Eric's Heroes: The 94-year-old busboy who lights up the room
TACOMA, Wash. -- He's looking at a picture on a shelf, an old picture of a newly married young couple. They are trying hard to look grown up and dignified, with their whole life together just sitting out there waiting to be lived.
Bill Baker is staring at it, and for a moment it's like he forgets I'm even there. The picture is a younger version of himself, and the woman he loved for 57 years, Julie. Almost without thinking he says, more to himself than anything, "She had a smile that lit up a room."
They were married for 57 years. She's been gone for eight.
He says that sometimes he still feels her presence in the room, like she's still there with him.
What does a man do when the love of his life slips away for good? At first Bill did nothing.
"I was devastated," he says. "I was bawling all the time."
He puts together jigsaw puzzles. Big ones. And when he finishes each one, he leaves it together for a time. They give him a sense of accomplishment. But they don't soften the ache of loneliness.
So every Friday and Saturday night, he gets all cleaned up and pulls on a shirt that says Joeseppi's Italian Restaurant on the front. And he goes to work.
He walks in slowly and everybody he passes says, 'Hey Bill!"
He sees a young waitress waiting for an order and says, "Hey! I missed you!" She smiles and says, "I missed you too!"
And just like that, Bill Baker, 94 years young, wades into the restaurant and begins his shift.
Bill is, for lack of a better term, the busboy at Joeseppi's. He clears up dirty plates from tables. He fills glasses. He also helps as a dishwasher. And, he doesn't get paid a single dime. He volunteers for the duty.
And while he is cleaning up other people's messes, Bill is a conversationalist. A personality. A story-teller and dispenser of wisdom.
More than anything, here at Joeseppi's, Bill is a reason to smile.
He approaches a kid wearing a baseball cap in a booth. "Because you are a good kid and you ate all your food, here's a little treat for you. It's the best candy they have."
He hands the boy a piece of candy, and the kid lights up with a smile. "Thank you very much!" he says. And Bill is on his way to another table.
While he works, he works the room. And with every conversation he brings his own unique can-do air of positivity. Bill Baker is one of the happiest, most positive people you'll ever meet.
One customer says, "How old are you?" Bill says, "Ninety four."
A guy at the table shakes his head in wonder. "At 94 I hope we're still going like that! Amazing."
It's true. Bill could easily pass for a 75 year old.
One woman tells Bill that she's 88-years-old. Bill smiles and says, "Ahhh...just a kid!" Everybody laughs.
A little kid waves at him, and Bill gives him a fist-bump.
And so on and so on. From table to table he goes, and everybody seems to love him.
He offers marital advice, "We had our ups and downs, but you have to learn how to handle them, talk them out. And get them out of your system."
He talks about his job, "I love this to pieces. Gets me out of the house."
He hugs kids and shakes hands and just makes everything at Joeseppi's better.
Sitting in his living room he told me, "Life couldn't be better. It couldn't be better. My kids love me. They still want to come home."
He has three children, but they're hardly kids. They're in their 70's.
Bill says he programs his mind. He says he recently programmed it to live to be 100. And that's just for starters.
Very seriously, he says, "If I have all my faculties when I'm a hundred, I'm going to program myself to be the oldest living person in the world."
Before you doubt him, there are some things about Bill Baker you need to know.
In World War II, he fought in both theaters, Europe AND the Pacific. He was a gunner on the battleship Biloxi. There's a picture of him next to his cannon, with his hand on another man's back, looking out to sea. But before the war, before he met Julie, before he learned how to program his mind, his life was a bitter tough slog.
He sits in a big easy chair with a blanket spread over the back of it and lets his mind wander.
"My Dad was an alcoholic and he always liked to make fun of me and put me down in front of people."
His parent's marriage was vicious and chaotic, and when they split up, his mother kept his two sisters with her in Monrovia, California, but sent Bill to live in San Diego with his father.
"If he has a little responsibility," she said, "maybe he won't drink himself to death."
He was just a child, and he tells a story about the trip to San Diego that even now, 84 years later, cuts to the bone.
"They agreed that I could take my two dogs with me. Sarge and Duke." He takes a deep breath.
"So I packed my few things and we got into the car heading for San Diego. We got about halfway, out in the boonies, and he stopped the car and let the dogs out, and I thought he was going to let 'em go potty or whatever. But he drove off and left 'em."
For a second, it's like he's that 10-year-old kid again, in 1933, and to listen to him tell the story is to remember that there has always been cruelness, and that some people get dealt more of it than others.
He pauses. "Yeah... um. So I think I cried for about three days."
He says his Dad checked him into a hotel room, placed $1 on the table, and left. He was gone for three days. Then he came back, asked if Bill was OK, placed another dollar on the table and left again. And so on.
In 1937, at the age of 14, Bill and his two sisters were abandoned in Chicago. Both parents gave up on them. Left them on the streets to fend for themselves. He tells of being molested by two men. He still remembers their names.
The story of Bill Baker's life is a hard scrabble fight for survival. It is a tale of abandonment and desperation and a search for love and acceptance.
Then, at some point along the way, uneducated and unwanted, Bill figured something out all by himself. He figured out how to survive.
"I kind of formed a little closet, up in my head," he explains. "And I said, 'I'm going to put the bad stuff in there and concentrate on the good stuff."
He tells the story with a sense of wonder, as if he's still amazed at how he pulled it off.
"Every once in a while something would happen and that closet would open up and all the emotions and everything, and all the junk in the closet would come piling out on me and give me problems for a short time... but I finally learned how to slam that door so that didn't happen anymore."
Meeting this man, feeling his energy, his lack of cynicism, it seems unthinkable that he has endured so much.
"How do you end up having such a positive outlook on life?" I ask.
"I don't know," he replies. "I just made up my mind that I wasn't going to let it bother me."
It was at that moment that I realized I might be talking to the toughest man I've ever met. He actually willed himself to happiness. Or as he would put it, "programmed" himself.
Back at the restaurant, everybody seems to have something lovely to say about Bill.
One customer, a teenager, says, "I hope I have his energy when I'm his age." A young man who's in back cooking lights up. "I think he's a very energetic YOUNG man. that's who I think Bill is."
Another guy, just finishing his dinner says, "He's definitely and awesome, awesome character."
And then there's Joe Stortini himself, the owner of the place.
"They like talking to someone like Bill," he says. "Bill has a story to tell. He talks about his life and he's had lots of experiences."
Later on the two of them are standing there with their arms around each other like old reunited soldiers.
"It's been fun having you here," Joe says. "I've loved it," says Bill. "I want you here another 10 years," Joe adds.
"Well, I'll be here another six anyway, because I've programmed myself to live to be a hundred," Bill said.
Later on, Bill finishes his last cleanup, says goodbye to everyone, and wanders out the front door of Joeseppi's. He'll get into his car to drive home to his jigsaw puzzles and his pictures of Julie.
And watching him leave, it's impossible not be struck by the power of the human mind. The human spirit.
Bill Baker didn't like the hand he was dealt. So he pushed the cards away and demanded new ones.
One man, anyway, figured out a way to re-program the whole damned game.