Friends, I have been avoiding telling you about a new thing I’ve been going through for quite some time now. In fact, when I sat down to write this post, I found a lot of reasons to avoid it just a little longer. I changed my clothes. Twice. I brushed my teeth. Fixed my hair. Washed the dishes. Made the bed. Straightened the house. I even felt compelled to create a document to list all of the posts I’ve done thus far just to avoid writing this one. Now that I’ve run out of things to do, it’s time.
At the end of September, I lost someone I love. His name was Paul, and he was one of the most kind and generous people I’ve ever known. He was also surly and crass. He could be moody and passive-aggressive. He could make me laugh just by raising his eyebrow, a trait we shared. When he drank too much, he could be affectionate, but I didn’t mind. In the few short years Abbie and I knew him, Paul became a guiding figure in our life in Spokane.
Paul and his wife Sheila made up half of the Iron Goat Brewing team, with Greg and Heather Brandt making up the other half. When the brewery opened, my wife and I became fixtures there almost immediately. One night when we were there with a friend, we complimented Greg on the beer and told him we wished we could buy it in stores. We wondered why they weren’t bottling their beer. Abbie and I didn’t know much then about how the packaging industry worked, and Greg was patient in explaining that they were small and new and not ready for the demands of packaging.
“Plus,” he said, “when we do package, we want to go into cans. But we’d want to use a mobile canner, and no one around here is doing that. We don’t want to have to get someone from Seattle over here.”
“Mobile canning?” we asked.
This seemingly insignificant conversation would forever and irrevocably change our lives–it would give us a burden that sometimes seemed too unwieldy, debt that has shackled us financially, and a family we didn’t know we needed.
Abbie and I own Spokes Mobile Canning because of that conversation, because of Iron Goat, because of Greg and Paul (and because I desperately wanted to get out of what felt like was a dead-end career in teaching). We dumped our life’s savings, retirement plans, stocks, bonds, and money we borrowed from family members (along with a hefty bank loan) into this business. From the moment we had that conversation, our lives became intertwined with those of the Iron Goat owners.
Abbie quit her job in the spring of 2013 in preparation for running our business. Then, our equipment was delayed. We lost the opportunity to can for the only two breweries in our region that were set to start. Suddenly, we were faced with a dire situation–one entire income lost, and a mountain of bills piling up, some that were much more serious than anything we’d ever been responsible for. When it became clear that by the time our equipment did arrive, we wouldn’t have a single client, and even if we did, we wouldn’t make enough profit to pay Abbie a wage, we knew she needed to get a job.
By October, we were getting desperate. We were mulling over what to do if Abbie didn’t secure the line cook job making Chinese food for Safeway over a beer at Iron Goat when I somewhat facetiously asked Greg if they needed any help at the brewery. “Actually,” he said, “we do.”
Abbie started working there the following week. She began her brewing career as a “keg monkey,” washing kegs, tanks, and doing the many other menial chores that make up the day-to-day work of a brewery. Greg was the only owner who worked at the brewery full time, and he didn’t earn a paycheck. Abbie and Greg spent hours and hours together in a tiny space, learning each other’s idiosyncrasies. As the brewery became more successful, they were able to pay Greg, and then Paul. When Paul joined the team full-time some six months later, Abbie was taken aback at how different the dynamic was. At first, she wasn’t sure she could or would want to work with Paul. He was gruff, quiet, and refused to let Abbie do the work she’d been doing every day for more than half of a year. But eventually they all settled into a groove. Moreso, Abbie became enchanted by Paul. She’d come home after long days at the brewery and tell me some of Paul’s sarcastic jokes, or marvel at how efficient and organized he was. She’d tell me how they bonded over their shared annoyance with some of Greg’s messy and disorganized habits. Even though I didn’t work at the brewery, save the few times I covered the tap room, it felt like I did. And we spent enough time (and money) there that it became a second home.
When Abbie worked at the brewery, it wasn’t just a job. It was a lifestyle change, the one we’d hoped for when we sank our future into the beer industry. Greg and Paul weren’t just her bosses, they were our friends. We spent more and more time together outside of the brewery. We had Greg and Heather over for Christmas. We had dinner and cocktails with Paul and Sheila. We went to beer festivals, and drank more beer afterwards, talking for hours into the night about politics, family, religion, and sexuality. The six of us shared a house in Portland during the Craft Beer Conference. They allowed Abbie more and more responsibility in the brewery, including working as one of the first female assistant brewers in the city, which imbued our mobile canning business with credibility we otherwise lacked.
