Sunday, December 09, 2007


Lately, I’ve been thinking about a friend who passed away a few years ago: Bob. No particular reason. Don’t think he died this time of year. He passed on in his early 50s from some type of severe gastric problem, don't know exactly what it was. But the end came fast, leaving everyone in his life in shock, particularly his wife and two kids.

Bob was one of those people you didn’t forget, even if you couldn’t stand him. And apparently, some people couldn’t, at least at face value. Back in the early 90s, with the internet in its infancy, I became part of an internet “digest” consisting of fans of a legendary NYC DJ, Vin. He was legendary for good reason – his show was a rolling pastiche of great new music, well-chosen classics, cool interviews and a lot of interesting stories and talk thrown in the mix. He’s still doing it at one of the college stations around here, and possibly on satellite radio, but I lost touch when the major rock station in NYC dumped him. (Which he shouldn’t have taken personally – every rock station in the NYC area dumped everything and everybody of value by 2000.)

As a result of Vin’s “everyone’s invited” vibe, he started an internet digest where listeners signed up and became part of a large group (at its largest, close to a thousand members) consisting mostly of NYC area rock-music fanatics and the occasional garden-variety sociopaths who haunt any internet endeavor. In its prime, it was an interesting place with all sort of dialogues, occasional knock-down/drag-out brawls, some great writing, and a lot of fun to be had. As noted above, when Vin left his last gig at the major station, the digest itself, at least for me, fizzled out, too, many of the voices that were once part of it having moved on or phased themselves out through boredom, fights, life getting too busy, etc.

But there was one legendary event, can’t recall the exact year, probably about 1995, where one of the digest, Bob, offered to throw a gigantic party for Vin who, at the time, was making a jump from one of the other rock stations to that last station he’d work at for the next few years. (It was a fretful few weeks leading up to that, as Vin’s future was vague until this announcement, but his radio legacy won the day.) To this point and preceding the digest, Vin would occasionally have movie screenings and such, which served as the only social meeting point for a lot of these people.

No one knew who Bob was. The one thing he was known for on the digest: leaning far right in his political views which, if you haven’t lived in the NYC vicinity, is like painting a target on your back. Bob went over-the-top on a lot of issues, as many of us did with this new internet thing, and had established a reputation for getting into issues in a way that was sometimes abrasive. But abrasive in a way that, if you’re an adult, you can roll with and recognize it’s just an opinion that holds no sway or power over you, unless you let it. The digest was populated with people who put out a gentle, aging hippie vibe (while often being monstrous in their personal lives), so Bob’s shtick went down like a shit sandwich for a lot of people.

(The ultimate truth of the digest, or any internet group, is that it becomes just like high school in terms of cliques forming, with the same exclusivity and mild-to-hostile negative feelings towards competing cliques. Most squabbles come down to dealing with people you just don't like, and never will, with the feeling being mutual. If you're looking to bust any aspirations you may hold towards sainthood, force yourself to hang around people you can't stand. In no time, you'll look like the biggest asshole on earth, when the truth is anyone would. Knowing when to leave is an art form we should all perfect.)

What to make of Bob throwing a party? Could they attend a filthy Republican’s social event and still maintain their liberal cred? Should they throw the I Ching to find the answer? Bob claimed to own a gigantic warehouse space in Hoboken, and he expected dozens of people to show up, including Vin, and a few local bands that Vin had championed. I signed up. The dozen or so people I knew from the digest did, too, as did most of the usual suspects from the digest. It became an event in no time. Bob even scored a beer sponsorship with a local micro-brewer so we’d drink for free.

And what a night it was: freezing cold, icy streets (can’t recall if it was February or March), a bad night to be out, but it was one of those nights where the stars aligned, and the few hundred people who showed up had a blast, like a lost tribe gathering. We all got to meet each other for the first time and recognize the wizards behind the curtains. I’d say there are 10 or so people I met that night who are still regular players in my life, and another 10 that I keep in touch with throughout the year. There’d be other digest events after this, but nothing came close to that night at Bob’s place: it was magical. Vin showed up, but looked overwhelmed and uncomfortable. The usual introduction came from a jabbering fortysomething in coke-bottle glasses and graying shoulder-length hair: “Vin, man, that interview you did with Genya Ravan in 1977, it changed my life, man, this is so heavy meeting you now, man.” I think I realized that night that I really didn’t like Vin. I loved what he did on the radio, but he seemed like a really strange guy, so I guess the internet was a companion media format to radio. I suspect the only place he feels all right is alone in front of a studio microphone doing his thing, and that's cool.

