Based on journals from 1/15/2002 to 1/28/2002
In January, 2002, I mailed a Christmas card to John Telson in just after New Years Day, on a whim.
I used an internet search to find an old address for him in a nearby town and hoped I could reconnect with him.
Perhaps 9/11 had hit me harder than I even thought, and the death of George Harrison, after which came my mother’s death. I felt nostalgic for that relatively innocent time during the mid-1970s when hope still bloomed in me, if not in the country.
After working with him for almost five years, I last saw him in the Spring of 1980 after his return from California.
I knew nothing of his pending divorce.
I recognized his olive-colored van that had been his pride since its purchase some years before.
I paused in my jog along River Drive in Garfield, and he pulled over. But he seemed remote
We had gone through some pretty steep emotional moments since starting to work together in 1975 and he seemed a little shy about risking yet one more such encounter and merely told me he was doing well – when he was not.
No such shyness affected his voice 20 years later when he called me after receiving my card, though I struggled to hear his weak voice over the phone with the busy news room going on around me.
I was pressed for time or I might have asked more about his activities over the long years since we had last met.
I did learn that he now lived with his parents again after a series of very serious illnesses. He had even suffered through a triple-bypass heart surgery, testimony to his bad died, action to cigarettes and constant drinking.
In 1976, his claim to
have quit smoking caused me to quit as well, and only a blurt from his sister
at the supper table one night disclosed his deception.
He told me over the phone that he had only returned to work a few weeks earlier, employed by Burns as a security guard – a role he seemed destined to play from the moment I met him. He loved war games and military models, and fit the stereotype of a macho American male, except that he really wasn’t macho at all.
His frail shape always denied him credibility and he seem more suited to becoming an artist than a cop or a truck driver.
John once confided in me of his desire to be a history teacher, but his upbringing in a working class family seemed to keep him from boasting about his dreams to anyone but me.
His voice on the telephone had the same dull toned I heard in the voices of men who had failed to live up to their dreams. Yet he seemed thrilled to have heard from me and had tried to reach me at my work number on Saturday in his rush to contact me.
I suggested we meet for lunch so as to better rehash the past.
Except for the goatee, John looked almost exactly like another friend who I had seen near death’s door: the same frail frame, the same bald head, the same intense look of suffering paintings of midlevel monks often portray.
If I had expected comfort after losing my mother two weeks earlier, I got none from his look of despair, and seeing him like this, only added to my sense of loss and my inability to make sense of this idiocy we called life.
Seeing John did nothing to dispel this mood except to recall times when we were still young enough to dream.
Outside of nagging problems with my teeth and a troublesome back, my life had largely been something akin to Dorian Gray with me holding onto portraits of people I knew from when I knew them, none of them ever aging, growing sick or unhappy beyond when I last saw them.
And if I saw them as the same, then I did not see myself as aging, looking out from the inside without an honest mirror to suggest that I was anything other than the person I was when I was 24 or 25.
But as of late, and with the events that had taken place over the previous few months, the horror of my growing old hit me – with John as one more blow to my illusion.
We met at a restaurant in East Rutherford that locals called “The Wick,” The Candlewick Dinner on Paterson Plank Road which had been John’s hangout growing up, and a place I had frequented for a time when I had dated a woman from Rutherford. For a time I had lived only two blocks from the place after marrying for the second time, passing it daily without going in. But John had lived his whole life within sight of the place and had continued to haunt it. From its side door he could have tossed a stone and hit the church where he’d married in the late 1970s.
As with most meetings I covered as a reporter, I showed up early and sat in my car listening to old Beatles songs in the restaurant parking lot, challenging myself to recognize him if and when he appeared.
I guessed wrong a dozen times before I saw the 1994 Chevy pull into the lot. Once seeing him, I realized I could not have mistaken him for anybody else. All his features were essentially unchanged from the last time I’d seen him on River Drive in Garfield, except he looked older and sickly, as if he had managed to cram additional decades into those between when we last saw each other. He was already dying as he walked towards me across the lot.
Born on Nov. 24, 1953, John was close to me in age, but seemed a lot younger and less experienced that these of us.