Almost immediately, Paul and I developed a kind of strange relationship. I gravitated towards him, and he to me. We had a tendency to become loose-lipped after a few drinks, and reveal far too many lurid and private details of our marriage beds. Our wives were understandably mortified. Well, my wife was–Sheila didn’t seem to mind, a quality I’ve always adored about her. No matter how many people were at a party or brewery gathering, eventually Paul and I would end up huddled in a corner.
Paul was real. He told you what he thought, and he didn’t try to sugarcoat it. This meant that sometimes he was too harsh, too abrasive. On more than one occasion, he made someone I love cry. But none of us ever had to guess how he felt. He was honest. I liked that about him, particularly as the years went on.
Paul could also be disarmingly sweet. When Abbie and I became foster parents and our foster son came into our lives, Paul asked her at work one day if our son liked video games. He was thirteen, so of course he liked video games. The next day Paul brought in an Xbox, along with a box full of games. He convinced his own teenage son to give up his console and games for someone who needed them more. Like father, like son.
So it came as no surprise that his untimely death shook a lot of people to their core. Paul was beloved not only within the brewing community, but also in his previous life as a tech guy at Gonzaga University, and in the art world that Sheila, a fine artist, called home. Paul also had a huge circle of family and friends, many of whom did not overlap in the brewing world or at the university. He was known far and wide.
This past spring Paul began to feel sick. He was having a lot of gastrointestinal distress, not unlike my own. We even commiserated about it over a beer the very last time I ever spoke with him. He went to Urgent Care one day in late July. They examined him and said it was a stomach bug or something similarly benign, that he should avoid alcohol on his upcoming trip to Seattle to celebrate the brewery’s distribution to the west side, and it should clear up in a week or so. Two weeks later he was back in Urgent Care. This time they ran some more thorough tests, which showed he had cancer. He was dead less than a month later.
Paul’s death shocked everyone, even those of us who knew that he was sick. We just couldn’t or didn’t want to believe that someone so young (only 51) with so much life left to live could be gone so quickly, so abruptly.
The brewing community was especially rocked by the news. Many of the local and regional brewers didn’t know Paul was sick, so his death came as a complete surprise. Paul didn’t have a will or a life insurance policy. He was the family’s primary breadwinner, not just for him and his wife, but for his children as well. How would any of them survive without his steadfastness, his generosity, his income?
Brewers heeded the call. Immediately Greg set up a Go Fund Me for Paul’s children. Brewery after brewery held pint nights to raise money for Paul’s family. Then, a group of brewers, business owners, and friends began working on a fundraising event for Sheila. They called it Craft + Community. It would be a beer and food tasting event, along with a silent and public auction of craft beer, craft spirits, and local art donated by artists. All of the food was donated by Sysco Corporation, and seven different restaurants and breweries sent their head chefs to create a beer and food pairing. Tickets to the event were $50. We signed up to go immediately.
On Sunday, we joined Sheila, Greg and Heather, area brewers, restaurateurs, artists, craftsmen, friends, family, and community members who simply felt compelled to give to someone in need at nYne Bar and Bistro. Craft + Community was a rousing success, and resulted in thousands of dollars raised to help cover Paul’s extensive medical bills, and to help sustain Sheila for a bit longer as she sorts through her life without her partner.
Readers, I don’t know what more to say. I intended on peeling away the tender parts of my heart and sharing with you how incredibly sad Paul’s death left me, my wife, and the people closest to him. It turns out I’m still not ready for that.
One of the reasons I’m still not ready to truly dive into the feelings surrounding his death is that in the last year, we didn’t spend much time with him. Something shifted at the brewery, and in the relationships that were grounded in that place. All of us became disconnected from one another, something broke a bit. The last time we saw Paul was a rare moment when he wasn’t jetting out of the building as soon as he was done for the day. Instead, we spent a warm summer evening playing cornhole, drinking beer, and reveling in our recent business successes.
I am going to end on a more uplifting note. Since that fateful night in the original Iron Goat Building, a small brick warehouse tucked away at the end of a residential street that gave way to an industrial block, our little businesses that could have grown. Paul, Greg, Heather, and Sheila purchased a huge, beautiful building and moved the brewery downtown in April 2016. They even added a restaurant. Abbie quit working at Iron Goat to run our business full-time this past spring after three and a half years there. We are busy enough now that she even earns a paycheck! And we all came full circle in May when Abbie and I unloaded our canning line, hooked up to the tank she once spent hours scrubbing, and canned Iron Goat’s Brick and Steel IPA for their fifth anniversary party–a can, incidentally, that was designed by Paul.
Cheers, Paul. We miss you.