It’s Funny How We Never Look Up

I first met him that August. He sat in a park at One Liberty Plaza, New York, New York, tucked in a corner, glancing into his briefcase. He lived in harmony with the workers and tourists meandering through the area; he paid them no mind, nor they him. 

At that time, autumn was creeping up on me like it always did, promising cooler air and brighter colors. Autumn was always good to me. I met my girlfriend at the time in the autumn. And years before, I’d met the woman I would eventually marry, also in the autumn. 

This fall was especially welcome, especially after a summer of unemployment and unhappiness. I’d finally been granted temporary work throughout the file vaults of various banks in the financial district. I spent my lunch breaks in the park at One Liberty Plaza, smoking cigarettes and trying to draw; the latter was particularly galling, inasmuch as I seemed to have forgotten how.  

One day I glanced around the park, looking for inspiration that wasn’t in this anatomy book that seemed to be the source of my frustration, and there he was, sitting on a marble step in the shade. I wondered who he was. I wondered what he was thinking. Was he relaxing, or was he about to stand up? And what was in his briefcase? Was it his lunch? 

As the days of tedious filing stretched into weeks, I crept ever-so-closer and peeked over his shoulder—subtly, so as not to offend him. I remember seeing an adding machine, and a few other items. But for the life of me, I don’t recall what these other items were, only that they were archaic. 

The last time I saw him, I stood up from the bench, tossed my sketchbook (weakened from the stress of erasers and my dissatisfaction) into my satchel, and dropped a quarter into a payphone. My girlfriend’s thirtieth birthday was that Thursday, and I was trying to arrange something fun; she hadn’t been my biggest fan over the past several months, and I needed to do something to fix that. 

The last time I saw him was on a Monday, because on Tuesday, this happened: 

I’d originally wanted to write an essay about how much this country has changed in the past ten years—about how we’ve lost our way; about the silly phrases I used to love (i.e. “Bring ’em on” and “Dodged a bullet”) but no longer feel comfortable employing, as they have been soiled by those who have no concept of the value of a human life; about the collective, parasitic rage from that day that has turned us against cultures we don’t understand, against our own freedom, against our government, and against ourselves; about lost hope; about fear … 

And then I began running across never-before-seen photos from that day, begging the question: has somebody been sitting on them for ten years so they could release them for a big anniversary? And TV specials and stories and interviews on NPR and essays about what we’ve been up to over the past ten years … and stories from celebrities about what they were doing that morning. And I know that by noon on Sunday, we will have moved on to whatever it is we’re going to be saturating the media with this next cycle. It’s like the anti-Christmas. 

So I wasn’t going to participate. Regardless of everything I went through that day, I wasn’t going to participate. And then I remembered him. 

He’s since been moved around to museums and other parks. Now he’s been returned to where he once was, but in a prominent spot. I could go see him again, but it wouldn’t be the same. Nothing has been the same.  

I prefer to remember him from that late summer, when he and I were both alone, and we liked it that way. 

Somebody I Know Died on Thursday

I wasn’t close enough to call him a friend. I wasn’t distant enough to call him an acquaintance. I don’t know what I should call him. I have always wanted to know him better, but our lives didn’t sync up enough, as sometimes happens. He has existed almost exclusively through Facebook posts and my friends. I can tell you this for sure: I liked him a lot. 

Back in the nineties, we served time together as copy kids at The New York Post. A copy kid is, if you don’t know, is an intern. Actually it’s a step below an intern. And, like it says on the label, you make and deliver copies. Sometimes you went out for coffee. Sometimes you delivered fresh copies of the paper to editors and departments around the office. On very rare occasions, you are sent out to cover a story—usually ones that there are no reporters available to do, or the boring hot potatoes that reporters would like to avoid. There’s not a lot of dignity to being a copy kid, but it was kind of an honor. 

