Every day, William Lever rolls into Fair Trade Cafe on Roosevelt Street and First Avenue. He props the front door open with the footrest on his wheelchair, using the motor and his arms to open it.
He stays for hours, always sipping coffee that’s loaded with sugar and steamed half-and-half, rolling his own cigarettes, reading on his Kindle and watching the light rail pass by.
Now in his 50s, Lever — or Guillermo, as some of the baristas have named him — went from having a successful career to being in a wheelchair in constant pain almost overnight.
Lever was offered a career in architecture when he was young, after he was fired from a minimum-wage job.
“I went outside to have a smoke, and this friend of my friend asks me if I know anything about surveying,” Lever said. “‘Like going door to door?’ I asked the guy. He shook his head and said, ‘I’ll pick you up in front of your house at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning.’”
Thus began his more than 30-year-long career with an architectural engineering firm. He started out as a project field manager and swiftly rose through the ranks to project superintendent, the youngest ever at the company.
Lever’s career came to an abrupt halt when he was diagnosed with avascular necrosis at age 41. It’s a very rare, aggressive and incurable disease that destroys the capillaries that feed bone marrow. As a result, the bone marrow dies, and then the bone dies. To date, he’s had more than 20 surgeries.
“It’s literally everywhere in my body, and it’s all pain,” Lever said. “The doctors I’ve seen have told me that it’s the most aggressive and advanced form of the disease that they’ve ever seen. Several of them have told me that.”
Lever said the doctors had to perform surgery immediately, so he never returned to his career.
“That wasn’t the last job I had, though,” Lever said. “I worked in a flower shop for four years in Boston. I loved that job.”
Lever made arrangements and delivered them around the city.
“Boston is like a big bowl of spaghetti — there’s no order to it,” Lever said. “I got lost a lot.”
After his diagnosis, Lever traveled through Europe and Africa, using disability checks to fund his wanderlust.
“My favorite place I went to was South Africa,” Lever said. “I spent four months in Cape Town. It’s absolutely gorgeous. The only reason I left is because my visa expired and they forced me to leave.”
He cannot sleep through the night, as the pain in his bones keeps him from being still for too long. It can take him anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes just to get out of bed. He starts a cup of coffee and takes his pain pills.
“It takes an hour to 90 minutes until I feel good enough that I can move,” Lever said.
He checks his email and reads the news online until the medication takes effect.
As soon as he hoists himself into his chair, he heads down to Fair Trade Cafe. All the baristas know him by name, and many of the customers sit outside with him while he rolls a cigarette, laughing and chatting.
When he sits alone, he faces Central Avenue, singing along loudly, unashamedly to his music. He loves everything but rap and country, but especially loves Swedish pop music, such as the Moon Babies. He loves to read Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Gore Vidal, and studies international news.
In the future, Lever wants to travel to northern Europe, especially Norway, Finland and Sweden.
“I wouldn’t mind finding wife #4,” Lever said. “I like getting married, but not being married.”
Even though his illness has claimed his leg, incapacitated his shoulder and changed his way of life, he is optimistic. The staff at Fair Trade tends to agree.
“Guillermo is love,” owner Stephanie Vasquez said. “He is part of the family here, and what we all strive for in our hearts is love and happiness. Guillermo is an important part of that.”
Bibiana Canales, a manager at Fair Trade, said Lever doesn’t let his illness hold him back.
“He makes your day better and he lifts you up,” she said. “Most people in his situation would be different, but he is loving and funny and happy.”
Lever said the challenges in his life will never stop him from moving forward.
“If there’s one thing you should appreciate and really take advantage of while you have, it is your health,” Lever said. “Once you lose your health, you lose literally everything. The hardest thing and the easiest thing that anyone can do is to make up their mind. Life happens while you’re busy thinking about what to do with your life.”
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