On Tuesday night, I got a call to tell me that Rob, one of my oldest and dearest friends, is gone.
I met him sometime directly after leaving college–I’d estimate 1995 or thereabouts. My memory of those years is hazy and I didn’t have a weblog to help me remember events. One of my roommates started dating a girl and later moved in with her. She was renting a room from Rob in a huge house on the northeast side of Patterson Park, and our crew of friends found ourselves there at parties almost all the time. It became the center of our social world for several years.
Rob was a little older than the rest of us, but was generous and funny and had a spirit that was half Cub Scout Leader and half juvenile delinquent. He had been a Marine for several years, was discharged honorably, and had a real job as a mechanic for the DC Metro. As I got to know him, I immediately knew he was more than just a mechanic. He had a passion for art, music, and culture. He had a subscription to the symphony. Living with a bunch of art-school graduates, he bought our work and our friends’ work, and was proud to hang it in his house. He dressed better than any other man I’ve ever met. He was always reading, always asking questions, always thinking, always making himself better in some way. I called him the Renaissance Marine. He inspired me to think beyond what I knew, to challenge myself, and to find ways to make my life better.
Early on as we got to know each other he pitched a business idea to me, and I created a bunch of artwork for him to use, working with the primitive technology available to me at my first job. We sold his merchandise for a couple of years at festivals and events, and while we didn’t get rich, we had a great time and built our friendship.
He taught me how to mountain bike. Not just how to climb a hill and ride slowly back down; in his prime, he was fearless. He’d lived in California for years, and was experienced on the higher, tougher trails of the West Coast. He was shorter and more compact in stature than me, but built solid from years of lifting weights on his breaks at Metro. With a lower center of gravity, he attacked steep cliffs and switchbacks with equal parts technical skill and reckless abandon. I followed his lines and tried to keep up with him. For a few solid summers, when we both lived in the city and enjoyed free time, we were riding twice a week and once on weekends. As I followed him and listened to his advice, I got better. As I got better, we sought out bigger hills to ride, and it got to the point where I could throw myself down a slope and keep up without thinking about it.
He showed me how to throw a classy, exciting, and memorable bachelor party without limos and strippers and blackout arrests: by organizing a kayaking trip down the Shenandoah river for about 20 guys ending with a riverside barbecue, camping, and drinking under the stars. His toast was on point, his food was delicious, and the liquor he brought was top-shelf. By setting the tone of the day, and carefully orchestrating the activities, he kept things friendly, safe, and inclusive.
As I got serious about my girlfriend at the time, I looked at buying a house in the city and found a house in Canton, which was directly across the park from his place. A few years later he and Karean sold their house by the park and found a place blocks away from mine closer to the square in Canton.
When he and Karean married, they had a lovely DIY ceremony in a restaurant in Canton, and asked me to shoot pictures of the ceremony. With my limited skills and equipment I did the best I could, but I was just happy to be part of the day. Looking back on this, I see it as sort of the high-water mark of the group of our friends; in the years directly after we all started scattering to distant cities and states. Soon after this I split up with my girlfriend, but the three of us stayed close.
Time passed, and I met Jen. He and Karean welcomed her into their lives and our friendship grew. The four of us made time to get together for dinner and trips even as we made plans to move out of the city. As Jen and I got serious about getting married, I asked him to be the best man at my wedding. Here again, he organized a quiet, classy, fantastic bachelor dinner. With his typical class and grace, he outshone me in all of the pictures (served me right for asking such a photogenic man to be in my wedding), understood and leapt into action when I realized I’d left the rings on the shelf in our hallway (the church was down the street so the problem was a minor one), and stood beside me as I asked Jen to be my wife. Once again, his toast was on point.
Later that year, when our friends Matt and Sophie got married, we all flew out to San Francisco for an epic wedding and the four of us spent a couple of days kicking around the city together.
We got together to visit new restaurants, explore the Eastern Shore, and spend time together. The time between our calls got longer but we still got together and kept in touch–in no small part due to Jen and Karean. When Jen and I found out she was pregnant, they were some of the first friends we shared the news with, and some of the first people to meet her besides our family. Not long after that, we found out they were expecting too.
As our kids grew, we made a point of getting together more, both for the adults and for the kids. Dinners, concerts, Wildkratts, and day trips over the Bay Bridge. In 2014 we planned our vacation together and found a house in Delaware to rent. For an idyllic week we hung out on the beach, watched the kids play together, and ate guacamole.
Somewhere in that week, as the kids played in the surf, he told us how much the vacation–and our friendship–meant to the two of them. He asked if it was OK with us for Zachary to call us Uncle Bill and Aunt Jen, and we were honored. It was a natural extension of our friendship–we thought of each other as family.
This year I planned early and had a beach house located and rented by March. We were all looking forward to our week together. I don’t know what happened. I don’t have details, and if I did I wouldn’t share them here anyway. I do know that part of my family is gone, and I’m still dealing with that reality.
I spent time on the phone Saturday with a select group of old friends to let them know what happened, and found myself trading stories and photos via text until about 10PM. Part of that time I was down in the basement going through my print photos and another part was spent in my Amazon Prime archives pulling photos together.
I will miss his humor. I’ll miss his quiet intelligence, his advice, and easygoing warmth. I’m going to miss growing old with him, like we joked about–two old farts sitting on a porch drinking beers together. I’ve got a hole in my heart where he should be.