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I’ve been busy the last few months.

Many years ago, I overheard a conversation at my favorite pub, Casey Moore’s. A boothful of recent college grads were talking about their plans for the future.  Few sounded interesting except for one guy who was talking about his impending Fulbright year abroad.  I’d heard of the program before and my eavesdropping informed me that it was not only for big brains and scientists.  He was going to research a book he wanted to write.

The economic woes our society has undergone over the last three years were crystallized for me in a single story. On March 17, a man who worked at a city office in Costa Mesa was called into work to receive a layoff notice at the city maintenance offices. Huy Pham, an employee of that department, was at home with a broken ankle and not supposed to work. Suspecting the news, he chose to skip the meeting and instead went to City Hall and jumped off the roof.

In one bold, rash move, he exhibited an impulsive behavior that has more frequently crossed my mind and, I’d bet, many others’ across the country as, if not a rational response to our failed economy, most certainly an act that is not altogether shocking.

In early 2007, I was laid off from a job I’d held for nearly nine years.  It was a job I loved and a job that fit me like a clichéd, crocheted, personalized and otherwise lovely glove.  I was a bookseller at an indie.

In January of 2008 I got a second job after having taken a few language classes, hacking away at writing stories and going through every last bit of money I had saved from selling books (read: not much).  This new job involved writing and editing for an international engineering and project management firm.  It paid as much in six months as I’d ever earned in the best full year of employment since I was in high school.  It was corporate, and apart from being bearable because of a good friend who worked there, was so painfully dull that I once drew blood from my inner thigh while pinching it to keep awake during one of those two-hour, thrice-weekly corporate meetings whose riveting information would, in a small business, be disseminated perfectly in a five-minute conversation so we could get the fuck back to work.

Eight months later, in October of 2008, I was laid off for the second time in eighteen months.  It was also only the second time in my life I’d lost a job not by my own choice.

Beginning in November 2008, I began collecting unemployment and diligently applying for any writing/editing jobs I could find. I scoured industry postings, Craigslist notices, searched on my own for firms or persons which were looking for people with my expertise and figured, naively, that within a reasonable amount of time, I’d be employed doing something with words.

I started applying for jobs that were even tangentially related to writing and editing, jobs which mentioned that a successful applicant must be able to communicate effectively with the written word or simply be able to speak well.

I peppered these applications with occasional ones for delivery drivers – from auto parts to paper products to legal documents. Weeks turned into months, months turned into years, unemployment ran out, and I became one of the 99ers (those people who are not properly reflected in the most disseminated unemployment statistic, the Department of Labor’s U-3 number.  Once you are done with unemployment benefits, you simply vanish and become a ghost to U-3. This U-3 number is just one of the six ‘Alternative measures of labor underutilization’, the most striking, and accurate, of which is the U-6, a number which stands as of April 2011 at a seasonally adjusted 15.9 percent.  Even this U-6 number may not reflect the actual amount of people who are suffering un- or under- employment.  It is, after all, a figure that the government publishes, even though they use the U-3 number – a number which never hit ten percent because it is a psychological barrier that no one in control of analyzing and and publishing these figures could withstand politically if they wanted to be reelected or reappointed.  And because the government does take ownership of these numbers, I am going to go out on a limb and say our truer number reflecting un- or under- employment has remained perilously close to twenty percent).

Over the last two and a half years, I’ve cobbled together shards of extra money by selling books online, purchasing curiosities at thrift stores and hawking them on craigslist or ebay, generously being able to fill my gas tank with my dad’s Sam’s club membership, receiving a hundred or two from him as I spend time at his office and use his computer to search for jobs and run errands for him and act as a boy Friday.  Once, even, I found a ten dollar bill in a pair of pants at the Goodwill.  I felt like a scratch ticket winner.

I don’t live month-to-month, or often even week-to-week. Sometimes I live day-to-day, choosing on certain weeks to live without: phone or power or gas or water for a couple of days so I can scrape together enough cash to restart these services and then be able to: go online to search for jobs, see inside my apartment without a lantern, cook on my stove or take a shower.

Though I have so far managed to keep myself hoveled and Ramened, I have gotten to the point where I expect that sometime soon in my life I will take residence in a homeless shelter or a friend’s couch for an extended period of time.

