No Maps For These Obituaries

 

I wrote this essay for something, but it never went anywhere and because it was like five, almost six months ago, I’m gonna put it up here. I really liked finishing this, and it was the culmination of something I’d been trying to get out for a while.

~

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About five years ago my brother told me that someone we’d gone to school with, years and years ago, had died. He and his girlfriend (the older sister of another schoolmate) had overdosed on heroin (I thought about it recently and counted how many people I knew who had through the years descended into serious drug abuse and it sorta shocked me, but that’s another story.)

It was a lifetime ago, knowing those people, when the guy and his friends alternated between picking on me and being friendly with my circle of friends, who were a few years younger. Sometimes thinking back on that period of my life, my childhood basically, it feels like the movie on the childhood of someone completely unlike me.

I’ve thought about that random conversation a lot since then, especially throughout working on the Internet, writing and publishing on the Internet, and communicating with people on the Internet. I’ve thought about it a lot as well as I’ve periodically had nothing to do and decided to see if old friends I’ve lost track of were out there, throwing names into search engines and social networking platforms. It’s not an obsession or anything, because honestly half the time I’ve forgotten people’s last names through the years, forgotten how to spell the names I did remember, and constantly tell myself that just because I have a bizarrely-obsessive hoarding mind that keeps memories like old user manuals in junk drawers, others don’t do that. I managed to track down my 3rd-grade “best friend” recently because his complete name came to me as I sat at work, and it was a surreal thing to see his face on the computer screen, older and yet, familiar enough that I could remember us at his house, playing in his room while our moms chatted, mine offering her a friendly ear as his parents divorced. At least that’s what I remember, and who knows if that’s even a true memory at this point?

Am I a memory that randomly comes up in their minds too? Did he ever think about me? Did any of them? Or have I completely faded from the collective memory of some people, no matter how hard we might try?

One friend I’ve actively looked up a few times online I’ve never been able to find, and I’ve probably been stuck on it because not only does he have the same name as someone relatively-famous, but also because I have a possible way to actively do it, but don’t want to intrude on it. I’m “friends” on the internet with his younger sister, a peer-mate of my younger brother.

I hesitate though, mostly because of basic civility, feeling like it’d be weirdly crass to just ask. Should I actively reach out to her to ask whatever happened to her brother? I’ve tried to look her brother up because, for lack of a nicer or more multi-depth way of saying it, he changed my life. He was the one who introduced us all to punk rock in the eighth and ninth grade, the beginning of a series of transformative waves in my life that made me the man I am today. It’s strange to look at someone like that, a peer who may not even remember who I am.

And like the ones who OD’ed, what if they died? Do I want to be the asshole who ends up reminding someone about a family member that’s no longer with us?

Writer and former cartoonist Ed Brubaker, probably best-known these days as one of the writers on the HBO series Westworld and the comics Kill Or Be Killed and The Fade-Out (both with artist Sean Philips), once said something in an interview that, though I paraphrase it and butcher it constantly in re-telling it, always sticks with me. When asked if he’d ever revisit or re-release his own early work, the comic Lowlife, he said sometimes things should remain in the past. Old work is old work for a reason, because you move on and improve from it.

It stuck with me. It’s the twenty-first century and nostalgia is in full, almost downward effect at this point as we obsessively archive, re-release, and redo (like the aforementioned Westworld, which I’ll admit to loving, or the big Hulu.com news to have the complete run of The Golden Girls, which I’m intensely excited about), we have a hard time letting go. We don’t even want all this stuff we save and revisit at times, but because we can, because post-World War 2 when the ability to archive and look back with nostalgia, we do it because we can, because now that things can be saved, they’re treasured, and things that are treasured are treated as archives of better times, times where we forget the bad and fetishize the good. Nostalgia, right?

There are, arguably, some times when it’s not necessarily “bad” and can even be healthy mentally, socially, and spiritually even. My grandparents, like a lot of Greeks, were refugees fleeing their home villages during World War 2 to avoid the Italian occupation, the Nazis, and impending famine, leaving almost everything. In the case of my paternal family, they went to Turkey, Egypt, and finally Ethiopia to wait out the war, briefly returning before coming to the US. Old property, old homes, old farmsteads and friends were left behind to create new lives here in New York City. First, in a mostly-Greek community in downtown Manhattan before moving to Queens, where, over time, a lot of those old friends from the old country came and also bought homes. Years later though, can you blame my grandparents for being nostalgic? For wanting to go back and find those old fragments of a former life, the life before they came to the US? The old properties, old family photos and toys and mementos, were left to literally rot, in some cases, before being rescued.

It’s not nostalgia here with blind and non-critical fondness, because if I asked my grandmother about what life was like then, in an area of Eastern Europe that still had dirt-floor homes and wells for water, she’d definitely point to her kitchen and indoor bathroom and TV. It’d be more like trying to maybe maintain a connection that was broken too soon, broken unwillingly. It’s probably not even nostalgia in the strictest sense, but an attempt at repairing a part of life that was tragic, sad, and taken away against their will. Still, when I sit down and hear her talk about old times, when she or other older Greeks who came to this country go back and refurbish old homes and properties and put the old photos in new frames up on the walls, there’s a level of fondness attached to it all, even if they know deep down it maybe wasn’t all that great. Youth can be a hell of a drug.

That desire for keeping what came before and bringing it around again every so often even influenced us, collectively, in a professional way. I’m a writer and teacher, and one of the ways that I promote my writing and shop it around is by making sure I can point to an archive of work, a backlog of stuff both old and new. When I just wrote for a living, I was regularly making sure that archive was accessible, that old work, old stuff, representations of older lives in some cases, were out there, easy to find. It didn’t matter, in a way, that some of it wasn’t as good as the newer stuff (it really wasn’t, I’ve come to realize. Woof, that old stuff is bad).

I gave up. I think it’s time to recognize that sometimes, old friends are the past, especially after over twenty years at this point. Human memory is a chemically-insecure and awful and almost tragically-flawed archiving tool, making us romanticize even the worst of times for us. While some friendships can last that long, and while some stuff from our pasts is worth revisiting, be it work or relationships or even the structure of how our life worked, just because it existed in a moment of space and time, doesn’t mean it needs to remain. In the end, as cliché as it might sound, I’m going to give up on trying to find out what happened to that one friend, the guy who basically changed my life and set it on the path that it is today, and let that mystery rest.

It’s better this way.

 

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