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December 21, 2003


This week, some goodness left the world.

An old friend killed himself.

I'm not sure if "friend" is the right word to describe Greg. To call him a friend suggests a certain kind of interchangeability with other friends. Greg did much more than fill a niche. If he had not existed, I could not have imagined him.

He was close to my family for a few years, and made a deep impression on all of us. We all liked him. He went on trips with us, had endless dinners with us. And though Greg wasn't conventionally articulate, he gave us many things to talk and think about.

Twelve years ago, when he was living with my sister, my own life was more or less falling apart (with a lot of help from yours truly). Having no place else to go, I ended up at their apartment a lot. Often enough, I'm sure, to strain things. But my sister and Greg were always welcoming.

Later, when I (voluntarily) spent two weeks in a state mental hospital, Greg brought me some books. Aldous Huxley proved to be a welcome diversion from that environment, with residents doing laps around the lobby -- sometimes with pants unbuttoned -- and endless Mariah Carey videos on TV.

And his apartment. There was almost no place you could look in that apartment without seeing Greg's presence. He took a creaky high-ceilinged place that had once been a hotel suite for train passengers around the turn of the century, which had not been renovated since then, and gave it style. He painted, made pictures, made furniture out of pretty much anything available. A chair out of railroad ties. He sculpted ceramic heads for the shelf space, ceramic bones to hang from the ceiling, and kitchen counters to chop up the vittles.

Greg had more energy than he had places for it to go. He played drums. He drew on anything, including a cartoon of late-period Elvis on an unwitting friend's beach ball. He turned an apartment-building party into an impromptu graffiti free-for-all when he drew "Sandi" and "Danni" from Grease on the hallway walls. (Since the walls were made of rotting brick, this improved their appearance no end). He cooked, eventually making it his profession. Sometimes Greg bought food because he liked its name, whether or not he ate it. Hence a refrigerator full of Braunschweiger, of various ages and expiration dates.

His legs were springs, forever pushing his body up and out like a sprinter during the half-second after the starting gun goes off. (Maybe realizing the attention his legs would get because of this, Greg pushed it a step further and got a fantastic pair of red-white-and-blue shoes). His morning routine was to get up and pace, smoking and drinking from a liter bottle of Mountain Dew, going round and round like a satellite slingshotting around a planet to gather speed before shooting off into space.

Greg and my sister had immense numbers of cats, and nicknames for each other that I thought would stick forever. But then it ended, and they moved on. My sister found a long-term boyfriend, and Greg found a wife.

Before the visitation, I hadn't seen him in about six years. The last time was at a showing of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. I'd gone by myself, and watched the movie alone. At the end I stood up, turned around, and saw Greg at the other end of the theater. He'd also come by himself.

After that I didn't see him. But I remembered him. I found myself looking through music bins for things he would listen to. He got me interested in Henry Miller, enough so that I bought most of his published work. Ditto, to a lesser extent, for Graham Greene. And, the first time I heard Marc Heiden on the What Jail Is Like radio program, he sounded so much like Greg that I was sure he must look like Greg. I was floored when this turned out not to be the case.

My family remembered Greg too. Once in a while we'd be talking about something, and one of us would spontaneously remark -- "What would Greg think?" And we'd all have a moment of recollection.

And now this.

I realize the irony of mourning someone who, had he lived, I probably would never have seen again. It's unnerving to realize how long ago I knew him, how far and fast life's undertow has dragged me away from him and everyone in the group we were part of. It's possible that the person I'm mourning in fact disappeared years ago -- that Greg had matured into someone else.

But I don't think so. I think I still would have recognized the fundamentals of his character. When I was getting ready for the visitation -- picking out what to wear and what shirts to iron -- my sister said that Greg would laugh if he knew I was fussing over something like that. And it's true. He had no patience for smarm, or keeping up appearances for their own sake.

But at a visitation, there's more at stake than what you wear. You've got the simple horrible fact, laid out in front of you, of someone like Greg who is gone and will never come back. I have no idea how his wife Amy was able to be there, be part of the line of family members greeting us visitors (such a diabolical mirror image of the line for well-wishers at a wedding). She was in shock, relating the story of how Greg went, what a little thing pushed him over the edge, and how she found him. And if the fact that I had nothing to offer Amy except my ear, some sympathetic noises and a decent suit of clothes was smarm, then let it be smarm.

Here's what got me. Aside from my sister, myself, and our friend Eric, who'd known Greg from the days of the railroad apartment, I don't think Greg had any friends there at all.

I can't help but think -- he must have been very lonely.

In Greg's blacker moods, it probably wouldn't have mattered how many people were around him. But we might have given him a social network to help him orient himself. We might have punched a few more air holes in his box.

We live in a culture with the time-honored custom -- and I am one of its most devoted practitioners -- of letting the meanest, most trivial chores be an excuse for not seeing the people who matter most to us. Sure, they'll understand if you don't have time. What else are friends for? But spending so much time away from people who matter, cycling through the eternal trinity of home, office and strip mall, has a denaturing effect on the spirit. If we can't spend time with the people who matter, doing things that matter, what have we become but our own worst nightmares?

So, as Christmas looms, and after that another year of officially-sanctioned fear and bombast and paranoia, I want to offer a gentle suggestion. Seeing family on holidays, and seeing friends at birthdays and funerals, is not enough. Is nowhere near enough. Consider who you're not seeing, and how much better things would be if you did see them.