He was part of that mass movement of Blue Collar Americans that the Right Wing would later call “the silent majority,” of a kind who were old enough to have lived through the 1960s, but never evolved out of their 1950s mentality and thus reverted to that 1950s mentality once the 1960s faded, and became Reagan Democrats when the time came for the back lash against social reform.
Although the baby boom didn’t officially end until about 1963, the most radical of our generation were born between the end of World War II and 1950, since this was the age group that was most likely to face being drafted into the most violent part of the Vietnam War.
By the time John reached draft age, the war was winding down, and a lottery system had replaced wholesale kidnapping of kids for the war.
John’s father and grandfather both worked largely for themselves, self made men who set a pattern of expectation that John apparently couldn’t live up to – even to the point where he could not or would lot get into the military.
When he came into the warehouse in 1975, he seemed very young to me, even though he tried to pretend he was tougher than he was.
Seeing him again in early 2002, he struck me with the same sense of inexperience combined with missed opportunities. John seemed to have gone through the motions of living, but had failed to derive from them any sense of experience most other people would have obtained. Despite disease, divorce and personal misfortunes, John seemed as naïve in 2002 as he had been in 1975, as if he had spent the additional years living in a bubble.
While he was no longer protect as he once was, he failed to comprehend the significant to early events he’d experience or learned much from the pain he had suffered.
He was the same confused man sitting across the table from me as he was when I first saw him, just as puzzled over life as he had been, and again looking to me to supply him with answers only he could supply
This unchanging innocence was the thing that first drew me to him, and eventually made his company unbearable, when as a younger man; I failed to understand how some people grew from their troubles while others like John slowly wilted under them without every comprehending as to why.
In one of those twisted coincidences life seems to dump on people from time to time, my card to John arrived at his house in the same week that he learned that his wife intended to move back to New Jersey.
Both events surprised John, even though he claimed to have a “good and open relationship” with his ex-wife, Eva – proving that to the end when it came to women, John remained an absolute sucker.
I couldn’t recall when he met Eva, only that she had latched onto him as some point following his graduation from high school, and that he was as shocked as anyone to learn that he had suddenly been caught up in a relationship.
At one point, when we worked at Cosmetics Plus, John me another woman to whom he was extremely attractive, and who treated him with the respect he deserved. Torn between the woman who manipulated him and the one he was extremely attract to, John actually asked my advice, and I told him to dump Eva.
A week later, John informed me of his engagement to Eva and even invited me to the wedding held in Hasbrouck Heights at a Church about a mile north of The Wick.
Unkind fellow workers claimed Eva looked like a fish – which as I recall was a pretty accurate description of her. Worse, she had a personality to match her looks.
Unfortunately, when John pulled out a photograph of his daughter, I mistook her for his ex-wife.
At the time, his daughter was attending graduate school in Boston, and he said he was to see her shortly.
This may have explained Eva’s return to East Rutherford.
She had given him little warning, he said, and suggested that she feared he might run away before she arrived.
All I could think of as I sat with him in the diner was the memory of how confused he looked on the alter that day nearly 25 years earlier when he got married and how she had to nudge him with her elbow to say “I do.”
In mid-to-late 1977, John and I had something of a falling out, when I accused him to selling out to management.
He was kissing Donald’s ass in order to hop over me and take my place as assistant manager for the warehouse – a position I clung to even as I felt the urgency to leave the company before I became trapped there like Stanley.
But even at the time, I sensed that John’s actions were something born out of desperation.
Faced with the prospect of an unhappy married and no real career, he sought to follow in Stanley’s footsteps and find a permanent position, even if it meant that he would be packing boxes the rest of his life.
Part of what Donald wanted was for John to point out and report on all the trouble makers in the warehouse, the biggest of which was me.
After nearly four years working in the warehouse, I had reached the limit of the job, and unlike John, I did not wish to get trapped in it the way Stanley was.
I was unhappy and saw no easy way to escape. I lacked courage to simply walk away from the job. In the past, jobs had mostly abandoned me, either by dumping me out or collapsing around me the way the card company had.
