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Thursday, February 6, 2014
THE ABRUPT DEATH OF A FRIEND
From The Philadelphia Weekly Press and The Spirit Newspapers
By Thom Nickels
I am trying to think of a good way to write about my friend Carol. Like a lot of friendships, it ran the gamut from thick to thin. I wish that it had been otherwise, but sometimes things happen to keep people apart. The ‘thin’ friendship part, however, can’t compare to the years of positive interaction when Carol was an essential part of my life in the riverwards.
So who is Carol and why is she important?
I met Carol when we were fellow co-workers in a Center City law firm. We were both part of a temp agency crew assigned to work as document clerks at a big downtown firm in the 1980s. The ten of us sat around a large table, as our job was to stamp and collate Conrail documents. It wasn’t the most exciting of jobs, but it paid well and work conditions were excellent, it also allowed us to get to know one another as friends. Our boss attorneys were amazingly lenient in that they didn’t seem to mind that we were having fun while we worked. Too many bosses seem to think that having fun at work is a sin of the highest order, even if there’s no rule that says that work has to be dismal, painful or stressful. This was the 1980s, after all, when the economy was good. The big law firm was also generous about overtime, so we stacked up the hours and went home with fat paychecks. An additional perk were the once-a-month beer and pizza parties the firm provided in addition to the meal and taxi vouchers. We were all half in love with this job. I doubt whether anything like this exists today.
Carol was easily the sassiest female in the group. She had a wry intelligence and a bawdy sense of humor that did more than keep conversation flowing. Her style was the loaded innuendo combined with a wink and half grin “delivered” with a dimpled smile. The other women were pleasant enough but none as interesting with the exception of Barbara, a full employee of the firm, who told the group that in a few months she planned to enter the convent. None of us had ever known a woman who planned on becoming a nun, so we paid close attention to her—how she engaged in small talk or reacted to problems—as if looking for clues as to why she would want to leave the wonderful world of the big, generous firm.
Carol acquired a boyfriend while working at the firm. Mike was another temp, a grad student who planned on entering law school. Mike and Carol hit it off right away. The attraction between them was immediate and intense. They were both verbal types, so conversation between them sometimes came off like a cabaret act. On a Friday afternoons, a giddy Carol would occasionally sit on Mike’s lap, which put a new spin on collating documents. Their unconventional behavior was overlooked by the bosses because our group met all the firm’s deadlines. It seems the bosses knew that the way to make us collate and stamp faster was to keep us happy.
Some nights a few of us would head out to a Center City bar, with Carol as the entertainment ringleader. I think she enjoyed these jaunts because it was a chance to get away from Juan, the alpha male leader of our temp group. Juan often enjoyed getting a rise out of Carol. He was one of those macho types who became bored with too much group harmony. His nature was to create mild dissention and then charm the group back to liking him. I sometimes felt sorry for the women he dated.
When the temp job came to an end, we ate the last slices of the farewell party pizza and cried a few tears, promising to keep in touch, no matter what, but of course that didn’t happen. Barbara entered the convent but left a year later, realizing that being a Carmelite nun wasn’t for her. I’d see Juan from time to time in Center City, and we’d grab a beer, but then he disappeared. I met Mike once in Center City. He told me that he and Lyn broke up shortly after the job ended and that he was now an attorney, and married.
What Carol was doing remained a mystery.
A good thirteen years passed and every so often I’d think about the people in the old temp group. I wondered about Barbara: Did she enter another convent or go back to the big firm? Was Juan wining and dining women in Rio? Was Mike now Mr. Attorney Extraordinaire with pull out ads on the Market Street El? I’d totally given up hearing about Carol but that changed when I moved to the Fishtown area and began writing for a local newspaper there.
One day I got a telephone call. “Do you know who this is?” the female caller asked, her voice vaguely reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich’s. “I know you do.” I did, for sure. Carol had read a newspaper column of mine and traced me to Mercer Street and announced that she was a mere three blocks away, and that we had to get together. “We are riverward neighbors,” she said.
We recalled old times at her place. I mentioned that living in Center City had become prohibitive with the scandalous rent increases. I told her what I did after the law firm, the resume writing and managerial jobs, publishing my first books, my experiences living at 21st and Pine Streets, including my involvement in the Kimberly Ernest jogger case. She filled me in on her life, and for the first time we really got to know one another. She became more than just the document collating party girl who got upset at Juan and loved sitting on Mike’s lap.