It is, to be blunt, a mentally taxing endeavor and depression triggerer to wake up each morning with the first thing on one’s mind if the day will win or I will eke out a small victory against the day. On the good days, the day and I run neck and neck, on the bad days the day dunks me repeatedly in the deep end where I have no footing and can barely gulp a wet breath.

I have fallen deeply in love with Saturdays and Sundays not because they afford me time to enjoy myself, but only because I know on those two days that if I have any of my previously mentioned utilities in tact on a Saturday morning, I’ll have it at least until Sunday night because municipalities and cities do not schedule shut offs for weekends. Thank fucking god.

A few weeks ago, I hit a benchmark which, as I’m writing this, surprises me still. I have sent off exactly 400 resumes.  Though a handful have been for regular jobs in a warehouse or for driving gigs, most have been to magazines, newspapers, websites, journals, companies, individuals, institutions and other entities which have advertised a need for writers or editors.

I have applied across the state, across the country, even, on a few occasions, overseas. I have applied for job postings as an assistant writer for people who believe their life stories are ultra-intriguing and as a ghostwriter for people who have ‘a novel in mind’ but just don’t know how to get it down on paper. I even threw my hat into the ring for a job that involved writing ‘juicy stories.’ Had someone advertised a need to write a suicide note for fear of being misinterpreted legally and their estate thrown into interminable probate, I’d have sent off samples of the dandiest last-ever words.

I have reformatted my resume a dozen times to reshape it into what I think a particular firm would find most enticing. I have, since about submission 150, even included in my cover letter a note that I am willing to take the job and work gratis for the first month if only to prove my worth, to offer them up a voluntary probationary period in which they can assess if we’re a good fit or not.

I know just how desperate that must seem to the resume screener but desperation tugs at my thoughts only during the moments of the day I’m awake.

I have received a few dozen automated replies that an entity has received my resume, thanking me and that they will contact me if I fit a need they have. Out of those 400 resumes I have received no job offers and exactly, get this, one response.

It was, needless to say, a note saying I wasn’t quite the candidate they were looking for and was personalized in that way credit card offers are personalized – with the salutation ‘Dear Mr. Mark Sutz.’

Apparently, the other 399 submissions I made have disappeared into the same black hole in which float millions of lonely, uncoupled socks or into the same 900 mile high virtual slushpile in which linger dozens of my stories that literary magazines conspire to not read.

None of these other 399 entities has found it within their abilities to even send out a rejection email or letter.

I know I am not the only person in this boat, but those 399 non-responses have served to both build up a thick, cynical hide and redefined demoralization for me. I feel a camaraderie with people that I never would have four or five years ago.

I took my regular employment for granted and have now been firmly, absolutely, depressingly humbled.

I suspect I share versions of these feelings with many tens of thousands of anonymous worker bees across the country and stare with a similar stunned face into the mirror at night as I brush my teeth and wonder if I am indeed an unwitting character in an unscripted, unaired, unfilmed, unending episode of The Twilight Zone being sent into the future by a maniacal, time-bending puppeteer spirit of Rod Serling whose hand has crossed time and space and multiple dimensions and lodged itself perfectly up my ass and animates me by fingering my bowels.

Remove the hand, Rod.  Please.

I have, as many others also have done, reassessed every single choice I’ve made in my life that is remotely related to education and work. I have come to the conclusion that, somehow, in my acquisition of a BA and a Master’s, I utterly missed the boat. I feel, like Silent Cal said, an ‘educated derelict.’

Given the choice to go back in time just around high school, I’d place in my path a person who was a tradesman of sorts and a very persuasive one: maybe a plumber, a carpenter, an electrician, a taxidermist, a phlebotomist, a cryptologist, even a damn meteorologist, and I’d also give myself openmindedness enough to listen to that person and be taken on as an apprentice with him or her. I think I missed my ist somewhere along the way.

I suspect working with my hands would find me at least one more opportunity than moving bits of the alphabet around blank pages has found me.

I have thought greatly through my 400 blows about what the value of work is in our country, what the value of the worker is, what it means to negotiate a system which we have been told since we could speak is the greatest on the planet.

The only thing our country certainly owns as its unique brand is an ongoing lesson, perhaps even a type of indoctrination from early on, that rampant, unabashed capitalism is the only way out and the thing we all deserve.

There isn’t a kid in the country who doesn’t understand that if you buy a few lemons, some sugar, a stack of cups and a pitcher that you can’t double your money simply by laying out your cost per glass of lemonade on one side of a piece of paper and then doubling it on the other side then hawking it on the sidewalk on a hot summer day.

