Willy Lussier hits the local IHOP like Sinatra hit Caesars Palace. "Buenos dias," he says to the host, and he ricochets between shouted "hellos," distant waves and walk-up hugs as I ride his wake to the table.
Willy, 79, is Norm on "Cheers," but for real. "Who's our waiter today?" he asks, sliding into the booth. The answer always pleases him. "Oh, good!" Then he'll tell me a little bit about him, or her, whom he invariably knows. "Very, very nice," he tells me. "You'll see."
Willy and I met at church a long time ago. (He's been riding herd on collection baskets at ASU's Newman Center for at least four popes.) I've changed churches, addresses and jobs multiple times since then; even moved out of state for a while. But I keep coming back to IHOP with Willy. He's a hoot.
"Show him the picture of that beautiful baby," he tells our waiter. Suddenly, our waiter is no longer just a waiter but a hardworking dad, with a wallet-sized photo of a baby he adores. Willy sees past the labels we hang on people - waiter, customer, stranger - that allow us to be short with them. "Are you taking summer classes?" he asks a passing waitress. He knows everybody's interests. He's trying to get the manager to adopt a greyhound. He treats everybody well, and everyone the same. Which was bad news for Barbra Streisand.
"I wasn't rude to her," he'll say whenever I bring it up. "She wanted to cut in line."
Willy worked 37 years at Revco drugstore in the old Tempe Plaza, making friends with many a student there. Once, back in the 1960s, Streisand was performing nearby. She breezed into the drugstore one morning, wanting to fast-track a purchase. "I told her, 'You'll have to wait in line.' She said, 'But I'm in a hurry.' I said, 'So is everybody else in line.' "
Willy is kind of an old man role model for me. His physical challenges are many, but they don't consume him. He'd much rather discuss your family, your pets or his dog, Tipper. Or share news from the network of friends and adopted relatives - former students, co-workers, parishioners and priests - that he maintains without a computer. If prompted, he'll share the memory of a dog or two from his days tending greyhounds on the racing circuit in Depression-era Tempe. But that must wait if there's a stranger he hasn't met, an old pal by the booth, a hand unshaken or a friend unhugged.
Aging is a process of body and soul. At a time of life when your heart and habits can close up and calcify around the familiar, Willy keeps himself open to the world and what it offers. From his drugstore, from his church, from behind his waffle at IHOP, Willy savors the simple joy of connecting with other people.
And there's always somebody else in line.