Wednesday, January 31, 2007


One of the stranger aspects of adulthood is how people slip out of your life for no clear reason, and stay out. There are obvious falling outs that happen with some people. And I’ve found that old coworkers, for the most part, fade out over time. There are the people I’ve known for years who will be in it for the long run, and the older I get, the harder it gets to make new friends of lasting value. I think something shuts down in our systems that prevents this from happening – and just as likely that we don’t have the sort of “hang out” time we once had where these sort of lasting bonds took root.

I often wonder what goes on with my old pal Jose, whom I worked with at an advertising agency way back in the early 90s. We were both starting as assistants, and both our jobs kind of sucked. It was leaving that job that made me get into temp work for the first time, because I’d been pretty fed-up with the concept of getting roped into a lousy job that one felt obligated to keep. Of course, we were in a recession in the early 90s, and I nearly went broke in that year or two of moving around. At which time, I settled into a job with management consultants that paid me more than I’ve made since, but left me feeling burned out after about four years of Type A gunning it.

Jose left that job and took up an offer from his dad, who was the building super for a nice apartment house on the upper west side (where he, his dad and mother lived in a basement apartment), which was to start as an apartment building doorman. He thought it was silly at the time, but give it a few years, and your average doorman is making a reasonably good salary and getting great union benefits, on top of what’s usually a windfall take of cash at Christmas from building tenants. Knowing that Jose was like me, a very good, organized worker who treated people without any disdain or attitude, I assume he’s made out well for himself doing this.

At that time, we were pretty much kids in our early-mid 20s. Jose came from a rough background, raised in the Polo Ground projects on the east side of Harlem (named so because they were built on the site of the old stadium where the football and baseball Giants played). One of his favorite childhood stories was of how he and his brother, listening to the 1977 World Series on a transistor radio, realized the Yanks were about to win, got on their bikes, pedaled over the near-by Macombs Dam Bridge to the Bronx, broke into the stadium as the game ended, and ended up taking home huge chunks of outfield turf in the near-riot that ensued when the Yanks won.

Life wasn’t usually that ecstatic in the projects. His father was a binge drinker who often got abusive with the family, which was a shock to me. Once I started meeting his father, I found him to be extremely kind and gregarious, the kind of guy who smiles at you, and you smile back. Apparently, after a few years of being out of control, he started attending the local church, found Jesus, and was changed. He also took up distance running at the same time and became a competent marathon runner. A near total transformation – which is why I’ll never get too down on Born Agains, and will never quite understand left-leaning folk who write off these people without question. Jose’s dad is living proof that sometimes finding religion works, and lasts.

On top of that, it was the projects, and New York was a ragged town in the 1970s. Constant violence, gangs, drugs. Jose took up martial arts as a kid because he felt a need to defend himself in that neighborhood. Since his looks were vaguely white – he could easily pass for Italian – he often caught shit from neighborhood goons for the color of his skin. In short, if the guy had grown up to be a psycho killer, it wouldn’t have been totally unexpected. Instead, because of his saintly mother, and father who reversed his course in life, he turned out amazingly well-adjusted and normal … with plenty of stories about kids he grew up with dead or living in cages.

I think it was because of that similar working-class bond, only with me coming from rural Pennsylvania, that we understood each other pretty well. It was reassuring for me to see good people coming from an inner-city environment – and I find myself searching out these kind of people as I go on living here. Because there are so many losers, pricks and douche bags who live in the neighborhoods of New York, people who are really awful by any standard, much less my small-town one that appreciates good manners and civility. It’s always a pleasant surprise for me to meet people like Jose, who could fit in anywhere, but it’s even more impressive with people raised in environments where it’s normal to be anywhere from abrasive and coarse to a lost soul. After all these years here, you tell me – I have no idea why there are so many worthless pricks in New York. And I’ll never get used to that aspect of living here.

Jose and I became fast friends on that job, as we recognized ourselves as kindred spirits. He also had strange white-guy tastes that he often caught shit for. He was a huge New York Rangers hockey fan and loved listening to Pink Floyd. His main form of music, though, was ballady R&B stuff, Quiet Storm music, which I could take up through the 70s, but never liked the slicker 80s variety. The guy was a sucker for stuff like Al B. Sure and early Mariah Carey, on top of much better 70s stuff like Al Green and The Chi-Lites. I also got hooked into reggae at the same time as he did, trading a lot of that great old Trojan label stuff back and forth.