Making a profit is something that kids from Hawaii to Maine understand and are told is something uniquely, personally, rightfully American.

I do not disagree that it is a keen and necessary lesson, but it is not the only one.

A lesson they’re not told, one I wasn’t told by my father, a disciple of pure, unfettered Capitalism, is that behind this profit motive are dozens of other concerns, chiefly involving those profit-making things, human beings.

I won’t go into those dozens, but I’m pretty certain whoever is reading this might have been softened a bit to recognize a few of them by, if not personally experiencing the ride on our economic slide, at least knowing someone whom has been affected by it.

The sad thing is that even the dumbest, most selfish, fish-breathed, communicatively challenged bosses that exist (for me as recent as my penultimate superiors) understand how to eke out another point at the cost of a person.  To a degree, they’re as knowledgeable about the economy as Warren Buffett. Buy low, sell high.

Some of them should take an etiquette class and learn about responding to earnest inquiries for employment.

Come to think of it, that’s a job I’m well qualified for.  Hire me to write your rejection letters. At least those folks will know someone out there has heard them.

Are you an agoraphobe or self-diagnosed shut-in with an eye malady that requires daily, perhaps hourly, drops, have an inability to keep your eyelids open during delivery and have no close friends or family residing with you or willing to come to your residence and assist with your medical needs? Let me recite, in the comfort of your own house (or apartment or mobile home) and directly into your ear via whisper, my recently acquired, rare and heretofore secret incantation known to coax open the eyes of mummified Egyptian kings while I medicate the windows to your soul. Let’s keep your eyes in good shape. There’s TV to watch!

Do the brown, sticky corners of the inside of your refrigerator nauseate you, yet you soon have a dinner party planned and know that one of your guests (whom you simply must invite to show her you’re no chopped liver when it comes to picking out the finest in furnishings) will be an on-again, off-again frienemy who will look into your fridge during the party and launch, post-soiree, an ugly social media campaign mentioning your general slovenliness ? (It could go viral…ouch.) I’ll visit your kitchen as frequently as your cans of Tab explode or your bags of organic rocket in the lower, unseen sections of your refrigerator go unremembered for weeks (forgot the diet!) and turn into a gooey slime that inexplicably escapes the confines of the plastic and invades the nooks and crannies of your Sub-Zero. (I provide paper towels. Cloth towels available for an additional fee.)

Are you a pet lover and owner (of any domesticated species) who understands, knows, appreciates that these little critters are, like you, biological entities that must both consume food and excrete those often foul, bizarrely textured and altogether repulsive stools but find yourself rethinking your decision to be a pet owner during these frequently intradaily defecations and are considering giving little Max kitty or big Jasper dog to an adoptive facility? Keep your ‘lil pal. Call me, I’ll empty the litter box, pick up the stinky BMs and let you get about the business of owning a pet that exists only in a fantasy world. Your fantasy world. (Prices vary according to daily average weight and consistency of excretions.)

Does the sight of your own naked body, due to religious indoctrination or general laziness, cause you undue anxiety, bump up your blood pressure and make your workdays or weekends unpleasant reminders of the awful thing you saw in the mirror only hours before? Throw away your beta blockers and let me size up your head for a rare Chinese silk blindfold, embroidered with your initials (extra fee). I’ll familiarize myself with your toiletry and wardrobe, swathe your eyes in fine fabric, wash you and dress you without comment and ensure your naked body is seen by no one ever again except the undertaker and even then, for an additional fee, I provide a custom, coffin-ready, eternally blissful interment eyesilk so even your body’s last moments on earth can be dignified. (Daytime undressing and bed-ready preparation available for an additional fee. For an extra ten percent, I’ll graze your erogenous zones with both the backsides and palms of my hands.)

Have a new little one in the midst and fuck-if-you-didn’t realize exactly how toxic the vomit of a child is and just what a perfect catalyst this stinky puke can be for you to upchuck your own, recently enjoyed country club lunch of prawn salad and White Russian’s? I provide this service only to those who live within a two-minute drive and will give you an exclusive, customized ringtone on my smartphone so that the moment your influenza-addled bundle of joy begins the process of getting sick all over your freshly steam cleaned furniture, I’ll show up with a kit cobbled together from warzone medical supplies and stay with him or her until every last droplet of bilious fluid has stopped exiting your most precious one’s mouth. (Multiple sick children are welcome with fee-and-a-half rates PER child. Homemade, stomach soothing ginger ale made from my grandmother’s secret recipe provided gratis.)

