The first time I felt truly small and not in control, like the way cities look five minutes before you land in a plane, was fall of my Freshman year in high school.
It was a Friday night and my options were comfortably limited to staying at home and reading or staying at home and watching TV. In a new town, at a new school, my best and only acquaintance was this guy Chris, the neighbor kid from across the street.
Chris was blessed with three brothers and there was always something going on at his house though there was never much food. I learned quickly I could go over there and kind of blend in. And so, that summer just after moving in, I adopted Chris’s family like a stray cat.
Chris, me and his best friend Paul had most of the same classes together. While they stepped into their routine of sharing inside jokes and helping one other across the aisle the way they had since fourth grade, I was still trying to figure out how to get from one room to the next on time. Often I would find myself trailing them at what I considered a quasi-safe non-stalkerish distance in the halls from Math to Science to break to English to PE to Lunch.
I was the new kid and a lot on the skinny/self-conscious/too-awkward-to-even-be-called-awkward side. I’m not sure Chris was ready to fully roll with me as his buddy during the daylight hours and I wasn’t sure whether we were going to end up neighbors or friends. I soon learned there were definitely kids on the block who all hung out during the summer and then faded into other groups once the school bell rang. I also learned Chris and Paul mostly stuck with the guys who played sports and did well in school. They fit right in with the institution this greater group represented. Like most of this crew, they were preceded by a couple older siblings who’d made names for themselves at the school. Both were determined to improve on that legacy, in the classroom and on the court or field. And both did.
It became pretty apparent to me these were guys to know and these were the guys I probably wouldn’t end up knowing. Not only was I new and devilishly unprepared socially, I hadn’t played an organized sport since AYSO in Kindergarten and my sister, who did represent the family name well, had attended high school 300 miles away. While summer was still fresh on the mind, school and the daily routine of trying to find my people took over. I began to take my place as the guy who got lucky enough to hang with Chris in the off-season and on weekends and would maybe get some time with him in the morning on the walk to school. But the rest of the day, the rest of the year, I was better left to fade into the ether.
And so, it came as a great surprise to me when I got a call around 8 that Friday night. It was Chris and he said he and Paul were hanging around his house playing video games and watching a movie and maybe a little Saturday Night Live from last week and where was I?
“I’ll be right there.”
I don’t remember much specific from that night and, in truth, it was probably the same as any of the 200 or so Friday nights to come marking our time in high school. I remember laughing, basically at everything Paul or Chris said or did. Chris’s brothers got annoyed and walked out of the room. We didn’t care. I remember watching a shitty ’80s move on USA. Paul liked action flicks, Chris liked horror, I liked comedies, but we all loved horrible B-movies. I remember looking up at the VCR clock and seeing it was well past midnight.
“I gotta go,” Paul said. He’d ridden his sister’s 10-speed over from his house about three miles away.
I didn’t want the night to end, but I could hear Chris’s mom start her way down the stairs and I knew it was time for me to go too. I walked Paul out the door and we said good-bye in Chris’s driveway as he put on his sweatshirt and got on his bike. No lights and no helmet. I ran home, almost leaping. I knew I was finally part of something bigger than this nothing Friday. I was exhilarated and at once felt tiny, as if my life had all of a sudden shrunk up around me. I’d found my people and yet the fear of waking up tomorrow and having it all disappear soon overtook me.
I spent the next two hours awake, staring at my ceiling. What if something happened to Paul on his way home? What if a drunk driver hit him? What if he lost his way or got cold or tired and ended up in a ditch? Should I wake my parents so we can look for him? Should I go over to Chris’s and see if we can call his house? I’m a mumbler by trade and I didn’t say an audible good-bye back to Paul. Was that a mistake? Would I ever see him again? Would it ever be the same again?
Or would it all simply fade away by the light of day?
The common wisdom is Paul K. Sloan perished in the South Tower of the World Trade Center thirteen years ago today. He died after an airplane flew into his building as he was preparing for a morning meeting. It was on TV a million times, so it must be true. I’ve seen it. I’m sure you’ve seen it too.
Ninety-nine percent of me knows he’s gone and gone for good. I didn’t believe it at first, but I’ve been told so many times and shown in so many different ways, no sane man could know any other truth.
Unfortunately, there is the other very noisy and bothersome one percent inside of me, the part of me that stays up for two hours and stares at the ceiling and worries about him to this day. The part of me that says I never got proof. I never got to say good-bye in person. I never saw his glasses.
To me, the lack of recovered eye wear is certainly a sign Paul must still be around. Those little oblong black specs, the ones that barely obscured his piercing brown eyes; one eyebrow cocked breaking free of the frame’s edge.
It didn’t matter where he woke up in the morning: the industrial carpet of his family’s basement game room, the beer-soaked floor of a houseboat kitchen, the knotty pine spot near the hearth of a Tahoe A-frame, he always had those specs. Wallet? gone. Cell phone? Who knows. Keys? MIA. Frames and lenses? Yep. Always on him or next to him, their wiry arms wrapped around a half-empty pint glass of water on his night stand.