That night was all thanks to Bob. The warmth of that night lasted a few weeks, but sooner or later, I’m sure Bob ripped someone a new one over Bill Clinton’s penis, which was all over the place at the time, and it was back to hating him again for a lot of folks. Bob and I always got along, and the few times he’d gouge me, I’d gouge back, with a wink. He took that as high-sign that I “got” it, and vice-versa. The internet is awash with people who want to fight – I think I was like that myself for a year or two back then. But after awhile, you learn how to fight and what minor level that nonsense exists on or, more importantly, learn that there are probably other reasons why you are fighting and just get over that shit. I’ve come across a few people on the internet who are either certifiable or bad people, but most are just killing time, putting stuff out there for friction because so much of our lives is spent in front of computers, and this is how people sometimes connect now.

I learned that there was a lot more going on with Bob than the occasional right-wing rant on the internet. Bob made shit happen. (Always thought that would be a cool job description. So, what do you do? I make shit happen. I’m a shit-happener.) He started his own stage lighting and design company back in the 70s and was immediately successful, doing a few very famous music and concert sets that you see referenced to this day. I think he said at the height of his business he was employing 80 people (and probably making a fortune, although not once did he reference this). But at some point, he got tired of the managerial hustle, pulled back, found that huge space in Hoboken (apparently just before property values sky-rocketed in the late 80s), got married and got into computer database consulting. The warehouse was something else, two huge halls, one side his living area with a large kitchen at one end, a living room set in the middle and space all around, with the other hall looking like a garage/storage space filled with files, tools, equipment, computers, etc. Off the two large halls was a smaller bedroom area on a second floor, with small side and backyard areas for his gigantic dog to roam and shit.

I don’t know how we got more in-touch aside from many private email exchanges, but I somehow came to help him out at the warehouse in between freelance gigs and work assignments. Just doing minor stuff – helping him get organized mostly. It was a long haul for me to get out there, via the PATH train, and he lived a good 20-minute walk from the station. Typical work day was showing up around 10:00, hanging out with Bob and his wife K in their kitchen for half an hour, talking and listening to great music on their warehouse-wide sound system, then getting busy with whatever project at hand. At the end of the week, he’d cut me a check, and this would happen maybe a handful of times over a 2-3 year period in the mid-90s.

What I found in Bob was a complex man who helped me understand the mindset of your average CEO. Because that’s what Bob was with his lighting company, and he chose to walk away from that level of pressure, despite enjoying the work. He was always “on” – always thinking on his feet, extremely bright, always working on some sort of plan. He set goals, constantly, either small daily ones or larger ones he always had his eye on. I could tell K really admired and emulated this aspect of him, maybe even why she loved him, as when I think of physical comparisons, Bob looked like a slightly thinner Zero Mostel. When you had a conversation with him, he’d always try to feel his way into what you wanted from life, what you hoped to do with yourself in the grand scheme of things. Which mattered to him in some sense, as he always thought in those terms about everything.

On one hand I thought that was a load of bullshit, but since I knew Bob well enough to see through this, I knew he had a lot more going on than Type A intensity. He wanted to do things in his life with a sense of rising from one level to another, to what point, I don’t know, but maybe his point was the journey of self improvement in recognizable steps. That sounds a bit cheesy, but that’s how Bob was when you got to know him. He named one of his kids after R. Buckminster Fuller, and I had to admit, when he did, while I knew the name well, I had no fucking idea what R. Buckminster Fuller was known for. Bob sure as hell did and worshipped the man. And just looking at the Wikipedia entry on Fuller, I can deduce how Bob came to be who he was:

Throughout his life, Fuller was concerned with the question "Does humanity have a chance to survive lastingly and successfully on planet Earth, and if so, how?" Considering himself an average individual without special monetary means or academic degree, he chose to devote his life to this question, trying to find out what an individual like him could do to improve humanity's condition that large organizations, governments, or private enterprises inherently could not do.

That was Bob. I recall how he used to take me down to the local Italian deli to get lunch, usually tomato/mozzarella sandwiches. This was a real Italian deli, generally stocked with construction workers on lunch break or the few remaining neighborhood Italians who hadn’t been spooked off by the yuppies. Every time I went in there, I felt like those guys were going to form a circle and start pushing me around like a beach ball. Bob would walk in like he owned the place, chat with the owner, who greeted him warmly, and we’d get our sandwiches and soda in a matter of minutes.

I remember one day, we were working a haphazard back porch deck he had set up in the back lot behind the warehouse – tearing down boards, cutting new ones, hammers, nails, etc. And we had just come back from the deli, eating our sandwiches in the early April sun, looking at the ugly luxury condo being built on the edge of his lot. It was just one of those nice moments, think it was “Racing in the Streets” by Springsteen floating out from the warehouse door, along with the sound of his daughter chasing their gigantic dog, neither of us knowing our ass from a hole in the ground with carpentry but doing it anyway, looking at that horrible building, a guy who could have moved into that business and built similarly ugly buildings for a fortune.

One day, Bob asked me to help organize his files. The guy saved every piece of paper in his life. I mean everything. Old articles ripped from magazines in the 1970s. Invoices from his long-defunct lighting company. Catalogs of all sorts. He refused to throw anything out. I came across a letter he wrote to his father a few years earlier. I knew it would be this because the manila folder it was in had “Letter to My Father” scrawled on the tab. And what a letter. I knew it was a private matter, should have just closed it and moved on, but I couldn’t help myself.