Are you a man or woman who has heard, in casual conversation with persons you know are extraordinarily promiscuous and sexually experienced and kinky, odd sexual references that lightly moisten or slightly harden you? Have these delicious people mentioned rubbing g-spots or prostate tickling as a way to ensure you’re a fondly remembered lover of everyone you sleep with as these long-forgotten lovers recount their sexual exploits in their twilight, libido-challenged years? Do you wish you knew those tender, interior climax buttons and haven’t as much as heard of a dirty trombone or the pleasures of a taint massage? Give me your time (and money) and I’ll give you my finger. We’ll practice till you are the star of jack- or jill-off fantasies in college dorm rooms and hotel suites or the substitute mental member of coitus occurring between too-familiar lovers and you will (lifetime guarantee) virtually enable a bedspring straining orgasm that leaves the thinker thinking privately of you. And your finger. (Brush-up sessions available once a month for either a long, lazy lunch at a French restaurant of my choice or for an overnight stay at a resort of my preference. Me, overnight, you from eight until midnight.)

Cantankerous? Sour? Known to be a dick and proud of it? Been abandoned by all of your family and friends because of an attitude toward people that would make Charles Manson blush? I have been the cowering, self-critical, no-talkback recipient of infantile behavior from a wide range of flawed adults and have survived it all unscathed and with a particular knowledge of just how to placate the beast in people by absorbing a wide barrage of misguided, utterly misinformed personal, religious, ethnic, psychological, racial and sexual verbal assaults and leaving you, the ‘asshole,’ feeling propped up and, by all stripes of clinical pathological definitions of sociopathy, refreshed and ready to take on the next unsuspecting person who crosses your path. (I provide this service only with an additional direct payment to my psychotherapist for sessions covering treble the length of your abuse needs – one day for you, three days for me, etc.)

The above are my specialties, as I have at least a dozen employment experiences with each. References available upon request (redacted, of course, for confidentiality reasons). If any of these services interest you, please contact me via email and we’ll discuss terms and fees. Off-the-menu services available with non-refundable prepayment and a week’s notice so I can properly research the particularities of your wacky desires. Two week’s notice for any job involving extreme physical pain (so I can build up tolerance by self-inflicting). For anything under the sun, I’m your man.

My Golden Year

By Mark Sutz

Essay

Linneman Street.  Glenview, Illinois.  1976.  This was the locale of an eight year old boy’s perfect year.  The boy was me.  1976 was my Golden Year.

Toast

By Mark Sutz

Poem

when i was a boy i spelled butter with a tee aitch in the middle
so my undisciplined tongue could ask for toast with it.

buther, BUTHer, BUTHER, please

“Buttered toast, BUTTERED TOAST, say it slow,” she’d say to me.

i wanted it too ravenously to let the word just molasses out of my mouth,
i needed to spit it out as fast as I could, hunger and craving the only feeling.

nothing better than fresh, melting pats
oozing through to the bottom side so i could tilt
my head back and catch with my tongue
the hot drops of my lisped word.

“More buthered toast, please,” – met with her frown,
her disappointment but, eventually, another slathered slice.

eventually the word morphed, long after my lisp was tamed,
from buther to buthered to, lazily and with the same odd movement
that words have gone through and will go through again, bothered.
it became our family’s in-joke.

we didn’t speak much in the last years of her life
but when i visited, helped the helper, cleaned urine around the base
of the toilet bowl or scrubbed the floor that hadn’t been
scrubbed as well or certainly since my last visit
or just sat, holding her tiny raisin of a head on my chest,
she’d ask for her sister (dead fifty years)
or her husband (dead ten)
or why her daughters never came to visit her (I an only child and a boy)
or what time is it
what time is it
what time is it
what time is it every ten minutes sometimes for an entire day

but the only time I cried, sobbed even, heaved and hurt –
the only time was a single moment of lucidity which wouldn’t return again
when she said she was hungry and
could I please oh please have some bothered toast, son

Words Save Me

By Mark Sutz

Writing

You begin by finding solace in the written word.  How the letters fall one after another, then the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the stories, the complete attempt by someone you have met only on this sheet, a paper wall between time, sometimes epic, centuries-long chunks of time, a substantial wall yet so membranous you can smell the streets of London in 1840 when you’re twelve with a bellyful of creamed tuna made by a housekeeper named Maxine in Scottsdale in 1980.

