I RECEIVED SOME BAD news last night. While I was writing the next installment of the Las Vegas trip, my buddy Rick called to let me know that another friend of ours, Nick, had just unexpectedly died. Not to go into too much detail out of privacy, but he was stricken while working late, and by Friday morning he had succumbed.
I was stunned. Nick was all of 43.
Though we had met at a barbecue Rick threw when he still lived with his family, I first got to know Nick at Rick's apartment some years later on the occasion of my first home poker game. He, like Rick and the other friends of his gathered, was a nice guy and fun to hang around with. He was endearingly inept at shuffling the cards, and usually one of the adjacent players would do the honor, then pass the deck for him to deal. "Nicky doesn't bluff" was a frequent refrain when he bumped up the action with an extra quarter, and I — inexperienced at poker to begin with — usually followed others by folding to his move. When he in turn was raised out of a pot, he would throw in his cards with a half-resigned, half-relieved "AMF!" Adiós, motherfuckers!
Nick was part of a crew that went back a number of years at a prior workplace where most of them had met. The thing was, I wasn't made to feel out of place by the in-jokes and references to past bosses or scary coworkers. Far from it. They took the time to describe the events for me, which usually left the rest of the table in hysterics and cherished impersonations of the third parties being lampooned in the stories. Nick was right there laughing with them. Though different jobs, the needs of family, and distance had reduced the frequency of their gatherings, all someone had to do was drop a favorite Three Stooges or Honeymooners line and they were on.
In the short time I was privileged to know Nick, I could pick up on how some things could only have happened to him. The first time I gathered the guys for poker at my place, it began snowing with authority. Not to be deterred by the weather after having worked with some effort to get a day that was good for everyone, I rallied folks to come, and come they did — but Nick, not the boldest navigator out there, I had to guide in, via his cellphone, from Rockland County to my place in Bergen. With the sound of his windshield wipers and passing plows in the telephonic background, I got him down the highway, onto the right exit, through the winding suburban streets he had chosen, and all the way to my parking lot, all of this through thickening snowfall. I stood outside amid fat flakes to wave him triumphantly into my parking lot, which he entered — riding on a flat tire. He pulled into a spot and greeted me with a big smile of, whereupon — feeling suddenly guilty over tempting this nice guy out of his warm house with cards and Chinese food —I had to break the news to him about his tire. He had no idea it was flat, nor how long he had been riding it as more of a rim cushion than a tire. As we waited inside for AAA to arrive, all a man could say was, "Only Nicky."
Later that day, we were ordering said Chinese food after venturing forth in a slackening of the storm. While contemplating dishes to order for the table, Nick — not of the sternest constitution when it came to exotically seasoned food — inquired of each proposed entree, "Is it spicy?" Not in a contrary or dickish manner; he knew where his tolerance for zesty spices ended, he was just curious, and we were happy to accommodate him. But it was hearing him ask it five or so times in a row that made it funny. Later, I related this story to my buddy Dave, and I managed to convey the charming humor of the situation to him. He even dropped the line once or twice in food conversations months later. I told Dave that if we all ever had the fortune to dine together, especially somewhere that spicy food was offered, he would be under my close scrutiny for his ability to keep a straight face (which I knew full well was impossible). I regret now that this meeting will never happen.
Part of the table talk at poker and — later — boardgame gatherings inevitably involved work. Nick was itching to move on from his job, and he had been exploring taking classes online (e.g., University of Phoenix Online) for a while when we met. He did eventually take a course, though neither Rick nor I could recall if he ever mentioned completing the program. But he was moving on, even at 43, and even more sadly, Rick also mentioned he had an interview lined up for next Tuesday. You can be in the middle of any type of self-improvement or progress, but if it's your time, that's it — and it was a sobering thought for both Rick and myself to realize how tenuous life can be no matter how solidly embedded in the middle of it you might think you are.
I mentioned to Rick last night how there are so many people out there I would rather see go than Nick, who was, as far as I know, never anything less than a good person. Why couldn't it have been those two assholes in New York who tortured their child and eventually beat her to death, or the thugs who beat that cop down at the Bronx White Castle last week? Why not arch-prick Kim Jong Il or some other tyrant? Nick was a truly good guy, a taxpaying homeowner, and even a recent cat owner. (Rick had worked to get a message through to Nicky's cousin, his most immediate survivor, to check up on the poor beast, alone since Thursday and possibly hungry.) But there's only frustration in railing against the injustice of the situation, frustration that nevertheless took me a while to get to sleep last night.
I last saw Nick on New Year's Eve. Rick mentioned last night he was happy to have gotten folks together that night, even if it has been tough nowadays to do so on non-holiday occasions. I sympathized with him, acknowledging how that there are a lot of pressures and responsibilities weighing on folks. As mentioned in the blog link, we enjoyed a meal together, watched the Times Square ball drop amid boardgame madness, swapped jokes and stories, and generally enjoyed one another's company. I suspect that's the most you can ask of life or of those in it, New Year's or not.
I owe Rick a debt of gratitude for giving me the opportunity to meet Nick, and an even greater one to Nick himself just for being a tremendously sweet guy in a world where that trait is becoming rarer by the day. I can only hope he understood how much he was valued by those who knew him . . . those who dearly miss him now.