You can know someone for five minutes. But if it’s the right five minutes, you are connected to that person forever.
Maybe it’s the man who got stuck in the elevator with you. Or the woman in the next bed over in the days when hospital rooms had two, maybe four people in them. You share a private time with them that no one else knows about. How sweaty it got in the elevator. How you pushed the Help Button a hundred times before you heard a voice from the outside. How you got stuck in the bathroom and couldn’t pee without crying after your baby was born. How you told her you were afraid to go home and be somebody’s mother.
Someone I knew, not for five minutes but for five years, died over the weekend.
He was handsome, very handsome. Always dressed to the nines. Moved like a ballet dancer. Chatted like a man smoking a cigarette with a long cigarette holder, a beautiful woman on each arm, but a feminist, respectful, progressive, formed by the struggle he’d had growing up in Chicago which had made him courtly, not tough, and knowing how to smooth all the rough edges from a conversation, how to lend his calming, refined presence to an angry situation and make people behave properly.
We worked together in our city’s anti-poverty agency during a time of great expectations and great conflict. We were part of the organization’s executive team. This meant that we kibbutzed at 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning and had to dress up all the time. This suited him. Me, not so much.
I still see him, in my mind’s eye, sweeping into a meeting in a beautiful suit and tie, his long wool coat flowing behind him. He put us all to shame without the least intention.
He would walk into my office and stand, leaning in the doorway and expound. He had views on everything and the academic citations to support his views. He was well-read in urban development, knew his history, kept his anger about racism just barely submerged, tricked all the white people into thinking he didn’t hold a grudge. He decided, I think, to work his thing a different way. We fell all over ourselves falling for him.
So anyway. He died.
It was more than twenty years ago that we worked together. We went our separate ways. He did good work. I’ve done good work. But not on the same topics or neighborhoods. I’d see him at events and we’d nod. We never had a relationship after our time working together.
I’m not sorry about that. I’m just noting it.
I feel like I knew him well from the time we spent together in the elevator.