A few weeks back, I got word that a former colleague had died.
Old Gus, as I’ll call him here, and I worked together for about five years at a small community newspaper in Florida. A fellow former colleague sent me the news, along with an article the paper posted on his death.
The article said Old Gus walked into work one day and announced that after 27 years at the paper he was too tired to go on and he was taking early retirement. He was 63, the article said, which surprised me more than the news that he had died. When I knew him, he had always staunchly refused to divulge his age. With only the way he looked, moved and behaved to go on, I had guessed him to be much older.
His last day on the job was September 7. The article said that on October 10, his out-of-state relatives got concerned when he stopped answering texts and asked the Sheriff’s Department to do a wellness check. He was found in the apartment he shared with his cat.
I was a little surprised but not at all upset when I heard of Old Gus’ passing. I’d left that paper six years ago, and when I was there we weren’t friends, we weren’t even work pals. Honestly, I just plain didn’t like the guy.
Management loved him, though. For my money, Old Gus couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag, but as with too many publications these days management looked at editorial content as nothing more than an unavoidable expense, something to fill the space between the ads. Old Gus filled a lot of pages and he put in lots of unpaid overtime doing it. Outside interests like hobbies or a social life never seemed to get in the way. I got the feeling all he did was work, work, work and go home to his cat.
He wasn’t unfriendly at work, but he wasn’t an easy guy to talk to. He avoided eye contact. Usually, he would squint into space as he rambled or mumbled, or sometimes both. If you tried to have a conversation with him, you’d get the feeling he was only paying attention to his half of it, that he didn’t want your thoughts to disturb his. He was no one’s first choice for a little coffee-break chitchat. And except for frequent, repetitive rants about “American Idol,” and raves about Apple computers – monologs, not conversations, that erupted with little prompting – Old Gus shared little of what went on up there.
As I read the article, conscious of the writer’s well-intentioned efforts to play up Old Gus’ contribution to community journalism while downplaying that there was little else to write about, I was revisited by a lurking thought that was secretly always part my disdain for Old Gus when I knew him.
Part of that disdain was uneasiness, because it often occurred to me how easily I could have wound up just like him.
I’ve never exactly been a social butterfly, and there have been a few points in my life when I could have slowly sunk into a life of self-isolation like Old Gus had. That’s how it happens – isolation grows on you, like mold on a piece of forgotten food in the back of the refrigerator. I’ve felt it in some of my more curmudgeonly streaks and I’ve seen it happen to others.
There’s a line between solitude and isolation. It’s an addiction, of sorts, almost like drinking or recreational drugs. You don’t realize the damaging effects as it slowly takes over. At first you make do. You may even like the “quiet time.” Then you get used to it. It becomes your comfort zone, until you get to the point where things turn around; you’re as increasingly uncomfortable with the outside world as they seem to increasingly be with you. The term “creepy loner” doesn’t exist for nothing.
That’s a description no one aspires to, but it’s such an easy spiral to slide into, especially for men, it seems. As closed off as he was, in five years working in the same office Old Gus couldn’t help but let clues leak out between the lines of some of the things he wrote and some of the things he said – he may have been a loner, but he was also lonely. Somewhere along the line he’d lost the knack for doing anything about it.
So why am I telling you all this? I was finishing a story about a program to improve truck drivers’ lifestyles, to make them healthier. Drivers’ health has become a big issue in recent years, and this program was one of the few I’ve run across that acknowledges that even though there is so much focus on eating better, getting more exercise and proper rest, a steady diet of human interaction is also important.
It wasn’t long after I wrapped up that story that I got the news about Old Gus, how he died alone, at 63, though he looked much older. He wasn’t a truck driver, just a fellow traveler. I guess I made a connection.