A friend of mine died this week. Died in his asleep, presumably alone. He was 42.
In this age of social media, maybe I’d call him a former friend, because he deleted me from Facebook a long time ago, but if he had called me needing $100 to make it to his next paycheck, I’d have given it to him without a second thought. The reason I use that particular example is because, knowing his story, it’s probably the mostly likely reason that he would have contacted me.
I won’t use his real name, because I’m going to tell his story in true Speaker For The Dead fashion. Let’s call him “Bob.” Bob was a musical compatriot of mine for a few years, and we toured much of the midwest together in an Econoline van that had a penchant for eating alternators at the most inconvenient times. He was a brilliant guy, easily my intellectual equal and maybe even then some. But Bob’s life was, to put it mildly, a trainwreck.
He couldn’t hold a job for any length of time whatsoever. He had a brilliant mind for computing and programming, but in the time I knew him, he had more jobs than I can remember and none of them were in IT. I know that he worked as a pizza delivery driver, a sandwich artist, and I even got him a job working in the same musical instrument store as I did for a little while, which was the job that he managed to keep the longest—nearly a year or so before he was let go.
I never saw him do anything resembling exercise. His diet was a disaster. He kept himself in such poor physical condition that at the age of 23 he couldn’t even finish a set of music without cramping. I once bet him that he couldn’t run up and down a single city block. I won that bet.
In fact, you could bet Bob to do just about anything, as long as it meant that winning the bet would forgive some of his debt to you. He owed everybody in the band at least a few hundred dollars, including me, because he was always in between paychecks. Once, after a particularly terrible gig on Put-In Bay in Ohio, I told him I would forgive some debt if he could roll on the ground from one end of a parking spot to the other. Of course, there was a catch—the 20 feet or so was covered with mayflies, about three inches deep, thanks to a spotlight that was shining on the blacktop. Bob laid down and began to roll his round body into the space, but something was preventing him from submerging himself into the sea of insects.
“I really am trying, guys,” he shouted from the ground, “but my body won’t let me do it!” We all cried laughing over that one.
He was forever the victim of “bad luck.” For example, the house that everybody in the band (except for me) lived in was right next to a large dumpster. After one particularly rousing Ohio State football victory, the contents of that dumpster were set ablaze by some enthusiastic fans. The resulting heat from the fire melted most of the plastic bits of Bob’s Plymouth Sundance Duster, including the tail lights. Of course, this is what happens when you get mind-numbingly drunk, pass out on the couch, and sleep through a giant fire that nearly burns down your house.
It wasn’t hard to see the cause of many of Bob’s issues. His father was similarly bright—I think he may have even worked for NASA at one point—but had alcohol and substance abuse issues. Bob’s dad would sometimes show up at the band house with a six pack of beer and a porno tape, looking like he hadn’t slept in quite some time. He hung out with us a lot, but not in the way that you’d expect a cool dad to hang out with his son and his friends—more like he was just one of the other guys in the band who also couldn’t afford to pay his rent or buy anything better than Milwaukee’s Best. The rest of us had at least moderately middle class families with respectable dads, and I think we were all a little bit uncomfortable with this man in his fifties acting this way, or at least I was. I don’t know that he was ever much of a father to Bob or for Bob’s other siblings.
I also don’t remember Bob ever having a single date with a woman in the time that I knew him. I don’t remember a girl’s name even being mentioned in association with him. I think we tried to set him up with a groupie or two but it never worked out. I never saw him wearing anything other than white t-shirts and jean shorts. He didn’t give much thought to how the opposite sex viewed him. He was more interested in playing the latest video game, reading some incredibly complex book, or just drinking himself into a stupor. He wasn’t gay, he was just kind of asexual.
But he was a good dude. He helped me move once, and all he asked for in payment was a six pack and a dinner at Burger King. He was the only guy in the band who was relentless about telling the truth. I remember having a long conversation with him into the wee hours of the night about a girl I was dating who had dumped me for a guy she met on vacation in Miami. “She was a slut, man, but that’s why you liked her.”
Once, he came up to me at a gig with a Pina Colada in his hand, and offered it to me kindly. “I can’t pay you back right now, but I got you a drink.” I had never indicated any sort of interest in Pina Coladas, and I couldn’t figure out why he chose to get me that particular drink, but I recognized the kind gesture on his part.
“Thanks, Bob,” I said, and I took a long drink. As soon as I swallowed, he burst out laughing.
“I just found that drink on a table!” I proceeded to vomit. Good times, man. Good times.
Not too long after I left the band—a parting that was about 20% mutual and 80% not-so-mutual—Bob also left, replaced with a younger, more physically fit, more attractive musician. I didn’t hear much about him after that, other than the occasional social media post. I remember that he posted a mirror selfie of himself wearing a suit, asking for good luck on an interview. He had gained a significant amount of weight, and the suit was ill-fitting and of obviously poor quality. The comments on the picture were of the “hope it works out, you got this” variety, written in a tone that indicated that meant they knew it probably wouldn’t.
Like I said, we were Facebook friends for a while, but then one day, I went to click on his profile and noticed that we weren’t friends anymore. I imagine that one of my more conservative postings probably wasn’t up his alley and he clicked “remove friend” in annoyance at one of them. Or maybe I had done too good of a job at portraying that “perfect social media life”—the suburban house, the 2.2 kids, the travel, the lifestyle—that we all try to create for ourselves, and he had gotten sick of it and decided he didn’t need to see my pictures in his news feed.
Maybe he felt that there was no reason that he couldn’t have had just as good of a life as I did—and still do. He was just as smart, just as talented—maybe more so. He had a good circle of friends, dating all the way back to high school. Yeah, maybe his dad was an alcoholic, but whose parents don’t have some sort of issue? We’re all a little fucked up, right? But most of us are able to survive it, to turn those early life struggles into some sort of hard-luck story that we tell around the dinner table with our similarly successful adult friends/rivals.
Bob couldn’t do it. Maybe he was happy, and maybe he wasn’t. He put on more and more weight, until he became the guy I saw in his obituary photo earlier this week. He had been maybe 180 when I knew him—the Bob in the pic was over 300, easily. He died in his sleep at the age of 42. That doesn’t often happen to healthy people. The obit mentioned that he was survived by his siblings and their families, but made no mention of any life partners. According to that same obituary notice, he had been doing tech support at a help desk for a bank, a job for which Glassdoor reports a salary of $36k a year.
I wish there was some happy ending here. I wish that I could say that he made a difference in the lives of people he touched, or that he would be fondly remembered by thousands at his funeral. I wish I could say that I’d even kept in touch with him over the years—actually, that’s not entirely true. I’m more saddened by the fact that I’m not saddened. Here’s a guy that I shared a van with for four years, and his death is a mere blip on my radar. I’m not going to go to the funeral, because it’s three hours away and my son has a soccer game that night.
More than sadness, I feel angry. I’m angry with him. He should have been somebody. He was smart, he was talented. He was never able to get past his internal demons and fight for a better life. He was talented enough to have been a great musician, smart enough to have been a software engineer. He was funny and likeable enough to have found a soulmate, had a family. He didn’t do any of it.
He died, presumably alone, in his sleep, at the age of 42.