The men and women I worked with at the desk were an interesting bunch. Some were changing careers—not for the money, but to be journalists. For all its bluster and front-page comedy and right-wing agenda, The New York Post was and still is to an extent a very old-fashioned paper, and there was something to be said about running out in the night with a Bic pen and one of those small notebooks with logo stamped on it. 

I think he’d intended to start out as a reporter, but it wasn’t really his thing. Instead he became a copy editor. Just like me. Also like me, he was making things up as he went along, and that meant a lot of mistakes and frustration. We were both simultaneously kind and weary and devastatingly clever. We sometimes had a beard and sometimes didn’t. 

Once I asked him why he was there, and he told me that he’d worked for years as a doorman at a fancy apartment building. The job was incredibly easy, and the money was good. “I went and spent it all on drinks and cab rides. I don’t have anything to show for it.” Well over a decade later he is married with children. 

At the age of forty-three, while his family was out of town on vacation, he suffered a sudden, unexpected stroke, possibly a seizure. It’s not entirely clear what happened, but it appears that he fell while walking, sustaining physical injuries. Police were called, and he was taken to the hospital. For weeks, things were hopeful. He recoiled slightly from physical discomfort. He opened his eyes. He responded to humor. He began to squeeze his wife’s hand. He moved his foot. Soon after that, he raised his hand. And then he took a turn for the worse. On Thursday, his breathing tube was disconnected, and he died. His touching obituary ran in The Post—even in The Wall Street Journal

I don’t know if he had a DNR. All I know is that, at some point, his wife had to be told that somebody was going to be responsible for performing an action that was going to be responsible for his death. Never mind the seizure or stroke—his heart and a lot of his organs were still working. By now they’ve cut him open and removed parts of him and put them into the bodies of others. 

How do you cope with that? How would my wife cope with that? How would I cope with that? 

I’m reminded of the days and nights I sat in an uncomfortable chair after my wife broke her ankle, only to have it reconstructed. Her pain was something I couldn’t comprehend, and throughout the hours of the morning, she held my hand, crushing it. She asked me to tell her a story. She asked me to read for her the comics I had with me for when she slept. She asked me for more meds. I’ve had a loaded gun held to my head; I survived the attacks on the World Trade Center by virtue of showing up to work a little early; last month I almost drowned; I’ve ridden the Cyclone at Coney Island; I can’t remembering being as scared as I was then. And she was fine. It was only her ankle. But she was so helpless. 

I’m reminded of the night my aunt died of lung cancer, only a few hours after I had seen her last. I’d been asked by my uncle or one of my cousins—I don’t remember who—to sit with her alone for a few minutes while they took a break. I didn’t want to. My lively, hilarious, child-like aunt was in so much pain I don’t think she knew who she was. I wish I could say that this pale, shriveled-up person in bed didn’t look a thing like her, but I’d be lying. I don’t know what she saw when she stared into the distances. Sometimes, when I’m not careful, I remember the breaths she took in—about two or three times a second, for days. The effort it took was loud and gasping. They told me I needed to hold her hand and talk to her. Her fingers were cold, and I couldn’t think of a thing to say, and so I sang the first song that came to my head: “Yellow Submarine,” by the Beatles.  

What did he look like on the hospital bed, bandaged from surgery, IVs in his arms, a tube in his throat, his eyes sometimes closed, sometimes open and glassy? I can’t get the question out of my head. I’m drowning in work—both editing and art; I’m going to New York to see one of the people dearest to me and to re-explore the city I consider a lover; immediately after that, I have a visitor I’ve never met in person, but I am really dying to. I can’t close my eyes without seeing him, or my aunt, or my wife. 

I wasn’t close enough to call him a friend. I wasn’t distant enough to call him an acquaintance. I don’t know what I should call him. I have always wanted to know him better, but our lives didn’t sync up enough, as sometimes happens. He has existed almost exclusively through Facebook posts and my friends. I can tell you this for sure: I liked him a lot.