You continue your affair with the written word every day of your life, the thrill never waning, even when the sharp teeth of suicide threaten you every few years, you stave it off with the rote, delicious phrases that are your religion, your own private way to order the world, those words that draw you up from the abyss like some thread from the past and settle you, if only temporarily.  In those moments, repeating just five or ten words that someone wrote down once in the perfect order in a room six thousand miles away are enough to make you feel your blood bump along in your fingers and feet, your proof of life the salt from the tears you lick from the lonely corners of your mouth.  You are able to fall asleep, panic averted by words.

You muddle through bad times, trying times, and enjoy the moments when the black cloud abandons you for a few days or weeks or months, your affair with the written word enough to lift yourself out of bed and move forward.

You start laying down your own words, the ineptitude of your perfect, complete, pristine thought apparent when you reread the sentence or story and it is exactly the same feeling you get after you masturbate – why did I do this?  Silly, silly.

You implement daily the pen, pencil, typewriter and lay down hundreds of thousands of words over decades, not a single string of them what your mind’s eye saw in a flash.

You send a friend a story once, for no reason other than to know that one person out there will sit back with your words for a few minutes, up there, deep in your head.

You don’t hear anything from your friend, not even a potentially withering crtitique.  Silence.  You stop sending your words to friends, content that you’ve even found a few through life, no need to annoy them into avoidance.

You submit your words to people you don’t know who run entities that purport to publish stories sent in by people just like you.  You do this a thousand times.  Then a thousand more.   Occasionally, very rarely, you feel like you’re giving them a winning lottery ticket, if only the recipient would scratch off the coating and see what is underneath.  But they don’t.  They toss it aside, another losing ticket.  You hear: nothing.

You perceive faint echoes in the dark.  Always sounding like a wheezy, impatient, “No.”

You cement your self-image to this small word, these two letters carrying more weight than the text of a doorstopper of a novel.

You firmly believe this thing you use to order pizza or communicate with a neighbor about his overflowing garbage can is not a thing you really have any business trying to make your own.  Your pizza is often not what you ordered and your neighbor’s garbage still stinks, year after year.  Language doesn’t seem to work for you.

But you continue, through it all – you must, no choice.

You become certain that this activity of yours is as useful as a ‘61 Silverstream is to a death row inmate. Maybe less.  Then you write about this death row inmate and how his life would be if the guilty party was finally discovered, confessed and assuaged his guilt when he could no longer sleep.

You have another story, another prism, the only success that matters that you somehow got this man out of prison and onto an open highway, the next stop unmapped, unknown.

A few months ago, in the dead middle of a Phoenix summer, I got up at 6:15 on a Sunday morning to fulfill a breakfast date with my father, stepmother, aunt and uncle.I’d finally given in to my dad’s nudging, he seemingly oblivious to my protests of “Who meets for a meal at seven in the morning by choice?”

My Dead Friend

By Mark Sutz

Memoir

I’d like to take a moment to talk about a dead friend.

Not recently dead. And not recently a friend.

But a dead friend, nonetheless.

High school in Scottsdale in the early 80s wasn’t exactly any worse or better than I imagine it was anywhere else. It was for some the best time in their lives, for some the worst and for most, like me, just another time, not traumatic enough to scar me for life or fantastic enough for me to talk about it longingly decades later.

I was a studious type and loved the academic life and had, since I was a boy, planned on being a doctor, a plan which went the same way as: astronaut, FBI agent and race car driver. I had a decent amount of friends, most of whom shared the joy in acing a test or wrestling with a calculus problem until we figured it out. I dated a few girls, emphasis on few, and spent most of my time from sophomore year on mapping out where I wanted to go to college. I think this was perhaps the most common activity amongst my friends: figuring out where we’d begin our ‘real’ lives and how far we could get from our parents. Suffice it to say, I was as invisible as I suspect ninety percent of high school students feel and ninety-nine percent actually are. Invisibility to all but a handful of people is the common thread most of us will share from the time we’re potty trained until the time we need assisted care in old age.

Into this tightly wound crowd of ‘smart’ kids (in the years since, I have come to realize how unimportant this category is to, well, most of life), Bill entered. Atypically for our bespectacled, geeky bunch, he was as socially confident a fifteen-year old as could exist in our awestruck minds. We all knew upon first meeting him that he’d scale heights reserved for the rarefied few.

