Sunday, March 20, 2005

COLUMN: Morrie

They say you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. They (whoever "they" are) weren't kidding. His name was Maurice J. Kinser, but those of us in Rock Island simply knew him as Morrie.

To my knowledge, he was the first person I ever met in the Quad Cities. I had just arrived at Augustana, a wide-eyed 17 year old kid. After getting settled in the dorms, I went out for groceries, and on the way back, I stopped off at the Shell station on the corner of 18th Ave. & 30th St. for a Coke and a fill-up.

Now, getting a Coke and some gas might not seem like a big deal. But back then, it was my first day of independence. I didn't need my parent's permission to get the Coke, I didn't need to borrow the car or borrow some cash. I was officially on my own and ready to make my mark in the world. I could go buy my Coke and stay up til sunrise drinking it if I wanted to. No mere mortal Coke was this; it was the Coke of Freedom.

Triumphantly, I pulled to the station. That's when I met him. The man I would come to know as Morrie strolled over to the car, raised an eyebrow, and said simply, "Freshman?"

"Errr, yeah," I replied off-guard.

"Yeah, you look the part," Morrie said as he shuffled off to get my pop. That, right there, was my first dose of reality. I wasn't king of the world after all. I was just one of the masses. That grounding of my big-headed aspirations may have deflated my chutzpah a bit, but it also gave me immediate respect for one of the most colorful figures the Quad Cities has ever seen.

That's why I almost ran off the road last week when I passed the Shell station and saw that their sign had changed to simply, "Morrie, You Will Be Missed." I knew right then he was gone, and it suddenly felt like the passing of an era.

For 27 years, Morrie worked that Shell station. Time and again, he soldiered out in his Cardinals jacket into any kind of weather to duly work the pumps for me and probably a million other customers. I found myself going there all the time, especially after my parents lent me their Shell gas card for a semester, and ESPECIALLY after I realized I could put all the snacks and pop I could carry on that card! Only one person ever gave me static for taking advantage of such a great gift -- but that was Morrie for you.

One day, I woke up to find the Shell -- like so many other full-service stations of its time -- bulldozed to the ground. I thought I'd seen the last of the old guy then, but a couple months later, they built a new self-service, Express Mart-style station in its place... and who was back behind the counter but ol' Morrie himself, making the transition from attendant to clerk with ease.

Morrie embodied the stereotype of the "crochety old guy with a heart of gold." He shot straight from the hip, swore like a sailor, and wouldn't hesitate to tell things exactly as he saw 'em... and if you happened to walk in to the station at the same time a pretty girl did, you knew just to step back because you would NOT be helped first.

The last time I saw Morrie was about two weeks ago. I was on my well-documented health kick and walked to the counter with a Diet Coke.

"Diet?" Morrie held the bottle up to me, "Just what kind of (expletive) is this?" And when I laughed and told him about my plan to cut out sugary soda, he looked at me and said, "Well, it's about time. You're gettin' one hell of a gut there, buddy."

If anybody else on Earth had said that to me, them would be fightin' words. From Morrie, it was honest advice. He might have come across like a gruff old you-know-what, but behind that demeanor was a guy who obviously cared. He always knew my car, he always knew what I wanted before I walked in, and I'd never leave without hearing a "take care now, buddy."

It probably shouldn't have been a shock that he left us. He was never the healthiest guy on the block, and the only thing he loved more than his Cardinals were the umpteen cigarettes he'd go through all day. But something about Morrie seemed unstoppable.

They buried Morrie this week in his Cards jacket and Shell jersey. It's truly fitting, because if there is a heaven, he's up there right now, pumping gas for angels and telling Jesus to cut his hair and get a real job. Morrie didn't cure cancer or do anything to merit a headline, but to me and the other customers of the Shell, Maurice J. Kinser will forever be a Quad City legend.

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