Our real bond, though, unfortunately, was doomed romantic relationships we both got ourselves into with beautiful-but-nutty coworkers. In my case, it was with Sally, an Asian girl from Denver who worked in the art department. A catty 80s art-chick whom I could make laugh just by looking at her the right way. Sally was known for having an attitude, and I was known for getting her out of it. Generally by teasing the shit out of her. Which should have been a sign to me that things were going in that direction. Sure enough, I made a move, and about three years of bullshit followed, with her never being able to make up her mind about me, while she had flings with older advertising guys, most of whom seemed like lizards. We had a real bond that outlasted all these guys, but it became clear to me long after it should have that I was spinning my wheels with her, and I opted out of her life, probably the smartest, sanest and hardest thing I’d done at that point in my life. Otherwise, we could still be engaged in that nutty gray area bullshit that plagues so many adults who just don’t know how to move on.

Jose had it much worse. He went for Dora, a fellow Puerto Rican who worked in another part of the company … and was already engaged to a Queens guido construction worker. Please see the above paragraph regarding losers, pricks and douche bags. This guy was all three, and no one quite understood why Dora, who was a nice, smart girl, would go for a guy like this. They both lived in Astoria, probably not far from where I’m typing this now, but neither Jose or I knew a thing about Queens at that time. So, I imagine there was some tight childhood/teenage bond going on there, but this guy was a nudge, and everyone knew it.

As is often the case in these scenarios, Dora really warmed up to Jose, recognizing that he was a great guy, and it wasn’t long before they were going out, while she was engaged to Peking Man. Of course, right there, we all can see that this was very bad news, and would end in flames. But in our 20s and full of hope for these kinds of scenarios, we all thought, “How wonderful and romantic, Jose is slowly going to win her away, and they’ll live happily ever after.”

Not. Predictably, shit turned sour, fast. For one thing, Jose got nuts. And I mean baseball-bat wielding nuts. I guess it could have been residual effects from his father’s dark days. But it got to the point where Jose found the home address of Dora’s fiancĂ©, found out what kind of car he was driving, and then took a very early-morning train out to Astoria, found his car, and left a threatening note on the windshield. I can’t recall exactly how this guy dealt with it, but it obviously wasn’t good. What’s worse is that Jose and Dora would start having scenes at work, and that was just not going to be allowed to happen. The guy had slipped into that bad/crazy zone that all guys, myself included, have gone to at least once in our lives. Jose was eventually asked to leave his job after Dora filed some sort of harassment complaint against him. She was messing with him just as much, but that’s how the modern-day workplace handles these issues.

I had left the job a good six months before Jose's situation turned that sour. And it became my job to help pull the guy out of the funk he was in after losing his job and having this doomed relationship fall apart, which was ultimately for the better, even if it went down a little messy. And it happened over time. It became a Saturday afternoon ritual for me to ride my bike down from the Bronx, hit the great Chinese restaurant that used to be on the corner of 97th and Broadway for some take-out, then head back over to Riverside Park to watch the local Little League teams play in the summer. Slowly but surely, the guy reconnected to reality and got back on his feet. And that’s the point where his father got him hooked into being a doorman. Which, as I’ve noted, may have seemed like a goof to us at the time, but I’m sure isn’t now.

Two cool things happened later that demonstrate what kind of guy Jose is. One, the house I was living at in the Bronx, the old guy next door had a nasty habit of feeding cats for a week or two, and then stopping cold. This one winter, a spindly, three-legged cat turned up for this guy’s feedings, and it happened to be one of those cold-spell winters with temperatures rarely breaking the mid-20s. This poor cat was out on the porch every night, freezing to death, and not being fed after awhile. I took it in, but couldn’t keep it. I called the local SPCA’s only to find that the cat probably would have been euthanized in a matter of weeks – who wants a three-legged cat? I called my Mom, who’s into these kind of animal rescue scenarios, and she suggested I find some way to get the cat back to Pennsylvania, where a local pound had a strict no-kill policy for their animals.

How to do this without a car? That’s when Jose stepped in. I told him what was going on, and his immediate response: “What time do you want me to drive you back?” No questions, no hemming or hawing, bam, let’s do it. And the trip back was from hell. For one, the cat shit all over an expensive leather briefcase he had in the back seat, ruining it, and stinking up the car in the process – not a word of complaint. For another, Interstate 80 was packed with traffic, so we took a back route I knew about 50 miles from home, while the roads were icy and slow-moving.