But Donald was too shrewd a business man for the business to fail. Even when parts of it faltered, he found a way to make money. Things were going good, and worse, Donald seemed determined to keep me, the way he kept Stanley.
Capitalism feeds on workers’ desperation to keep their jobs, using them until their either grow accustomed to their misery or walk away.
I became a morale problem, which not only affected my work, but the work of those around me. I nearly constantly badmouthed management in a nearly constant personal revolution that could have no positive outcome.
I kept trying to turn other people against Donald and management, and eventually I committed an utter act of betrayal in an attempt to bring down the company on the feeble excuse that Donald had abused a fellow worker—which I still believe he had, but my actions were out of proportion to his sin.
Years later I realized just how mistaken I was.
John did not understand it at all – although strangely, he later praised me for it, mistaking me for some kind of hero.
Just when John started reporting to Donald about my activities, I’m still not certain, and I did not bring it up at our lunch meeting.
But I caught on to John’s activity by accident on day when I was putting away some boxes in the warehouse ladies room we used for storage because no women worked in that part of the building.
I heard voices through the wall – on the other side of which was Donald’s inner sanctum, and one of those voices was John’s.
I didn’t hear precisely what he said, but the fact that he was there at all startled me, and from that point on, every time he vanished from the warehouse, I headed to the storage room, eventually configuring a way to hear a mumbled version of what transpired – John testifying to mine and other workers’ transgressions.
Why Donald didn’t use this information to fire me I may never know.
As much as I came to fear and distrust him, Donald appeared to genuinely like me.
He seemed to like the company of men – perhaps because he struggled so much to overcome the dominating women in his life: mother and wife, as well as other female family members.
I suspected that half the reason Donald seemed so furious was a direct reaction to how helpless he felt in the rest of his life – and perhaps why he so abused Michele, the woman from the outlet, which led eventually to the final rebellion that forced him to fire me.
Years later, I realized that we were all damaged people working in that warehouse from Donald all the way down to the newest employee, many of us struggling to somehow come to grips with our private lives, some of which had to do with women and sex. And I was the most damaged of them all, full of rage I had no way to express -- so I took it out on John.
During those years working together at Cosmetics Plus, John and I lived strange double lives, enemies sometimes by day, and remarkably close friends after work.
It was during this private association that I got glimpses of the more vulnerable John, and on occasion, came into contact with other people in his life, friends that had helped him survive high school, his family, and some of his other off hour recreation activities, and how I met his future wife, Eva.
Although not particularly gifted in handling electronic devices, John spent much of his high school time in the audio-visual department. Here he developed some friendships that last until his death, and gave him a position of authority that raised his status above other people the cool kids called geeks. It also gave him a place to hide away from the worst abuse the jocks and cool kids handed out, since no jock or cool kid would be caught dead in with the projectors and other such equipment.
Unlike most of his friends, who attended trade school or college, John kicked around at his father’s trucking firm until he found it intolerable and eventually applied to Cosmetic Plus when Donald advertised for a drive.
He kept in touch with his old friends, some of whom became members of his bowling team that jockeyed from Wallington Lanes to lanes as far away as Springfield. John tried to get me involved in this, but I had nothing in common with his friends and discovered that the competition was largely an excuse to drink beer and ogle the pretty girls playing in the other lanes, girls they all knew they could never have.
Before the hostilities escalated at work, I was a welcome guest as John’s family’s house, where I got to meet his brother and sisters. During our lunch twenty five years later, John gave me a quick update on these family members, whose faces were vague at best.
I remember John’s brother as being a moody soul, one of those frustrated men of talent who found no support for his frivolous exploits in a very practical-minded family – who eventually broke contact with that family over some joke they made at his wife’s expense.
I remember one sister being a home body and another a flirt, the first working on a second marriage now with the second set of kids, while the second sister suffered through a string of unsatisfactory lovers, the latest of which John said she would soon dump in favor of some new man.
I remembered her flirting with me over the supper table and how she accidentally uncovered John’s secret when he pretended to have quit smoking (telling us all this at work) when he really had not – although this motivated me to quit – a gift from John I will always remember.
