Paul K. Sloan died on the 89th floor South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Donations to the memorial fund in Paul’s name can be made to the Brown Sports Foundation, Box 1925, Providence RI 02912.
The last night Paul and I hung out together, I was punched in the face outside a karaoke bar on Lombard Street. He had just gotten done singing Private Dancer. I said something obnoxious to someone right outside the bar and ended up temporarily on the concrete in front of the KFC/Taco Bell. Paul said something to my assailant, not threatening, more like, “I get it. I get it. I get it. I get it,” and then we went and got food. I didn’t have any money so he had to pay for my slice of pizza. The guy who punched me was next to us in line but by then it was all behind us.
We got up early the next morning. I fell asleep on my couch, Paul was on the floor. I was sitting there waiting for someone to get me a water. He did. I remember he was wearing a navy blue Amoeba T-shirt and jeans. “You’re an idiot,” he said. He laughed. I laughed. “That guy barely even touched you and you went down.” I didn’t recall the punch till then and I felt a little embarrassed.
He had to get back home, to church, a day with his folks and a red eye back to New York that night. My head felt like a lead balloon attached to my neck and I didn’t make any effort to get up.
“See you later,” he said.
I waved. He closed the door. And that was it. That was the end of our friendship.
I never thought I would be a father, much less a father to a son. I’m not saying this in the self-aggrandizing way most people who were born to be parents and are really really good at it do. I say it because I mean it. Ask around, they’ll all tell you the same thing. I heard it in their voices when I started to let slip the notion that I was going to be a dad. There was always a pause on the phone like you get when someone’s stopped listening to you and started looking for something. It’s like they skipped the first few sentences they really wanted to say to me in their head and settled on a conciliatory, “No man, that’s great. That’s great for you. Really, it is,” and then they would do something like swallow hard or change the subject. I know as soon as they hung up they would call and text around. This guy… has no idea.
And I get why. I mean, I’m the guy who deserves to get punched outside the karaoke bar. That’s the reputation I’ve earned. A guy like that probably shouldn’t have a son, unless, of course, he’s determined to teach someone how to skip out on tabs or get kicked out of cabs.
But there I was, in the delivery room, sure that I had miraculously stepped into the middle of someone else’s life, waiting for the nurse to grab me by the arm and say, “I’m sorry sir, you’re supposed to be next door getting broken glass picked out of the bottom of your foot.” To me, that made more sense than holding eight pounds of fiery screaming determination.
Paul’s memorial was full of people, like way too full, like close to a thousand. He knew, I’m going to guess, about twenty five people really well outside his immediate family. That includes about a dozen or so of us guys who grew up together from the time Paul moved to Marin County through high school, another six or eight from college at Brown and then probably a handful of others along the way (work people, people he dated), even that’s a lot.
Paul died a little over a month after turning twenty six, which I think is sort of peak knowing of people. For most, it’s just before the world shrinks around you with career moves and family obligations and you’re kind of just out there being you. I think when people die, especially in tragic ways, especially so young, we tend to say that they were the ones who took over the room when they walked in, the life of the party snuffed out in his prime.
I went back a little and read what I’ve written about Paul over the years and some of it infers that he was a larger-than-life type, but I think it’s time to make a corrective note: Paul was actually pretty quiet. There’s a picture of him in glasses cocking one eyebrow. I know his mother prefers that one as do most of the rest of his family his friends. It’s alluring and timeless, and it’s also who he was; not the one you first notice walking through the door, not the loudest, or the funniest or maybe not even the best-looking, but the guy you end up wanting to sit next to, for sure.
He was, above all things, an observer. In that same era, I would tear through a room like a brush fire, never pausing to see the concern I’d left in my wake. Paul was methodical. Every move premeditated, every risk pre-calculated.
As I got older I learned, slowly, precariously, that if we’re lucky there is always a morning after. But that morning after always brings consequence. Paul’s calculus included the morning after and the morning after that and the weeks and months to come. He didn’t just end up working near the top of the World Trade Center by accident. He planned it, he worked hard and he got there.
This 9/11, I’m going to go for a long run to the top of a hill, then I’m going to cry. Then I’m going to take a shower, put on Paul’s Amoeba T-shirt and go get a sandwich. I’m going to try to be a better friend, son and father from now on. I say it every year. It’s like how people say they’re going to exercise more and go gluten-free on January second. I try. Sometimes it takes, other times it doesn’t.
For a little boy, my son seems very cautious. He doesn’t jump off things at the playground and new experiences (first time on skis, first time in a pool, first story time group) are downright tough for him even if it comes naturally once he gives it a go. I can tell he calculates the risk in his head and then, eventually, takes the plunge. I’ve seen that type of behavior before. If I push a little hard or make a mistake or embarrass him, he looks up at me with a side eye that seems somehow familiar. And then a forgiving smile.
I know what you’re thinking and I swear and I swear and I swear, because I know it’s impossible and I know it’s more projection than anything—but somewhere, real deep down, I believe there’s a little cosmic dust that carried a bit of whatever Paul was made of back to me. Whether or not it’s true, the thought of it makes me happy to the point I don’t think I deserve it.