It was a long trip, the cat mournfully howling most of the way, and Jose driving his car white-knuckled down rural roads he didn’t know most of the way. I remember teaching him how to spot oncoming cars on back roads at night -- by seeing their lights reflecting off the telephone wires long before you could physically see the car. But we got there. Jose spent the night sleeping in my brother’s old bed and left the next morning – freaked out by the whole experience. Going to small-town Pennsylvania like that was a first for him, and he had expected rednecks to be chasing him with pitchforks. Hell, most people didn’t even know he was Puerto Rican, and wouldn’t have done a thing about if they had known. But city kids tend to get paranoid out of the city and have to be weaned from that point of view. He left the next morning and never once took a dollar of money for making the trip or having his briefcase ruined.

The other incident involved driving, too – in this case, getting me out of the Bronx. I knew I was going to quit that job with the management consultants. Going on four years, I was burned out and not enjoying myself. I had similar feelings towards 10 years of living in the Bronx. That February, a 12-year-old girl in the ratty project just up the block had been shot point blank in the face in the laundry room of the building on a Sunday morning. For no obvious reason – robbery wasn’t it. The building was famous for crackheads congregating in the basement (I remember the constant stream and crunch of small vials on the sidewalk back then), and I suspect some crackhead or thug-in-training just shot her for kicks.

The crime went unsolved, which really pissed me off as someone had to have a clue on what happened, and I thought, “You know what? It’s time for me to get the fuck out of here.” Incidents like that had happened over the years. Infamously, a cop bled to death in one of the projects at the intersection of Kingsbridge Road and Sedgwick Avenue (just up the block) while investigating a domestic disturbance, with the husband throwing a mirror at the cop, smashing it, and severing that artery in the inner thigh that leads to death within minutes. (The husband was later acquitted of any charges – the kind of place the Bronx is.)

I knew I was in a bad place, and that “cool” sense of living in a bad place was really wearing thin. Aside from constant verbal crap and teenage goons spitting as I passed, I hadn't really caught any serious crap for being one of the few white people around. I knew this was luck as much as the street sense I had developed to avoid being out at times when shit like that could happen (i.e., just after school left out and late at night). It was time to go.

So, I checked out Astoria, could tolerate what I saw, found an apartment and arranged to move. Again, without hesitation, Jose rents a van on his own, then helps me move all my stuff on a Saturday. His response: “Man, Bill, you need to buy less CDs.” I still kept jewel cases at that time and had about 3,000 in varous little black plastic CD cabinets – which convinced me to throw out the cases and replace them with small, thin plastic slip cases, taking up much less space. You don’t realize how much shit you have until you have to move, and Jose pretty much was all the help I needed.

I think that move may have been the beginning of the end, though. I was living literally only a few blocks from where he had the “threatening note on fiancĂ©’s car” episode, and this spooked him. Also, the N Train doesn’t go directly to the Upper West Side. I’ve since learned it’s really not that bad a trip to do so. Just get on the last car, get off at Time Square, and you literally walk up and down a small staircase, and you’re on the Uptown 1/2/3 platform to that neighborhood, probably an extra 10-15 minutes travel time. But I didn’t understand that at the time.

As it was, when I moved to Astoria, that’s when Jose started fading out of my life. To the point a few years on, where there was no contact at all. No reason. Just that slow fade people sometimes do with each other. I suspect some of it was because he didn’t want to get anywhere near that neighborhood for obvious reasons, and it wasn’t easy for me to pop over to the upper west side of Manhattan, as it had been when I lived in the Bronx.

Two summers ago, I was on a job at Columbia University, just north of the apartment building where Jose’s dad was the super, so I figured I’d get up the nerve and walk down there on lunch break, to see if Jose was still around and up for hanging out. Who knows?

I went down there, told the doorman why I was there and he told me Jose was at work (so he was still living there … and you would be, too, for free rent in a fairly ritzy Upper West Side apartment building). But his Dad was around. At which time, his Dad turned the corner, saw me, his face lit up and he said, “Long time, no see. How you been?” I told him fine, and the situation, that Jose and I had simply lost touch over the years, and I’d like to see if he was still around and up for hanging out. I gave him my phone number and left it at that. A strange feeling – not just because of the meeting, but because I rarely get up to that neighborhood, and it had changed so much from about 1995 to 2005. More upscale stores, banks, restaurants along Broadway. It added to that sense of dislocation, of time moving on, I was already feeling in trying to contact an old friend who had gone by the wayside.

And I never heard back from him. That job ended after six weeks, and I’ve only been to that neighborhood once or twice since. Not sure if Jose believes I had done something wrong, but it seems to me more like a situation where two friends simply lost touch with each other, which I’ve learned happens in our lives. No great crime, but I’m still left with this puzzled feeling, as there’s no applicable logic – fallouts or fights – to this situation being the way it is. Just have to write it down to life being strange at times, and maybe it’s for the best to let it go on being strange.

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