded. After three times, I was sure my shoulders were about to break.
Scraggle Beard came to my rescue and distracted his daughter with a coloring book and said very calmly, "You broke the ten thousand rule."
"Anything you do that she likes, you have to be ready to do ten thousand times."
As the years marched by, the adorable pumpkin grew into a precocious, outspoken, defiant, proud, spirited, talented, beautiful, 17-year-old young woman named Zora.
It wasn't always easy in that house, but Trey was right, it was never boring.
One night last September, Zora called, asking me to come to the hospital.
He was sitting on a chair, plugged into IVs while waiting for a bed. He tried to speak to me but had trouble forming the words. Trey sat by him, translating. Even when his mouth could not easily form the words, she still understood him. She had understood him from the day they met.
"He is starting to feel sorry for John Boehner," she said. "Says the guy gets crap from both sides the Dems and the Republicans."
It wasn't shocking that Scraggle Beard would die young. A diet of beer and cigarettes was not a recipe for longevity. But it was shocking to be told that his time left on this planet would probably be in months, not years.
Even then, his mad sense of humor took over. Once he was stable enough to go home, he took delight in his own version of "Shock and Awe."
The conversation would go like this.
Neighbor walking by his house: "How are you?"
Scraggle Beard: "Terminal brain cancer but otherwise fine. How are you!"
The last time I saw Scraggle Beard was New Year's Eve. He was back in the hospital, and my girlfriend and I went to visit him. He was sleeping so soundly, I didn't have the heart to wake him. The tall, gangly man, who never seemed afraid of anyone or anything, couldn't have weighed more than a hundred pounds. He looked like a curled up, sleeping child, with yes, a scraggly beard.
We left him two newspapers and a love note and tiptoed out the door.
He died quietly in his sleep nine days later.
There is an irony to the knowledge that Scraggle Beard never lived long enough to be the old man he'd been emulating since he was a teenager.
But I suspect, like a lot of things in life, he knew this all along.