When I was in my twenties, I believed I was my brother’s keeper. I marched in anti-nuclear demonstrations. I did backstage security for Peace Sunday. I recycled my newspapers, even though it was terribly inconvenient. I gave money to the homeless. But to me, it came down to individuals. It was important to help out people who were in trouble.
At the time, I was working on Shape magazine, and they worked us very hard. Shape was just starting out and had not established itself yet, and there were only three people on staff to put out a monthly magazine. It was hard mental work and it gave me a lot of anxiety. Sometimes, I felt short of breath; other times, I had an intense pressure in my chest; still others, I couldn’t get the knot out of my neck.
“Hey dude, whassup?” he said, his eyes fuzzy with that familiar agricultural glaze. “I jus’ moved in. I’m Tony.”
I stopped to shake hands, but at the same time, felt the gravitational pull of things I had to do. Still, he was quite a talker. He talked about kung fu movies and marijuana. He said he was a Vietnam War vet.
“Hey, come over sometime and I’ll show you some martial-arts moves,” he said, and then struck a Bruce Lee pose. “Hai-ya!”
“Yeah, sure, sometime,” I said. “Listen, I gotta go.”
I believed in reaching out, but I was torn by Tony’s offer of friendship. I had been similarly torn in the past. As a child, a boy named Mark had moved in two doors down and our mothers had urged us to play together. After five minutes of playing, I was intensely bored. He was smaller than me and had horn-rimmed glasses that seemed to render him blind. In fact, he was blind in a lot of ways. He wasn’t nearly as sharp as any of my other friends. He didn’t have any of my same interests. When we played wiffle ball, he played like the worst kid on any team I had ever been on.
Still, I felt an obligation to keep Mark company. He was the new kid. He was lonely. He had a bully for a stepfather. But the friendship didn’t last, and I sometimes felt guilty that I had shirked my responsibility.
In fact, guilt seemed to me the defining state of adolescence. I was always feeling guilty about something. When I read the novel Demian, by Hermann Hesse, at age 16, I had an Aha! moment. An adolescent begins stealing things, and then feels guilty for the thefts for the rest of the novel. I had never seen this portrayed in print, and it pierced my heart. Later, I began to wonder whether guilt was just an adolescent stage rather than an indication of culpability.
So 15 years down the road, when Tony repeatedly asked me to get together with him, I was clearly carrying some excess baggage. Still, I turned him down. I was so busy with the magazine. This, after all, was my brilliant writing career I was working on. I was giving it 110% and it was taking its toll. I was learning about deadlines and crunch week and em dashes and pagination and galleys and all of the minutiae that would qualify me as a working professional editor/writer. Indeed, three years later, I qualified for the prestigious American Society of Journalists and Authors (to which I still belong) and started writing for Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, Psychology Today, and other august national and international publications on four continents.
But one Sunday morning in my apartment, I heard grunting and clanking downstairs. I looked out my window to the open garage below. It was Tony, working out with his numchuks.
“Hut! Hut! Hut! Hut!” he grunted every time he made a move.
Tony looked pretty stoned, but he was still giving it a go. I thought about going down and saying hello, but I had work to do. Sunday wasn’t really a day off for those in the publishing business.
The following Tuesday, I came home to a strange sight. Jenny, our elderly apartment manager, was crying uncontrollably on the sidewalk.
“What is it?”
“It’s Tony….” she started in her cigarette-grizzled voice, pointing to his apartment.
It was then that I noticed the police tape stretched in front of Tony’s apartment door. Several days earlier, on the first of the month, Tony hadn’t paid his rent. Jenny had knocked on his door, but he didn’t answer. A few days later, worried that something might have happened to him, she used her master key and entered his unit. She noticed a foul smell coming from the bathroom. She tried to open the door but it was blocked, so she stuck her head inside, then screamed. It was Tony’s corpse.
Police later told us they found a zip gun next to the body. He had shot himself in the head.
Just five years later, at my 20th high school reunion, I learned that Mark had committed suicide, too.
In the years that followed, I’ve tried to make sense of it all. There were so many people in trouble, it seemed. Both of these had reached out to me for something, and I had tried to give it to them. But I was far more interested in myself. I reflected on my responsibility to others, but also on my low threshold for boredom. My heart had bled for Hiroshima victims, a fashionable concern, but not for my literal neighbor. I had marched with Harvard and Yale grads for an abstraction but hadn’t had time to share an illegal smile with a lonely Vietnam vet. My friend Gretchen would have befriended them. She seemed to have had a greater ability to suffer troubled souls gladly. In comparison, I was a bad person.
Thinking about it through the years, I have hung my head a lot. At first, I put it into the box labeled, What Happens When You Don’t Have a Big Enough Heart. Then I put it into a box labeled, Troubled War Vets. Then I put it in a box labeled, My Father Was a Troubled War Vet, Too, and My Mother Healed Him with Love.
These days, however, I put it into another box. It cuts me a lot more slack. It makes me feel better. It’s the box labeled: There Is So Much Trouble in This Sad Old World.