Thursday, January 23, 2014
An Irish Friend
I am looking at a hat that I like very much and that I wear whenever it is cold. I have had it for more than twenty years. It is a wool tweed cap that is a bit ragged but that I love nonetheless. It is kind of like the friend who gave it to me. He gave it to me when he returned from visiting his parents in Ireland. He said he thought it suited me and so he bought it for me.
My “gal pal,” of over 26 years, Julie, stopped by this afternoon to share some ale and pleasant conversation with me and the wife. I love that she lives so close to us now that we can get together whenever we want. Somehow the conversation turned to our old friend, Niall Murphy. There was at time when he was an integral part of all our young lives, especially mine. Niall and I were close and about as reckless as reckless can be when we were in our late twenties.
I met Niall when I was a young editor at a small publishing company. My pal, Julie, worked first in facilities and then became the executive assistant to the president of the company. After work Julie and I would run around the city together. My wife, Karen, was getting her MBA in the evenings so I had a lot of free time on my hands. Many times we went out just the two of us, and also many times we went out with a larger crowd of people from the HR and IT departments of the firm. One of our friends was named Patti. She ran a portion of IT. One night she came into Harry Caray’s with this hulking giant of a man in a glen plaid suit. He was younger than most of us but had an air of confidence about him. I wasn’t sure what to make of him. You could see that through his façade he was nervous. The first thing he did was to fish into his pocket for a pack of cigarettes. He popped one out of the pack and extended it to me. “May offer you one, mate,” he asked. That was the beginning of Niall’s and my reckless adventure together.
Niall had literally just moved to Chicago when he started to work with us. He didn’t even have all of his papers in order yet. He later told me that he bullshitted his way into the job, didn’t know the program he was supposed to work with and had basically read a book the night before his interview, because he needed a job to stay in the country. I asked him once why he came to Chicago to begin with. He said, in that brilliant lilting accent of his, “I failed at school in Dublin and went to London where I failed again. One day I was walking by a tour agent’s and saw a poster of the Water Tower in the window along with other snaps of Chicago. I thought to myself, now, that looks like an interesting city to live in. The more I looked into it the more I liked the idea. I figgered if I’m going to fail again I might as well do it in Chicago as London, and who knows maybe I will succeed there , so I moved .” One of the things I like about Niall is that he firmly believes that you have to have at least one, as he called it, “epic failure” in your life in order to succeed. I don’t know if I agree with that, but I do appreciate how he also used to say, “I got that all behind me now, so nothing but up from here on out.”
When I introduced Niall to Karen it took her about fifteen minutes before she started treating him like he was some sort of large puppy. For the most part Niall lived alone and she was always checking in on him, making sure he didn’t need anything. It was a mutual admiration society. Niall grew very fond of her too. One time when I had to go on an extended business trip, Niall asked me, “Do you want me to drop round once in awhile and knock Karen up?” I thought for a minute and I said, “No, I would prefer you didn’t. We’re still young and I don’t have the money to support your bastard child.” He smacked me on the head. “You know what I meant. I can’t help it that you people don’t know how to talk.”
Through the years as Niall and I got closer as friends, a typical weekend evening would look like this. Karen, Niall and I would go to a party someone from work was having. Sometimes Julie would be there, or Patti, or Bill or the rest of the crowd, other times not because some of them lived in the suburbs. In either case, at some point Karen would say that she had reached her limit, and so Niall and I would take her home in a cab so she could sleep. We would let her out at our two-flat, she would kiss me, stick a certain something in my pocket and say, “Be careful, boys.” Niall and I would then work our way back up Lincoln Avenue stopping at the Elbo Room, or the Lincoln Tap or head to Schuba’s. Sometimes we would go to Duffy’s, which was by Niall’s apartment. A lot of nights we went to Neo and danced with any girl stupid enough to be willing. We would get hot dogs at the Wiener Circle and then go the Exit which was at that time one of the few nearby bars in Chicago with a four o’ clock license.
The Exit was a kind of rowdy punk place. Ladies drank for free if they agreed to be handcuffed to the bar. Maybe they still do that…I don’t know. One night when we rolled in, already three sheets to the wind, I handcuffed myself to the bar. Max, the bartender, said, “T.S., what are you doing?” I said, “Please don’t hate me just because I’m not as pretty as them.” He rolled his eyes, brought me a beer and said “Four bucks.” It wasn’t a proud moment but it was worth a try. It also wasn’t as bad as Niall who insisted on untucking his shirt and throwing himself into the mosh pit during the nightly bouncer bash. As I said, we were reckless…Or not so much. One summer night, walking home to Niall’s apartment, he asked me what Karen always stuck in my pocket when we dropped her off. I reached in and pulled the item out. It was a toothbrush. It was her way of saying, “I would rather you sleep on Niall’s couch than try to get home, because I know how you two get when you’re together.”
About the same time Karen and I bought our first house, Niall moved to Marina Towers. He lived on a high floor. We went there once for a small gathering. His balcony had the most spectacular view of the Loop across the river. I had never seen Chicago that way before and I was entranced. Then I looked down and the magic ended. I went back inside looking for the most center of the room. Niall came to me and said, “Tom, are you afraid of heights?” I said, “No, I just need to find the middle of the building.” He laughed, “These apartments are like cheese wedges. You want that, you’re going to have to go out in the hall.”” I tried to brush it off. “No, in here will be fine.” He put his bearlike hand on my shoulder and said, “You really are afraid of heights, aren’t you, mate?” I shook my head, “No, Niall, I’m not afraid heights, I am afraid of falling. Once I look down and imagine myself falling, I am done.” He laughed. “We’re all afraid of falling, brother.”
The last time I saw Niall was in San Francisco. He had moved there not long after Karen and I bought our first house. He came back to Chicago a couple of times for weddings of our friends and we all went out, but it was very tame. After that there was a long gap between when we talked or saw each other. I moved up in my career, we moved to the suburbs and then had three children to care for. A conference I was attending on behalf of my firm gave me an opportunity to go west and see Niall again. We had dinner in North Beach. I showed him pictures of where we lived and the children. With each picture he shook his head. When he had seen them all he looked at me and said, “Christ, man, you’ve done and become a grown-up on me, haven’t you?” I shrugged. “These things happen, Niall.” He was silent for a couple of minutes and then he said, “I know some Alsatians that hang out near here at a good place with a patio and pool tables. I think you would enjoy them.” I said “OK. That sounds fun.” He smiled his wicked grin. I did not get back my hotel until the sun was getting ready to rise, fell into my bed fully clothed, smelling of cigarettes, grappa and beer. Some things never change.
I haven’t seen Niall in more than 15 years. He might be a grown-up now too. Who knows? I looked for him the last time I was in San Francisco a couple of years ago but couldn’t find him. Maybe that is a good thing, or maybe next time.