Elegy for a Friend: He Perished Alone And Far Too Young

A friend of mine died a couple of weeks ago, unexpectedly, alone in his apartment at the age of 30. We hadn’t talked in a couple of years, hadn’t hung out in probably three or four. Until I read his obituary, I didn’t know he’d moved out to Brooklyn, or how exceptionally well he was doing at his job. We were out of touch for the same reason I’m out of touch with tons of people that I like but don’t see regularly. But I find now that I can’t stop thinking about him, can’t stop thinking about the details (or lack of details) of his death-and, generally speaking, I’m spooked. It’s caused me to look at this city, my city-my home for almost a decade-with new eyes and old fears.

We were certainly not best friends by any means. We didn’t discuss our relationships beyond the anecdotal (he was quite the storyteller) and, in fact, never once had anything resembling a serious conversation (with the exception of a couple of chemically enhanced evenings when we discussed the meaning of life). We grew up together in a small town where fathers play squash together and mothers are in the same book club. Our sisters graduated in the same high-school class of about 125 people. He fooled around with more than one friend of mine; I had a crush on one of his fellow Little Leaguers. After college graduation, we found ourselves part of a motley group that still lived at home. Our best quality time came in the form of shared misery on a daily 7:45 a.m. commuter train into the city. (I still believe the best relationships can be judged on the ability to sit on the floor of a packed train with a shared New York Times and a silent agreement to speak as little as possible.) In short, we were suburban friends, the kind who drank beer in mugs, sat around grassy backyards, ate hoagies and chicken wings, went to the movies, hung around various basements and garages playing ping-pong. We had dicey rides home from the ramshackle nightclub we liked to visit a few towns away. I think we probably imagined it ironic but all secretly loved the dry ice, the Jell-O shots, the 80′s hits. My friend favored slightly eccentric red shoes that summer, and he was a surprisingly good dancer for someone so tall. He’d spin me and the other girls around but mainly keep to a smooth sort of shuffle, eyes closed, lips moving along to the lyrics. “I see you stealing my moves, Joe Head,” he’d sometimes shout, to no one in particular, an obscure movie reference that would crack him (and usually only him) up. I remember talking a lot about Tenacious D, going to see Rushmore, and lots and lots of driving around town, radio up and windows down, like some Bruce Springsteen song.

Because he was one of the more animated people I’ve ever met, when I got the phone call, my brain refused to absorb the concept. Dead? Him? Impossible! I couldn’t stop asking questions, but never got satisfactory answers. A friend snapped at me, grieving, “Does it really matter how or why? He’s dead! That’s all that matters.” And I suppose that’s true. But I keep fixating on those last few hours, wondering, the dark and morbid thoughts coming in, unstoppable.

When I first moved into the city, I was a nervous wreck. I was the girl clutching her bag and jumping at every noise, convinced that in every dark shadow lurked danger. While riding the subway, I’d grip the seat, practically panting, heart racing, just waiting for someone to mug me. No matter that this was during rush hour and I was still withdrawing $20 at a time from the A.T.M. But slowly, things changed. It was my chronic insomnia that first changed my heart and mind about New York. Even now, no matter what the lonely hour is when I skulk about my apartment, I can look outside my window and see fellow rectangles of light beaming back at me in friendly solidarity. The cars that never stop rushing down Seventh Avenue are infinitely soothing, and though I’ve lived alone for more than five years, I’ve always been of the mind that I wasn’t truly alone. I know that the guy across the street from me must work on Wall Street because he gets up at 5 every day to go to the gym. I can hear my next-door neighbor, a stewardess, get up for a middle-of-the-night flight and run a shower; we share a wall and pipes. The French guy upstairs has a parade of slender, chain-smoking and vaguely foreign-looking women traipsing up and down the stairs. These strangers have all been given silly nicknames: Hunchback, Masturbating Jazz Man (don’t ask), the Dreamers, Domino. I was unspeakably moved when, on Sept. 13, 2001, the man I had silently dubbed “Old Man River” (he sits without fail on the stoop next to mine), who had previously kept our relationship to a simple wave and smile and the occasional weather commentary, leapt off his step to hug me. “I didn’t know if you worked down there,” he said throatily. “I hadn’t seen you and I was so worried.” All of these things, these countless little New York City details, continue to thrill me. I love that the people at the video store know my last name (and how to spell it) without me saying a word, that my liquor-store guys know when a relationship has ended, how the old lady who always wears hats and I both stop to pet the cat with no name that lives in the deli. These small moments are what have coddled me into believing that I am living again in a small town.

But then a young man dies in his apartment and isn’t discovered for a few days-the ultimate scary New York City death-and the feeling of being alone in the universe once more returns. I’ve lain in bed some nights recently, unable to sleep (of course), trying to figure out how long it would take for family members, co-workers or friends to be concerned enough by my absence to find my landlord and break my door down. When I prop a leg up on the soap dish to shave in the shower, I think about the combination of running water, soap and my natural klutziness, and I can’t help but imagine what an undignified sight I’ll make when the authorities burst through. My boyfriend has understandably become tired of hearing me talk like this. He is not a natural worrier and can’t understand why I spend so much time running the wheels in my head. “If I find you dead in the apartment, I’ll take you out to the curb-but not the trash,” he said finally, darkly, the other night. “I’m still scared of the rats.”

I suppose it’s good every once in a while to have the stuffing scared out of you, your wits knocked about, and to remember that New York, in the end, is a lonely city. All you can really do is smile at your neighbors, be nice to your deli guys and remember to call old friends every once in a while to check in.