She had a handful of celebrity stories, such as her tale of meeting David Bowie after one of his Philly concerts. Bowie had taken a shine to her so they wound up getting a drink together when they bumped into Iggy Pop. Since Iggy Pop happened to be Bowie’s boyfriend at the time, what happened next was right out of a soap opera. Carol was full of stories like this, but her Iggy Pop jealous fireworks misadventure stayed with me for a long time.
Since Carol had purchased her house sometime before I purchased mine, she filled me in on life in our neighborhood. This was the time when remnants of the old paint factory blotted the landscape. It was before they built a large WAWA, Rite Aid and an Applebee’s’ it was the time when the neighborhood had not yet been discovered by people fleeing Center City. We called the area The Triangle (some still do). It was rustic and private—Philly’s best kept secret—with almost no crime, plenty of parking spaces, and peace and quiet.
We’d head out to Johnny Brenda’s on Girard Avenue when it was just a word-of-mouth popular hangout, when the wine there was four dollars a glass vs. eight dollars, and when there was always room at the bar. I began inviting her to press events in Center City, theater openings at the Wilma or the Suzanne Roberts theatre. Some people thought we were a married couple. Take a friend to an event in the city and it’s always the same: people imagine super intimate connections and alliances that aren’t there. We’d joke at these assumptions but play along just the same.
With Carol, life could sometimes be a masquerade.
I had fun introducing Carol to friends and to members of my family, most notably one of my sisters. They hit it off. I’d have summer parties on my patio where we would barbecue and dance to Beatles tunes. Carol would usually arrive at my place with a house gift. She was classy and generous that way, despite the fact that we disagreed about Yoko Ono (it was my view that Ono was dangerous because she introduced Lennon to heroin, and kept him on it). In my house I have the following reminders of her: a beautiful candle holder, a framed picture, a wine rack, and a mosaic tile. At the one and only Mercer Street block party held since I moved here, she sat at our makeshift sidewalk café table, posing with her cigarette and wine glass like she was sitting for her portrait at Rogue on Rittenhouse Square.
Friendships, like marriages, sometimes get rocky. Problems can enter like an unwanted guest, born of something that at first appears slight, perhaps an untoward comment, deed, or misunderstanding. Then the fabric is disrupted, if only for a while. This happened to us, a misunderstanding connected to our trips into Center City for those press events. For a good year and a half we barely said a word to one another. It sometimes got dicey for me because her friendship with my sister and other friends continued.
Carol was no slouch when it came to work. In fact, one of the things that she prized most in her life was her job as a paralegal at a firm in Media. In many ways this job was like an extension of the Center City job where we first met. This job held her together body and soul until she was laid off about two years ago. Ironically, the layoff happened about the same time that we split paths. The experience was devastating for her: the undivided loyalty she had given the firm for so many years didn’t seem to count for anything.
Some people navigate loses like this and go forward, but for Carol it was much like a death. Replacing the lost income with a new job would be difficult, not to mention the “humiliation” she felt collecting unemployment. She was a worker, and she did not want to sit at home doing nothing. After the layoff, she’d tell my sister: “I haven’t left my sofa for three days.”
Although her house cats were a great source of solace and comfort —especially the majestic George—they could not take the place of a career and a healthy income.
Though I’d been getting hints of a thaw in our friendship for some time, evidence of a real thaw occurred a few days before her death when she sent me a Facebook message accepting an invitation to a party I was throwing for my California-bound sister. Not only did she accept the invitation, she wrote: “I’m sorry I lost the connection. I can drive you to the party. Looking forward.”
While I offered my own apology, I told her that I looked forward to the party and that I’d be in touch in a day or so.
I was never able to do that because the next thing I knew I received a report from a friend that police cars, and even a fire truck, were seen parked outside her house for a very long time. A report like this usually means one of two things: a serious crime has been committed or there’s been a suicide. We did not want to think about the latter although the truth of this was revealed at her memorial service.
Sometimes there are no words of consolation, only the word Why?
A month before her death many of her Facebook messages became half sentences, fragments of thoughts, or sometimes just initials that caused some to reply, “Is there something wrong?” At one point she posted that she quit the new job she acquired after she was forced to leave the Media firm. She kept the joke going for nearly a week, as friends wondered, “What happened?” and “I hope you’re okay.” Most did not suspect that the post was not real.
It is hard to believe that the Carol we knew is gone and that the only real Carol now is the Carol in spirit, above and beyond the Carol of Facebook photos and personal memories.
We can only hope and pray that she has found peace.