I gathered from the letter that he had a rocky relationship with his Dad, which seems to be a hallmark I’ve noticed with a lot of successful businessmen. It seemed like his father was successful in some sense and didn’t think Bob was living up to his standards. At least that’s how I remember it – it could have been a different situation, but I do remember there was an obvious, serious disconnect between father and son noted. The “Bob” part of the letter came with Bob looking to put aside any past misunderstandings and let them both get more involved in each other’s lives, because he wanted his kids to know who their grandfather was and have that larger sense of family. (Bob often hassled me about not having kids, as he saw them being the keys to long-term happiness. He lit up when they were around, and I'd like to think all parents are that visibly enamored of their children. I suspect the hardest part of his dying was knowing he'd never get to see them grow.)

I read it once, put it back where I found it, and thought, fuck it, Bob, you file that one because I don’t know where it belongs. I could have walked over, said, Bob, what should I do with this, and he would have spent half an hour discussing it with me to get my take on it. But one thing I knew, no way on earth would we get through Bob’s insane amount of files. He had two or three long, bolted, metal file shelves running about 30 feet, three shelves on each, every square inch filled with some sort of file, no rhyme or reason to a lot of it. Something tells me he knew exactly where that letter was, and I should just leave it there.

After a few of those work visits (which always came at times when I genuinely needed the money), I fell into steady work at an investment bank and didn’t see Bob for a long time, actually ever again. A mutual friend told me that he was seriously ill with some stomach problem, and a few weeks later, he was gone. I suspect he knew it was coming. A few years earlier, he had taken out a life insurance policy on himself that would leave his family doing well in the event of his passing. I don’t know how much K or anyone else knew, but I suspect he knew something like this was in the cards and wanted to get as much done as humanly possible before checking out.

And I can only imagine how torn up K was over this, knowing that Bob was one of those long-term thinkers, that whatever he couldn’t do in his life, he’d want to see his kids picking up his knowledge and intensity and carrying them forward. He wouldn't want either to feel the need to write the sort of letter he had to his father. I suspect the difference between Bob and his father was what happened after he ditched the lighting company, that Bob was viewing success for himself in a different light from money and wanted to move in that direction … which makes no sense to people who traditionally define success only through money. I gather when he passed, K picked right up with everything he wanted to put forth, saw that she had two small kids depending on her now, took Bob’s spirit and used it to make herself get through such an awful time.

I honestly didn’t know what to make of his passing. At that point in my life, I’d had the death of my grandmother and a few wayward passings of teenage friends under my belt. I was also dumb-struck at the concept of someone not another generation older from mine passing away from health problems. It’s to my discredit that I didn’t help out K more … just didn’t know what to do and still don’t. I know in my case, when Dad went, there wasn’t much you could do for me, save go on treating me the same. Whatever shit I had to deal with, no one was going to clarify that situation for me. Dealing with death is like putting on another layer of clothes in winter when the temperature drops more than expected. You can heap all sort of psychological bullshit on top of that, but the world just got a little bit colder and smaller for you. Nothing’s going to change that, and you have to re-adjust. It's that simple, and you better believe life gets that black-and-white for a long time afterwards.

How do I remember Bob? As one of the most generous, open, intelligent people I’ve ever met. And a Republican to boot … how about that. It’s been one of the stranger mind games in my life that the people who’ve extended themselves the most for me, who were the most selfless (aside from my parents), have occasionally been right-leaning conservatives. Plenty of liberals, too, I usually don’t bust balls on political persuasion. I need to underline that about Bob, because people who didn’t know him well had little idea about who he really was, and the public persona was a mild ruse as opposed to who he really was. In our daily dealings, he rarely got into politics, which seemed like a surface annoyance to him. I felt the spark of life around him – the guy attached value and meaning to everything. He probably would have driven me nuts if I’d been around him more, but it was great to take him in for those small doses.

My best memory of Bob: one blustery, sunny Saturday in January, I was walking around the area of 34th Street on the west side of Manhattan. I can’t recall what I was doing there, as that part of town is desolate on the weekends. Just walking. As I turned the corner of 34th and 8th by the huge post office, I saw an idling van on the side of the street. The side door swung open, and there was Bob, giving me the finger and laughing. You have to understand the random nature of living around Manhattan, that running into someone you know well like this is rare. K and their daughter were in the front seat of the van, laughing. It turns out they were going to some type of kiddie concert at Madison Square Garden and had just got there. As usual, they had sandwiches and invited me in to eat. But for whatever reason, I thought it best to keep walking and get home (the Bronx at that time), as it was cold as hell with a biting wind. But we talked anyway for a good 15 minutes about nothing in particular. For some reason, if there is some type of after life, wherever I go, I suspect a door will swing open in that place, and Bob will be there, giving me the finger. Heaven or hell, you decide.

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