by G. Jack Urso
I pulled my PT Cruiser alongside the curb with a pile of garbage that occupied most of the grassy patch of earth between the sidewalk and the street. It was not garbage as such, but Ron’s belongings. Ron had lived above my friend Benny in a converted one-family home in an older section of Albany. All physical evidence of Ron’s life was gathered in front like so much debris pushed up on the beach by the tide after a storm.
Ron had already been a long-time resident before Benny moved in about a decade ago. Carl, the owner’s son who occasionally did repairs, and then only after complaints and withholding rent, said Ron had been there close to thirty years before he died March 8, 2013. One day the previous fall, Ron was so sick he called an ambulance and never returned home. Six months later he was dead and pretty much all evidence of his life was sitting on the curb and waiting to be hauled off to the landfill.
I looked over the pile. It reminded me of the belongings of a dead Viking king gathered about his corpse in a boat before being set out to sea and burned.
Lone Wolves and Lost Boys
Among the more social of mammals, besides humans, are wolves. Wolves live in a pack with a strict hierarchy. Every wolf has a place in the hierarchy and the punishment for stepping out of place can be severe. Nevertheless, even among this highly social group there are some wolves just unable to adapt themselves to the social hierarchy. Having neither the ambition to be an alpha male or alpha female, nor the willingness to be an omega (last in the pecking order, they slink off to live on the periphery of wolf society — contributing little except some genetic diversity on the rare occasions they are able to lure a female from the pack.
Human society is no less hierarchical. Preference is naturally afforded to those members engaged in the propagation, feeding, and protection of the tribe, such as parents, teachers, producers, hunters, gatherers, police officers, soldiers, etc. Yet, within even the most social of species, wolf or human, there are certain individuals who — either by design, nature, or ill-fortune — contribute little to the overall survival of the species, or who are cast aside when their usefulness to family and society is over.
Benny's apartment was a sort of club house for me and a small group of men who couldn't seem to find much of a place in the human hierarchy. Some, like my friend Benny, had been married and had kids, later to flee a toxic relationship. Others were married because frankly they’d be lost in the world without someone to wipe their ass. There were victims of life-changing accidents or verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Some experienced what can only be described as horrific tragedies, losing spouses or children. A few women whose lives charted a similar course hung out on the periphery, but it was largely a male group. Some of us were as close as brothers, some of us couldn’t really stand each other, but there we were — a gathering of lone wolves and lost boys.
Ronny, I Hardly Knew Ye
Ron was an older guy with a slim build, of average height, with a mop of brown hair and a bushy mustache flecked with gray. Jerry Seinfeld has a bit where he says people continue to dress and cut their hair in the style of the last year they were good looking, and Ron’s look was stuck somewhere in the mid-late 70s. He looked younger than his age and we were surprised to find out he was 61 when he died in 2013. At some point around 1985, Ron moved into the last home he would ever live in.
Benny had a near-constant stream of friends in and out of his apartment. While Benny and the other friends could pound back the beers, we were all astonished by Ron’s capacity. It was often we would see him come home with an 18-pack of beer and find the entire thing in the trash the next day. It was a prodigious amount. Ron occasionally clashed with Benny, usually over Benny’s love of loud music. Meanwhile, we had no problem hearing whatever games were on in Ron’s apartment, and it seemed as though sports were all he ever watched.
One day while we were hanging out, Ron began banging on the floor. This was his way of telling Benny to turn down the music. Usually, Benny would comply, but since this became nearly a daily occurrence, it grinded on Benny’s nerves. Benny went up to confront Ron and had a few sharp words. When he returned, his anger was defused, but more by what he saw than by the opportunity to blow off steam. Gathered on shelves all around Ron’s apartment, were boxes and boxes of model trains. Benny ran some the names by me. I had a sideline selling old board games online for a local book and game store and had some knowledge. Ron had items going back to the 50s and 60s, the golden era of model trains. There must have been thousands of dollars sitting on the shelves. Ron sat there every night, getting drunk, watching sports, and looking at his collection of old model trains.
Ron’s obituary was brief, a mere five sentences that revealed little except he was born in 1952, grew up in Guilderland, graduated from Syracuse University, and was predeceased by his mother and a brother. As a reporter/editor, I used to write obituaries for a local weekly newspaper. It was the most depressing task I ever had as a writer, though, in a way, I am writing one now. Obituaries are the last chance for people to tell the world someone mattered. The longer the obituary, the more involved was the person in the world, the more they contributed to it, the more they were loved and needed. Short obituaries, unless the expressed wish of the deceased, revealed exactly what it implied, a life lived on the edges.