Bill was also one of those guys who was popular with every stratum of high school clique. From stoner to jock to brainiac to musician to the invisible, Bill was a guy to whom everyone was electrically attracted. Even the girls us nerds drooled over and who wouldn’t so much as walk in the same hallway as us, even those preening swans of the fakest variety, found Bill irresistible. And the schoolmarmy Spanish teacher who complained with a finger wag about Bill’s being late to class could not help but be impressed when he explained, a few times a week, the reason for his tardiness in Spanish that could have gotten him from Mexico City to Rio without a hitch. He was, overall, one of those people you meet just a few times in your life and onto which you are impelled to glom.

Bill and I became friends in that flummoxing and arbitrary way that most of us have experienced. By the end of my freshman year, I’d found the first best friend of my adolescence. High school was infinitely more bearable and less boring because of my friendship with him.

Bill was a gifted pianist and a ham the way talented people often are. He loved playing the piano and singing (great voice, too) when friends came over to his house. He knew he was good and we all did too. I don’t remember most of what he played (Beethoven and Brahms, certainly), but I do recall one song vividly – “Rocket Man.” He sang the song with such showmanship and sincerity that you’d swear Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics just for him and played the piano with a flair that Elton John would have applauded. I envied this talent of his more than his others because my own household was devoid of musicians or music lovers, a silent place livened only occasionally with whatever radio station a housekeeper listened to. I credit Bill with my first experience of tasting varieties of music, and I’ve since become a person who needs music like food and books and water and art. His impassioned, lengthy, repeated defenses of the band Yes in the face of detractors gave me quiet strength in the years since, often plucking CDs of mocked and reviled bands off the wall and playing them for friends with supreme confidence and my own defense at the ready.

Bill introduced me to near-frozen Mexican beer on scorching summer days, explained how to be cool with the girls, espoused the idea that intelligence was something to relish and not hide away, gave me the first nickname I ever had, Smarko, and taught me how good chips and extra hot salsa are when chased with tall glasses of frigid, frothy milk while watching football on TV. Burning followed by relief. This analogy to writing and stopping writing is something I think about till this day when I down a mouthful of the hot red stuff.

Bill had a laugh that wasn’t so much infectious as it was healing. When he was in the dead center of a good one, usually after telling a joke or a story himself, the world was better in that tiny piece of geography where we shared our friendship. One of the things we did was watch the A-Team together. Well, not exactly together, but at the same time. When it came on, I’d give him a call or he’d call me and in our respective houses we’d get very stoned and giggle our way through the show, repeating the hackneyed, awful dialogue to one another and laughing our stoned asses off. I have no idea how this activity started or why we both found it so amusing. Some aspects of a friendship are beyond any rational explanation.

Bill’s hyper-intelligence was his most remarkable trait. He had the capacity to fuck around as much as the committed stoners did all day, yet Bill would ace not only every class, but also every exam or quiz in those classes. He’d spoken about Harvard first when we were sophomores, not as if it would be a burden to get in or if it were an exceptionally lofty goal, but in a manner that convinced me they were just waiting for him, high school a simple formality that he’d like to be quickly done with. He spoke about it as if he’d already matriculated, graduated, time-traveled back to our conversation and felt the warmth and comfort of having an Ivy League education packed away like insurance for every version of social, financial and professional malaise a person can encounter in life.

And so it turned out that Bill was our high school’s first student admitted to Harvard. The moment he was accepted (early admission), his aura was fully confirmed and our friendship began to fizzle. I think, honestly I’m certain, it was more because of me than him, because of my envy of his acceptance there and my failure to even get a sniff at the Ivy League schools I’d been casually knocking around in conversation since I could sharpen a pencil.

My awaiting college, UC Berkeley, was all the way on the other side of the country. While nothing to sneeze at, Berkeley wasn’t, isn’t, Harvard and I could tell our trajectories would seriously diverge after high school. I suppose I was already mourning a dead friendship rather than doing what I should have been: making it stronger so it might have a chance to last.

For the last year of high school, we hung out less and less until we graduated, the summer rolled away and we were each off to our next step in life.