The glasses never found tells me he may have just recognized the opportunity and slipped out the back. He now resides on a special mystery island with TuPac and Biggie and skinny-again-but-old Elvis. They spend their days singing covers on ukeleles and flying around on sea planes. They take shelter form the storms under palm fronds. They slice open coconuts and watch the rain drops jump up from the ocean. Sunny days, supine on the bleached sand, reading great literature and looking out over that expanse.
Once in awhile, Paul blinks toward the horizon, sets his beer with the half-peeled label down, puts on his specs and can look directly at me. Checks in. Sees how I’m doing. Offers up a little critique.
Six months after 9/11, a bunch of Paul’s family and friends got together and ran a race to remember him. The course started in Marin County at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and traversed white-capped shark-infested waters on the most appropriately juxtaposed orange deco span the world has ever known. It came to a finish seven miles later in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park with a full frontal view of Alacatraz and in the shadow of Ghirardelli Square.
It was a perfect homage.
Since then, every third Sunday in March we gathered at the start of the race to share a quick hug and high-five and run in Paul’s honor. In that time, most of his contemporaries have married, some have divorced, many have started families, and many families have grown in number and grown up in age so the kids are now participants in the race and well outnumber the adults at the finish. Paul’s friends from the East Coast have made an annual pilgrimage to do the race, taking a year off here or there when life gets in the way. One guy named Sudha made the 2,900-mile trip from JFK to SFO every year, this year less than two months before his wife gave birth to their first child.
I once asked him why he did it. “Was it because Paul would have done the same for you?”
“No,” he said. “But he’d give me so much shit for not showing up, it wasn’t ever worth missing.”
Last week, our race was cancelled. The organizers have had some rough spots over the years. Permitting on the bridge is rough. Attendance can fluctuate with the weather. And title sponsorships are hard to keep. The race has remained a Bay Area favorite and in some ways has been its best-kept secret for more than three decades. But in other ways—people have moved on. Road courses aren’t as fun as trail and 10ks don’t sound as cool as half-marathons. It seems like if people are going to spend the time and money to train, they ought to do a triathlon.
So the race isn’t happening in 2015. Hundreds of us won’t gather to toe the start line in Paul’s name. There’ll be no T-shirts at the end. No post-race celebration to see how much folks’ kids grew during the year.
And you know what? I’m not too sad.
It’s kind of like one of those break-ups that happens two years too late. You act sad. You are sad. And then you act sad some more. A piece of you will always be with that person. And six months from now, some random moment while waiting for the elliptical, or driving to work or flipping through to see what’s on On Demand, it’ll hit: The break-up is real. The union is no longer. You wonder how they’re doing now—do they ever think of you, of the us that was? Did we ever really exist as a pair or is it just something that has always lived in memory.
After the wave of initial shock and remorse crashes, there it is so clear in the backwater: Relief. Promise. Possibility.
Everyone showed up every year with a smiling face at 6 am—together, happy, a part of something. Farting on a school bus en route to the start. Pre-race jitters in line for the port-a-potty and special headbands with Paul’s initials worn just for the occasion. As one of the early organizers I like to think some folks, if they did one thing to push themselves all year, they did the race.
And that made me happy. It still does make me happy.
I can only speak for myself, but Emerald Nuts Across the Bay 12k fatigue had set in. It had set in big. There were a few circumstances beyond my control which caused me to miss this year’s race but there was also a little devil on my shoulder who simply wanted a break. In the immediate aftermath, I regretted missing that day. Now, knowing it would have been the last race, that regret has a new life.
But I also carved a couple hours race day morning to go for a run on my own. To remember Paul on my own. And something unexpected happened. Something special. Maybe the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me on race day happened that day. And for that, I am forever grateful. Because of that, what I’m about to say is a good thing, a happy thing.
On the third Sunday of March 2015, I plan on doing something to get out there and get after it. Something fun. Maybe it’ll be in San Francisco. Maybe it’ll be in Lake Tahoe. Maybe it’ll be near where I live, on the Central Coast. Maybe it’ll be somewhere I’ve never been.
It could be a long run, or a good morning swim. It could be a snowshoe or a hike up a giant granite hill. Maybe I’ll pack a backpack with a couple of beers and trudge up to the nearest highest peak and toast to my friend. Maybe I’ll paddle a kayak so far out to sea the land is just a speck. Maybe I’ll ride a mountain bike to an Alpine lake and have a sit on its shores and skip stones and think about what Paul’s life would be like now. Would he have kids? Where would he have settled? Would I have blacked out his wedding? Would his wife have wanted me at their wedding? Would we be neighbors? Best friends? Acquaintances? Or just two people with a shared past and a future that belonged to our families, our co-workers and our neighbors?
Maybe my little family will humor me and come along. Maybe Chris and a couple other friends will join. Maybe members of Paul’s family will want to honor him in a new way too. Or maybe it’ll be just me gliding under a canopy of tiny leaves—the first shoots of spring. I’ll look up at the filtered sun and think this isn’t a time of T-shirts or safety pins or registration forms or organizing emails.
This is a moment of renewal.
For the first time since I was forced to remember someone I never wanted to be forced into remembering, I can do it just for him. From the first night on Chris’s driveway to the morning of 13th anniversary of 9/11, I have said too many good-byes to Paul.
Maybe it’s time, after all this time, I say hello.