Under the short obituary were a total of eleven comments who noted Ron’s kind and “grandfatherly” way about him. He enjoyed classic Jazz, was a Yankees fan, and in his younger days played softball and enjoyed picnics with friends and family. As Ron was a public employee, I was able to find out he worked at the General Soils Lab for the New York State Department of Transportation, Building 7 at the State Office Building Campus about two miles from his apartment. His position was listed as an “Engrg Tech” (probably an administrative staff support position), earning $38,294 a year in 2012, according to public records. A two-room apartment in a 112-year-old building and $38,234 a year was not a lot to show for sixty-one years.
In some ways, Ron reminded me of my friend Jon. Jon died about ten years before Ron, and like Ron it was quick. One day he woke up sick and six months later he was dead of pancreatic cancer. We called Jon “Cruiser” because he cruised through life with little an apparent care in the world, despite his circumstances. Something of an overgrown frat boy, Jon’s hobbies largely concerned beer and sports. When he lost his driver’s license for five years due to repeated DWIs, Jon was unfazed. He simply got himself an apartment in a tenement downtown two blocks from work and right across the street from the court building where he reported to his probation officer, after which Jon would promptly head to his favorite bar.
Jon’s nonchalance was deep. He never complained, seldom bitched, and never spoke about anything serious. If Jon had any fears or regrets in life, he never mentioned them, including his current legal situation. It was an almost Zen-like state of living in the Now, except I wasn’t sure if one were to cut Jon if we would get beer more than blood. Yet, Jon was a Vietnam War vet. He kept about a half dozen or so medals in a shadow box that for the six years I knew him sat on the floor behind a chair gathering dust. One of them was the Vietnam Service Medal with two stars. It hinted that there was something underneath Jon’s well-practiced cool exterior. Yet, he never talked about the war except for fond memories about the bar girls. Then, the summer Jon came off probation, got his license back, and got a steady girlfriend, he got cancer and was dead six months later, like Ron. Just as Jon was rejoining the pack, rejoining the hierarchy, life pushed him out again.
I wondered if Ron ever had his chance or if he just let it pass by. There's a certain security in stagnation — the same apartment, the same job, year after year. Now, a decade after Ron passed, my life is little different than it was twenty or thirty years ago, and I wonder the same about myself.
John Steinbeck wrote about the kinds of lost souls who operate on the periphery of society in Of Mice and Men, the timeless tale of migrant farm workers and men crippled by life or nature and living a transient life, if not physically, then at least emotionally. In a way, Ron, Jon, myself, Benny, and the others who gathered at Benny’s, reminded me of characters in Steinbeck's novel — an ad hoc collection of souls thrown together by fate and misfortune. Lost Boys in a Never-Never Land stuck in an eternal childhood, outside society and family.
Carl, the landlady’s son and with whom Benny and Ron usually dealt with, had been chaffing the past six months of Ron’s illness. The rent stopped coming pretty soon after Ron was hospitalized, and while Carl chaffed at the loss of income (because it usually went straight into his pocket), his mother didn’t have the heart to evict tenant dying of cancer after nearly thirty years of on-time rent payments. Besides, it would take months to evict him anyway and it was clear Ron didn’t have long to live.
After Ron died, no family members or friends came to clear out his belongings. Carl offered to pay Benny to clean out Ron’s apartment. Everything had to get piled out on the sidewalk for the city to haul away on garbage day. Benny asked me to come over the next morning and help him move some of the heavy stuff out to the curb. I had to work, but I said I would drop by around noon. Benny said Carl was going to rifle through the apartment first and grab those model trains to try and recoup some of the six month's lost rent.
When I got there the next day, I saw everything piled up curbside and went in. I found Benny sitting down in his apartment smoking a joint. He said he didn’t need my help after all. Carl helped him with a few of the big items and he carried the rest out to the curb. All he had left to do is give the place a good scrubbing to get rid of the dusty remains.
I asked Benny if Carl snagged the model trains. Benny took a slow drag off the joint and exhaled, replying that that there were no model trains. All the boxes were empty, all of them. They were just a collection of empty boxes.
“Carl was pissed,” Benny said with a smile on his face.
So, apparently Ron spent the last thirty years getting drunk, watching sports, and looking at boxes that model trains, now long gone, once came in. My life is essentially no less stagnated than Ron's was. I’ve had nearly as many jobs in as many years since his passing. Instead of model toy trains, I sell old board games. Am I feeling empathy for Ron or just feeling sorry for myself?
The sun was setting by the time I left Benny’s. Scavengers had picked through Ron’s belongings, but little had been taken. Even the TV, a large, heavy, now obsolete, cathode-ray model that would have been the envy of most people not so long ago now sat forlorn and rejected. Time passed quickly and moved on without Ron catching up, though in the end it finally caught up to him. I paused for a moment and looked over the totality of Ron’s life waiting to be hauled away as so much garbage the next morning. I kicked at the trash bag full of crushed toy train boxes.
Opening up the door of my retro-style PT Cruiser, I slide behind the wheel and drove off into the growing twilight, going home.
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