It’s hard to believe how many people you get to know throughout your whole life. I mean like really get to know. They float through our vision like a love we may never feel or a flavor that remains unknown. We know they are present; always present. But once they cease to exist, we seem to long for them more than before. There’s an absence that’s hard to explain and yet it’s so obvious. We should have known all along. The lives and people we strive for seem apparent to the lucky ones. The rest of us are left wishing we had hoped just a little bit more once they’re gone.
I’ve lost quite a few people in the past few years. I’m much too young to have experienced this much loss of people my own age and I’m still figuring out how to deal with it but I’m trying. Last year, a friend of mine in the Chicago comedy scene, Dan Ronan, died at the age of 24. Almost two years ago, a co-worker of mine, Bobby Cann (whom I didn’t actually know personally), died in a bicycle accident by the Groupon office when he was hit by a drunk driver. My brother was killed in a similar fashion a few years earlier.
I’ve never written about my brother. He died on April 20, 2008, just six days shy of his 23rd birthday. He was hit by a car on his bike at the intersection of Logan and Western in Chicago. The light was yellow, the intersection shitty, and being under a dark overpass didn’t help. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. Whatever reason you wish to relate his death to doesn’t change the fact that he’s gone. He hated attention and would always shove that burden onto his older brother. He worked at the Apple store on Michigan Avenue and was about to become one of the regional visual managers for the Midwest region. He had dirty white boy dreads and never owned a pair of pants without holes in them but somehow made it to a managerial echelon at 22 years old that I still have yet to see. But that’s just it, isn’t it? We try to remember the dead in a way that paints them into some kind of career-oriented success story.
What came out of his working at Apple was much more than where he stood financially upon their totem pole. My mother, my wonderful outspoken mother, wrote a personal letter to Steve Jobs. Unlike his public persona and known aversion to human interaction, he actually responded to her. A loss for our little family was also a loss for Apple. He helped coordinate employees from other stores in the Midwest area to cover shifts and rented charter buses for the 100+ employees to travel to Minnesota for my brother’s funeral. I worked at the Second City comedy club at the time and every one of my co-workers pitched in to pay my bills for two months while I went home to grieve and I still came back to a job, which is basically unheard of in the restaurant business.
This morbid recall came to a head this week when I lost yet another co-worker, Bobby Wermus. I only met Bobby last summer when we helped a mutual work friend and his girlfriend move into their new apartment. I stood outside an apartment building, smoking a cigarette, when Bobby walked up and basically told me I was there to help move our friends, wasn’t I? Right off the bat, he assumed we were of similar ilk and obviously there to do some moving. No matter how sweaty I got (and it was a lot), Bobby didn’t judge me as a new encounter. He plied me with cigarette breaks and silly anecdotes. As the day came to a close, I was too tired to do any hanging at the new apartment of what was now full of new friends and I regret it as it is now time lost with Bobby. Over the next few months, we shared beers and smokes and became not quite close friends but more than work acquaintances. At this point, I was almost five years into my job and it was nice to get to know a new face every so often.
In September of 2014, Bobby asked if I wanted to become a mentor at Groupon to a 7th grade student. If you know me than you know I’m a bit of a curmudgeon and am not exactly suited for guiding hopeful youths into prosperous futures. But, as it turns out, I’m a big softie and caved upon further pushing by Bobby. I could tell he kind of wanted to do it but didn’t want to do it alone and I was maybe a few rungs down on the people he had asked already. Maybe it was guilt. Maybe it was wanting to get to know Bobby more. Or maybe I just couldn’t say no to the big dummy. So we embarked on this weird adventure of taking care of a middle school student for two hours a week. It turned out to be very fulfilling and super fun but we both agreed we probably would never do it again. Which is fine. We tried it and liked it but realized we didn’t have enough of ourselves to give to someone else like that.
That’s how I related to Bobby in the sense of not knowing someone very well but completely understanding them. We were both grumps and crabby about the silliest stuff but were also some of the most affable fellas around. I never once saw him actually angry. I know the feeling. It takes a lot for some people to get actually angry but it was very easy for us to complain about anything and everything, all the time. It’s one of the things I loved about hanging out with Bobby because I never felt outspoken or weird about what I was saying. He always said what he thought about what was happening, no matter how bad it sounded. I remember during a mentoring session with our student, we finally landed on a topic we could bond about with the kid. Food. We start talking about what kind of foods we liked and how it’s made. Bobby starts to tell our kid about the book Fast Food Nation. Remember, this kid is barely 13 and we aren’t exactly close yet. But Bobby begins to regal the specifics of cattle slaughter and how it might be a little much to take in but is definitely worth a read. I recall trying to tell him that might not be appropriate for someone who just got out of elementary school but he was nonplussed and said that the kid would be ok. Even children weren’t safe from the honesty of Mr. Bobby Wermus and he was just fine with that.
Some of the folks I mentioned above were very close to me and some not at all. They still affect me. They affect us all. I’m not quite sure how to react to death or that I ever will. One thing I am sure of is I’m glad these people floated through my life, even for a moment, so I knew them. And somehow, maybe they knew me.