Sunday, August 4, 2013

Odd Man Out

When we were upperclassmen at Illinois we all moved out of the dorms and into apartments or rented houses. It was tradition that if you lived in a house you named it.  My favorite house was the one where some of the guys I knew well from the dorms lived.  It was called The Shipwreck Lounge.  It was where I first met Jim.

One of the guys at the Shipwreck, Lenny, played rugby and so a lot of the guys from the team and their girlfriends would come to the parties the guys would throw.   The rugby team was an open club so anyone could play even if they weren’t still in school.  Jim worked nears the university as an IT guy and was older than us, but initially I didn’t know how much older.  He took a liking to the crowd that hung out at the Shipwreck and one time brought them an old Philco refrigerator that he had a drilled a hole into and turned into a makeshift kegerator.  We called it Phil. There was a magnet sign someone made that could be flipped over that either said “Phil is full,” or “Phil is empty.”  Jim started spending a lot of time at the Shipwreck Lounge, and I got to know him well.

Some of the crowd we hung around with graduated one year and then the rest did the next.  The Shipwreck changed hands.  I stayed at Illinois to finish some studying I was doing and to work at the university.  I had a ground floor apartment on the main floor of the apartment building I lived alone in an apartment on Green Street behind an optometrist’s office and a flower store.  You accessed it through a door in the alley next to a parking lot.  I had never lived before alone but I kind of liked parts of it.  Everything was exactly where I wanted it. There was a lot of time to be by myself to listen to my music, work on papers, and to write.  Some nights though it was really lonely.

I wasn’t always alone.  Karen and other of our friends would often visit me on the weekends.  On Tuesdays my friend, Cecily, would come over and we would watch “Moonlighting” and eat Chinese food.  One night early into my stay there I heard a car pull up in the alley.  It was Jim  in his Saab. He had just gotten back from Europe.  I opened the screen door before he could knock and said, “Welcome home.”  He said “Thanks.  Do you want to go to Murphy’s?”  Murphy’s was just across the street. I said, “I can do that.”  That night he regaled me of all the things he had done in Europe and we talked about a bunch of other things. We closed the place, and although we weren’t drunk, he slept on my couch. 

After that I started seeing Jim more and more.  He would stop by occasionally during the week, and when Karen hadn’t come down for the weekend, he would invite me to go to rugby parties.  I was still trying to play soccer then but he converted me into a rugby groupie and had me play at the lowest level when someone couldn’t make it.  One of Jim’s roles on the rugby team was to coach the freshmen when they were first starting to learn the game. 

One Thursday night he invited me to dinner. He said, “I want you to go to the store and buy this wine.  I will do the rest.”  I went and when I entered his apartment I thought someone had broken in.  The place was a disaster.  There were clothes and stuff everywhere.  Phil was in the corner. On one coffee table was a stack of every James Bond book ever written. I thought to myself, “Whoa, what kind of dinner is this going to be?”  It ended up being one of the finest meals I have ever had. Turned out Jim was a gourmet chef and when he was in Europe that was what he was working on.  Every Thursday after that, me, and a guy named Mike, who was a sports reporter for the Champaign News-Gazette would go to Jim’s house for an exquisite meal from some different culture. It was always fantastic. If the wine was good he would say, “That’s a keeper,” and rolled the empty bottle under his sofa where he kept the wines he liked for future reference.

One day Jim asked me to meet him at Murphy’s because he had a job interview.  He came in a suit that looked like something out of Miami Vice. He asked me to look at his resume.  I took a copy and then he grabbed it right back again.  He tore off the top part of it.  He handed it back and said, “This is all you need to look at.”  I had seen what he tore off.  It was the part that showed his age.  Jim was well over twelve years older than me. He had gone to college from 1969-1973.

I worried about Jim.  He was an entertaining guy but not always good in larger social situations. The freshmen he coached seemed to like him but there was always a hint that they thought he was somewhat of a joke. You could tell by the way some of the older guys talked to him that he was not appreciated; they didn’t want to get to know him. Sometimes they would outright insult him.  He always let it roll off his back. One night a bunch of them turned his car on its side where it was parked.  We righted it with the help of some passing people.  We went to my apartment and started playing records on my stereo.  We were listening to Harry Chapin, who we both liked a lot.  A song came on and he suddenly said, “I have to go.”  He left swiftly.  The song was called “A Better Place to Be.”  It is a song about loneliness.

One day I ran into a friend of Jim’s from when they were in high school.  He owned a popular Chinese restaurant on campus that served a thing called the Volcano, which was some kind of liquor concoction that spouted things and you drank it with straws.  We started talking about Jim.  I said that I thought it was interesting that Jim still spent most of his time with younger college kids. He said, “Jim had a good life here growing up.  He was a tennis star in high school. He had a great student career at the university, a lot of friends. I think after his parents died and other people left him as they went on with their lives he decided not to let go and grow up.  He found a comfort zone, as strange as it is, that he wants to stay in, no matter what.  I‘m not sure connecting with a new class every couple of years is such a good idea, but at least he’s not alone.”

 On the weekend before I had to finally accept a degree from Illinois and go home, Jim and I sat in the alley, drank beer and listened to an oldies marathon on the campus radio station. We found a shopping cart that been abandoned in the parking lot and he pushed me up and down the sidewalk on Green Street yelling, “Make way for an educated man!” 

After I left school Jim would frequently appear spontaneously at our house; sometimes with young friends and sometimes alone.  He bought a beautiful old house with a solarium near the university.  We would visit him there sometimes.  It surpassed the disaster that was his apartment.  He had the front end of a Saab as a living room ornament. After one visit Karen asked me, “Do you think Jim is lonely?  He must be.”  I said, “I think he is but also I think Jim is one of those guys who spends a lot of time not allowing himself to be lonely. I think that is why he does what he does, as odd as it is.  He’s always fishing for someone to connect with and, generally speaking, he gets lucky…for awhile at least.  Until they grow and move on like we did. Then he goes fishing again.”  

Jim was always an odd man out.  I like to spend time by myself, and there have certainly been times when I felt alone. I am fortunate that I have never felt true loneliness, so I don’t know how I would handle it.  Jim handled it in unusual ways but he always did, to the mutual benefit of a lot of people who he reached out to, and who let him into our lives for awhile, so that he wasn’t lonely and neither were we.