I didn’t last at Berkeley. Academics weren’t the issue at the time – Berkeley suited my awkward desire to exercise my brain like a Mensan. An odd loaf of financial hardship and a myopic family incapable of commonalities like communicating with other human beings kinked my plan. I’d turned down a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State, my local university, because I had the same species of ant under my feet that many kids that age have, the kind that makes you want to get away from everything you’ve ever known and start anew. But because I turned it down upon graduating high school, I was rendered ineligible for it anytime in the future.

So, I returned to Arizona, went to school after a year of moping, and led as equally an uninteresting life after high school as I’d done since I left the carnival of infancy.

Move ahead more than ten years. By 1997, I’d long since graduated college and was sliding my way toward 30. I had a girlfriend I wanted to marry, a woman who once kissed me so nicely, so perfectly, I lost consciousness for a few seconds. This woman left me giddy enough so I annoyed my friends with constant talk of her. She also led me to thinking about all the great people I’d had in my life and what they were doing.

I hadn’t seen Bill in more than a decade, but kept up with his activities through our dwindling grapevine of mutual friends that I’d see at the bars occasionally. He’d graduated Harvard in three years and returned to Arizona to go into the securities business with his father and start a few ventures of his own. One of them, oddly, was a bar. I assumed the only kind of bar Bill would own must be very classy or very cool and made a mental note to drop in and check it out sometime.

Finally, in early May of 1997, after thinking about it for months, putting it off because of my job or my girlfriend or any of a number of regular hangovers, I got the notion to call him out of the blue. We hadn’t spoken in such a long time, but I was confident that at least we’d be able to catch up over beers, perhaps revisit and restart a friendship that I’d thought about often as I bumped around my twenties. Maybe because 30 was near and because my more recent friendships seemed flimsy at the time, I wanted to rekindle one I felt was strong. I easily found a number for his brother Jeff, who’d never left Scottsdale, and called him to ask how I could get a hold of Bill.

In a monotone I’ll never forget, Jeff told me Bill had recently died. I couldn’t speak and uttered some incomprehensible gobbledygook and nearly puked. Jeff said he’d been killed in a car accident on April 15, about three weeks earlier. I was at work when I called, a denim resale shop a friend owned, and I broke down like a baby.

I cried my way through asking to go home for the day, cried my way home in the car and cried the night away on my couch, so sad, so surprised, so utterly incapable of accepting that this person, a guy of Bill’s intelligence, humor, talent and promise was dead before thirty. I fell asleep on the couch as wiped out as if I’d run a marathon or been beaten by an angry mob.

The next weekend I visited Bill’s grave. It was a clear, windless spring Arizona day. When I got to his gravestone and saw his name, the tears came again. I stood there for thirty or forty minutes thinking about our concluded friendship, not quite believing he was freshly buried beneath me. As I was getting ready to leave, a wind kicked up and a piece of paper tumbled corner over corner toward me from the edge of the otherwise pristine cemetery.

When the paper reached me, the wind stopped and it lay still at my feet. I bent over to pick it up and put it in the trash. It was a flyer for an anti-tax rally and on the bottom, in bold, was April 15, 1997, the day Bill died. It didn’t make me religious but certainly cemented the day in my head as something more than the day to send in my returns.

In the years since Bill died, I’ve often thought of him. To many, perhaps most, people who knew him he’ll always be just shy of 30. But to me, he’ll always be 18 and always be my first best friend.

Even in death, maybe especially, a friend can teach you so much. My friendship with Bill, or should I say his friendship with me, a fairly unremarkable person, was a gift that I still unwrap and learn from.

In the ensuing years, when I felt like, feel like, an asshole or nasty words for people are just behind my lips, ready to escape, I think of Bill and how he treated me: as an equal, a friend, someone to eat salsa with and someone just to get to know. I’m far from the most tolerant person on the planet, but my friendship with Bill reminds me, even when I’m in a lousy mood, that good friends are better than good jobs or good trips or lots of money or any of the other things that are stand-ins for what life really is about. My friendship with Bill helped strengthen in me the shapeless, nameless muscle one needs to nurture friendships and it has served me well. I’ve become a better friend to others (though far from perfect), keenly sympathetic and kind to the oddball in all of us, and a more compassionate person in general than I ever would have had our paths not crossed.

He lives with me and will until the day I die, always extant in the architecture of my personality, as are many dozens, hundreds, of other people also in that structure. Bill provides, however, along with only three other people in my life, the most important part: a certain, solid foundation buried beneath the skyscraper that I feel like I am some days and the hovel I feel like on the rest, both of which are invisible to most save a vital few.