There's no real Geritol for geriatrics. But there's no reason for oldies to swim in despair, either. As Eddie Wells will tell you, all they need is to find a tonic.
His is poems. He writes them. He doesn't sell many, and sometimes not any, but that's all right. "Money is a distraction, anyway," says Wells, and he has had precious little distraction in his 78 years.
What Wells does have - in profusion, he claims - is love for his fellow man and peace of mind. It's all the result, says a man who is a former drunk, former hobo, former panhandler and former convict, of writing poems.
Poetry a la Wells is almost always about aging or being old in one way or another. Women and old age. Marriage and old age. The good old days. The madness of recent days.
Admittedly, his poems are not classics of form. "I never studied how to write a poem in my life," says Wells. But his work has a wry, self-deprecating tone, much as their author does in person. And the work is designed to be read by younger readers, which, as Wells wryly and self-deprecatingly notes, "is almost everybody."
Consider these compelling couplets from Eddie Wells' magnum opus, an anthology called "Geriatric Jingles."
When the roll is called up yonder I will head for heaven's door If my emphysema bugs me I won't make the second floor.
Or this observation:
I have acquired much wisdom In a life of joy and woe, But it seems to me as I travel on The less I really know.
Or this political note:
Who is this 'silent majority?' It's really hard to tell; Perhaps they're our 'senior citizens' And they're too damned old to yell.
Or this sociology lesson:
My neighbor longs for the good old days When t'was good to be alive; When a man could work ten hours a day And drop dead at forty five.
Work is something that agreed with Edward C. Wells only occasionally.
He was born in Vermont, and by 14, he was hawking newspapers and sweeping floors.
At 17, he joined the Army briefly - briefly because, one night in a camp in France, he decided to punch his sergeant. He ended up in jail, one of dozens of such journeys.
There followed a 20-year career as a hobo, and more fights, drinks and arrests "than I can remember."
There was a brief period of prize-fighting - "Irish Eddie Wells; hey, I was a 126-pound featherweight." But mostly it was Sterno, the canned fuel for chafing dishes. "You'd take your handkerchief and squeeze out the alcohol," Wells explained. "A dime a can."
At the age of 45, a lot of things came together for Wells at once. He got a job as an orderly at Doctors' Hospital here. He met his wife, Margaret, who was a patient. And he joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
"Here was this bum, never got turned around till I was half a century old," said Wells. "That's why I love everybody. If there was hope for me, there's got to be hope for everyone."
Wells not only went straight, he stayed straight.
He was hired in 1950 by the federal government as a draftsman (art is his first love, and most of his poems are adorned with cartoons). But sitting at a desk disagreed with Wells, so he became a messenger with the Public Housing Administration (Now HUD).
"I was like a cockroach. I was all over the place. I used to draw cards for everyone's birthday. Everyone knew me," said Wells. He retired in 1960, and the poetry onslaught began soon after.
For those interested in methodology, Wells works in longhand and in pencil at a desk in his apartment near Chevy Chase Circle. He begins with a title, then writes a poem to fit it. He adds his sketches later. "It's just a matter of practice, like everything else," Wells says.
As far as coping with his age goes, it's a matter of mind-set for Wells. He simply refuses to let it get him. Asked a question about his life as a young man, for example, he bristles and says he's still a young man.
Call it bravado, or a denial of the truth. But this little leprechaun-like fellow really believes it.
"Look, I know the human body is just a machine," Wells said. "Eventually, it wears out like any machine. But it doesn't do any good to wait for that to happen. I'm just interested in making it through today, living today."
Or, as Wells writes in the introduction to one booklet of poems, "Until that time arrives, we may indulge ourselves with the precious gift of laughter. Right on, baby!"
Or, as he versifies a few pages later:
When I can no longer smile And toward others I am cold; When there's no light in the darkness Then, perhaps, I shall be old.