Monday, February 08, 2016

RIP My Oddest Friend

A good friend died recently.  As Vonnegut wrote: so it goes.  And I knew it was coming.  Last time I saw him he was in a bad way, which is to say he was worse than usual and usual was quite bad.  Bedridden, unable to use his hands for much, constantly uncomfortable—I joked that he had become something out of a Beckett play.  And it was the sort of joke that he, a literary man, might have liked had it not been about him. 

I stopped going to see him around Thanksgiving, which makes me feel guilty.  But I was convinced that my visiting was causing too much confusion for him—last time he had no idea what day or time it was and seemed genuinely scared when I told him it was Wednesday at 4:00 PM, not AM.  Maybe I convinced myself it was best to stop going, but stop I did.  And then he died. 

The man was my oddest friend and I have known some oddballs.  He was my boss at the bookshop, the inspiration for a character in my book, and my friend in the sense that he seemed sincerely happy to be in my presence, an honor considering he disliked a lot of people.  He gave me a job at his store and another after it closed.  We swapped drinks, books, and jokes in the hours when we weren’t working on his eBay enterprise.  We combed the resale shops of Chicago in search of items to sell online.  We rarely found gems though some did emerge from the muck of soiled clothes and board games missing half their pieces.  We frequented the Red Lion and other bars of Lincoln Avenue that have either closed or been reborn as something he’d have no use for.  All things considered, he was a good friend.  Over twenty years my senior—only a few years older than my parents—but we closed the generation gap somehow.  Might’ve been the drinks.

There are eulogies out there better than this one.  And I have no right, really, to make some grand statement about the man.  I feel I knew him well but I’m not family, just a guy who met him at a time when my life was topsy-turvy in a way that I’ve mined for publication and some barroom stories.  He watched me go from barely able to pay rent to gainfully employed, from punk kid who thought he knew everything about books to English instructor who knows he has no real idea about anything.  And he teased me about my job, speculated that the task before me was enough to drive any sane person to drink (he wasn’t wrong).  But I think he was proud of me in a weird way.  He seemed to keep his kids informed about my life, just as he informed me about them.  

The week before I left the bookshop, I had new clothes on.  I’d just come from a job interview.  He knew it and he reminded me of what Thoreau once wrote: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”  I always keep that in mind when shopping in department stores or eating in upscale restaurants.  He wasn't one for fashion, usually opting for shirts he found at the thrift store worn for completely unironic reasons.  His favorite had a picture of a cow on it and read: Wisconsin, land of beer farts and cow shit.  

He was by no means a snob, yet he wouldn't suffer fools gladly.  He was sophisticated in his thinking and more curious than most people I've met.  He read a lot of books and was fierce in his opinions.  James Joyce was shit.  Hemingway overrated.  Woolf, Melville, and Faulkner were all that mattered.  He had no interest in literary trends or reading whatever was supposed to be the right book.  The right book was up to him.  And he was adamant in his literary beliefs, to the extent that he'd judge people based on theirs.  Once, at the Red Lion, a fellow drinker looked at the back cover description of my copy of The Man Without Qualities.  "Sounds dull," the patron said.  My friend's response: "It is if you're a simple shit."  

There are a lot more stories like that.  Some are in my book, some in my head.  I'll not go on, and anyway I might be among the few who'd find the tales amusing.  A lot of people didn't respond well to his gruffness.  But I did, even if half the time I was uneasy watching him kick a customer out of the store or tell someone to fuck off.  Waiting in line at the post office would set him off and I'd be the one to have to smooth things over with the clerk.  In fact, I was essentially hired to be the pleasant side of the store after he got too tired of the people on Clark Street.  This could be taxing, but I was willing to be taxed.  We can't always expect our friends to be what we want.  Sometimes we just accept them for who they are, but I suppose not all of them are worth the effort.  God knows I've cut people out of my life for less than my old employer put me through.  But, for whatever reason, I loved the old bastard.  I always hate when people say that the dead are in a better place, but anywhere is better than the nightmare he was living in during those last years.  Rest in peace, old friend.