I'd just say Hi, pal , or something equally vague . . . . : I Didn't Even Know His Name

I watched them gather in small clusters around a desk. They wore expressions of shock and horror. One man who was seated gasped and looked as though he might pass out. They spoke in stunned whispers, then drifted like dream-walkers back to their own desks to stare once more into space and consider at some length the death of Chuck.

I hadn't known his name even though for several months he sat not 20 feet from me, supervising a small group of Times Poll telephone callers in this office.

We would see each other almost every day, either here or in the downtown office. Chuck always knew who I was but I'd just say Hi, pal , or something equally vague to conceal the fact that I didn't know who he was.

It occurred to me once or twice to ask someone but I never did because it just never seemed necessary to know Chuck's name when I could get by with ambiguities. I regret that now.

Even when news of his death reached his workers Monday and they gathered in somber clusters to ponder their own mortality, I was uncertain who they were talking about. I had overheard them mention Chuck but his name meant nothing to me.

Only when they pointed out which desk he had occupied did I know the quiet, friendly man who had died suddenly two days earlier at age 52.

I liked him even though he was never a name to me. He was sensitive to the intrusion of his telephone poll-takers into an editorial environment and did his best to accommodate the writers who occupied places around them.

I complained only once to Chuck about a worker whose voice, through no fault of his own, somehow sliced into my concentration, making it difficult to work. Chuck acted immediately to move the man and made certain that in the future his small staff respected our need for a subdued if not silent condition while we wrote.

But I still didn't know his name.

We know so little about the people around us, notwithstanding those whose background we need. For years I used to smile and wave at an old man who sat in the door of his driveway just about every working day of the week.

He lived down the hill and everyone called him the Looking Man. Once or twice I'd stop the car long enough to say good morning and we'd talk for the few fleeting moments I could spare on the way to somewhere.

I only knew he was an invalid and that his window on the world was that garage door. In good weather, his chair would be moved in front of the garage and on days when the skies lowered and the rain fell, he'd be inside the garage. But he was there nonetheless.

The Looking Man was invariably cheerful. He would tell me about the coyote that had stopped to stare at him that morning or about the fires and floods he recalled from days long buried in his memories.

Once in a while he had a joke that never made too much sense and often he would say with an optimism foreign to his condition, "It's a swell of a day!" A swell of a day for an old man too crippled to move.

He came to mean something to me and I enjoyed honking and waving even when I didn't stop to talk. Here was someone who, in his way, was larger than the adversities of his own life.

Then he was gone.

Death came suddenly, the way it did to Chuck, striking out with random fire to silence the old man forever. The garage doors remain closed now but I can't help slowing sometimes and wondering why the Looking Man isn't there anymore when it seemed once he would live forever.

I knew no more about him than I did about Chuck. I often thought of stopping by the house to express my regrets to whoever survived the old guy but I never did. I don't know why I didn't, but then why do we so seldom tell anyone how we feel? We bury compassions deeply and guard the perimeters of our emotions with walls of steel.

My nature is not such that I am able to walk up and introduce myself to those I don't know. I'll never wear a badge that says My name's Al, What's yours? But I will make an effort from now on to at least learn names and remember them, even when I don't need them.

Chuck wasn't perfect. He had good days and bad days. He smoked and drank some and sometimes growled his frustration at those who had nothing to do with what was bothering him.

We all do that. Our targets are whoever's available, and usually they're the ones closest to us. We are, at best, conditioned by our own inadequacies and we respond to limits by denying through anger that they exist at all. That doesn't make us less. It only makes us human .

I'm not sure why the death of Chuck moves me to meander through my own frustrations except that I wanted to speak to him by name, to know something about him, to listen to his highs and wonder at his lows, and now it's too late.

His passing will not diminish my professional standing nor will it impact on my social life. But deep inside I will regret that I had not paid more heed to a man who walked with me but for a little while on this often painful path through life.

His name was Chuck. Chuck Gross.

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