Thursday, December 17, 2009

"...the many things you owe these latest dead..."

"He told me once that he wanted to take on everything at one time and conquer it all just so he could feel indestructible."

I have no idea how to begin this, so I'll just say it: it's been a year now since my friend Mike died. Up until this point, I've resisted trying to write something, because it seemed so goddamn hard, and I thought that maybe, with the distance afforded me by the passage of time, I could get some kind of a grip on the situation, some sort of perspective, and talk about it in some kind of meaningful way. But I haven't, and I suspect I never really will. All the insight this year has yielded is that he's dead, and I wish he wasn't, and it still hurts that he is.

As best I can remember, I met Mike sometime in early 2006, in the corridor of Bronson Hall at LSUS. I don't think we spoke at all. He was friends with my roommate Charlotte, and we would see him off and on around town, but he didn't come around a lot. My initial reaction was that he was kind of aloof and distant, which was not entirely untrue.

But for whatever reason he started dropping by our place a lot more, and whatever reserves I'd had about him melted as I discovered that we shared a common language of books and movies and comics and music. He did freelance work for a local paper, so we had journalism in common as well. I don't think I've ever met anyone who was so much on my own wavelength culturally, and I know I've never known anyone who owned so many books. Frequently, my first thought when running across some book or album or magazine article was that I couldn't wait to run it by Mike, or to ask his opinion.

In the six months or so leading up to his death, we had begun to grow closer as friends. On Wednesday nights, he played trivia at a local pizza place, with the first place prize being two free pizzas. After I joined his team, our group routinely placed first. Other friends of mine sometimes wanted to come along, and I never actively discouraged them, but privately I always preferred to keep it as something between us.

Some things he loved: Captain Beefheart and Guided By Voices; William S. Burroughs and Alan Moore and The White Album; Moon Knight, John Coltrane, and John Sayles; Captain America and baseball and Superman; hobos and yeggs and second-story men. Whiskey and coffee and cigarettes.

He had a kind of offhand, effortless cool. He was a few years older than me, and had lived in Athens, Georgia during the Elephant Six years, roomed with Andrew Rieger from Elf Power, was casual friends with Jeff Mangum, and is listed as playing organ on the self-titled Circulatory System album. It's to his credit that he never went out of his way to mention these things; I discovered his name on the Circulatory System album while searching his name online. He was not the sort of person who felt the need to remind you of how awesome he thought he was. As the son of a prominent local doctor, he came from money, but he never carried himself in the way of a rich kid: I'm sure his family helped him out, but they didn't support him, and I always respected that tremendously.

If you needed to know something about a movie or whether or not Grant Morrison's run on Justice League of America was any good or what the coolest figure in Aztec mythology was, Mike was a good source of information. He knew a lot about local history--if you needed to know where something in town was, he could usually tell you, but only after he'd first let you know what it used to be, and when it was built, and what was across the street. And it wasn't that he was trying to sound like a show-off; he just wanted to share what he knew.

The temptation, in these sorts of situations, is to try to paint the sunniest possible picture of the person, but I've always felt that overplaying someone's virtues is as dishonest as harping on their faults. Mike had his problems, like anyone else: he could be overly dour, and there was something in his demeanor that suggested a kind of haughtiness that was largely nonexistent, but I could never fault anyone who assumed on first meeting him (as I did) that he had an arrogance about him. But he was also incredibly thoughtful and generous: he went to California last summer and upon returning, he presented me with a book he'd bought—it wasn't a huge gesture, but it was entirely unexpected, and oddly touching.

I remember the last time I saw him, three days before he died. We were at Charlotte's house, and it was time to go home. It was late, but I was still very much awake. Mike seemed to be lingering, as if he didn't want to go. I thought I would drag my heels a bit, too, and see if he was up for something. But in the end I went on downstairs to my my car ahead of him. I still sat and waited, though, thinking he might stop when he saw that I was still there.

But he didn't. I watched in the side-view mirror as he walked to his car, then started my own and drove home. It's the last living memory I have of him, a tiny figure haloed with frost, moving across the face of a mirror and then off into darkness.

And I regret that I didn't stop him, didn't ask him if he wanted to hang out or watch a movie. I regret that I didn't get to talk to him one last time. These are regrets that are common to everyone who knew Mike. He was someone you were always happy to see on your doorstep, and always sad to see go. I never had a bad time when Mike was around.

When I got the news I didn't believe it. On a purely rational, reasoning level I did; I knew it was true. But there was a completely irrational voice underneath that was insisting that it was a mistake—Mike might be hurt, or in the hospital, or they thought he was dead, but everything would be cleared up, the facts would be made clear, and we'd all feel stupid for making such a foolish assumption. This, of course, was wrong. We pulled up to his house in time to see them wheeling the body away. It was a fucking horrifying sight, but even then, deep down, there was a desire to refuse to accept reality.

A few months before, Mike and I watched Gonzo, the Hunter S. Thompson documentary, and we left the theater discussing how massively Thompson had failed himself—first abandoning his talents and then, when the will to fight became too much for him, abandoning his own life. Thompson didn't have the heart to get old and keep kicking ass, but Mike did, which makes his death all the more senseless and tragic. He had so much more work to do, and so much more fun to have, and so much more life to live.

He is dead, but only in the most meaningless sense of the word. Death doesn't even begin to stand a chance against a person like Mike. None of us knew him as long or as well as we would have liked, but all of us are better for the time spent with him, and worse for all the time we will, for the rest of our own lives, be without.

"He smoothed his clothes and calmly stepped through the door, emerging from years of depression, uncertainty, and chaos, and into a world of gleaming hope. He strutted the few short steps to his car, fresh and glad, and drove away knowing that at that moment he was perfect."
--Mike Schwalke


  1. Grasshopper...another way of looking at HST is not so much a turning a burning out from TOO much of EVERYTHING...and don't be too cocky about turning the switch off...double your age and start to feel pain in your knees/hips/back/shoulders/hands/guts/heart.... and do THAT for TEN years...and realize it is NEVER going to get better...and the drugs WON'T kick in any more..and youv'e slayed most of the dragons worth slaying....and the new generation of swine seem SOOOO transparent and pitiable.....
    Death in ANY form leaves pain behind...and no matter how much we say that people live on in our hearts...the fact of the matter is they are GONE...NEVERmore...and it DOESN"T get's a pisser, eh? ONLY thing you can do is try to think about those people you know like/unlike Mike who are important to you and make sure you DO wait for them, and you DO talk to them, and you DO laugh with them, and you DO let them into your heart....knowing that it will KILL you if they die on you...yes, friend the solution to your predicament is....wait for it....BE ITALIAN!!
    Keep on chooglin'!

  2. I think you misunderstand: I wasn't really targeting HST personally--he remains, for the most part, a big hero of mine. I just used him as an example of someone who completely threw away his life when it got a little bit too hard to handle. I'm not saying suicide is never viable, just that his kind of suicide was wasteful and selfish. And I have no real illusion about my friend being "in a better place" or any of that. He's just dead, and will stay that way, which is what makes him being gone so utterly shitty.