Seeing John 25 years or so after my first meeting him, I was struck by how trapped he had become in his own life and how dissatisfied the world was with him, despite his attempts to make everyone around him happy: his father, his mother, wife, boss, even me. We all pressed him to do things and he did them, and no one, lease of all John, was happy.
When his father demanded John get a real job, John gave up his dream of becoming a teacher to buckle down and work with his father, when that didn’t work out, John went to a series of other jobs that included warehouses, bartending, short order cook, even security guard. When his girlfriend, Eva, demanded that he make love to her somewhere other than the back of his van, he begged for use of my bedroom in Passaic, then suffered criticism from her for making her look like a whore in front of his friends.
If John ever stood up to anyone, I heard nothing about it – except in one particular moment when he wanted to prove to me that he could be a rebel, too, somehow turning revolution into a kind of conformity.
Considering all the abuse I heaped on him, John should never have gotten me a job at his new place, Wine Imports of America after I got fired from Cosmetics Plus, but he did.
Although as much as a trap as the previous job, the new place introduced me to a remarkable group of characters, all of whom were losers like me and John, coming to this place because this was the last place on the planet that would have them.
For the most part I hardly saw John except during change of shifts or during breaks. But even then, he tended to blend into the background other people, characters such as Cowboy or Cosmov or Ronnie or Roger, men whose pasts warranted arrest, who worked like horses and drank enough to drown one, yet who crumbled when the owner and the union rep conspired to violate their union contract, at which point I picked up my pen again and wrote to the head of the union, only to later get fired.
John caught up with me in the parking lot, and pulled me aside.
“When I worked with you at the other place, I thought you were a trouble maker,” he said. “But now I know better. Now I realize you are all that’s left of the 1960s.”
It was a remarkable moment for the both of us, and one both of us would carry to the grave, even though we met only twice, once a short time after this, and then more than 20 years later at The Wick.
If John thought Wine Imports would provide him with the long-sought-after career, he was soon disappointed. The company closed not long later at which point his wife Eva decided they had to move to California
But before they could go, John came down with hotchkins disease.
While the treatments were successful, they led to later heath problems, and in the subsequent decade, he would suffer through surgery for other intestinal ailments as well, leading up to the final and more terrifying procedure, a triple bypass on his heart in August, 2001.
Over the last two decades of his life, John worked a variety of jobs, some of which lasted long than Cosmetics Plus or Wine Imports of American, but none which supplied the same sense of hope he had during those job. It was as if he knew no job would fill the empty space inside of him, a space that seemed to expand over time as his family scattered and his wife divorced him.
In 1985, John moved back to New Jersey from California.
But Eva refused to come back, remaining on the West Coast with their new born daughter.
In John’s life, the one constant had always been his family home in Moonachie, while full of conservative principles and stern scolding, he was always welcome there.
This was true this time, too, as his parents found a place for him.
There he picked up his life as he had left it, falling into the old routines even though his brother and sisters had long gone.
He felt like an only child.
In 2000, he went back to Cosmetics Plus asking for a job.
But if he had hoped to pick up where he had left off in the 1970s or find the people there the same, John was again disappointed.
He said Stan – the warehouse manager we both admired – had fallen onto hard times.
The growing use of alcohol Stan had started to help ease the tension of a tough job had become an debilitating habit – and according to John during our lunch at The Wick, Stan had suffered some serious trouble during the 1990s, which apparently got significantly worse with the death of his wife, Diana, at their home in Lake Hopatcong in 1999,
“Stan had just come back to the warehouse after some treatment,” John said. “But Donald didn’t give him back his job as warehouse manager – He gave him your job.”
This meaning the assistant manager job Donald had dangled in front of me, John and Cliff, how ironic.
For John, life just got steadily tougher. Without a steady job, insurance was hard to come buy, and though he still had a job to go back to at Burns Security after his by pass surgery, he found himself deep in debt.
“I look at the bills and laugh,” he said. “I’ll never be able to pay them, not in a million years.”
John said even his parents were on the verge of abandoning him.
“They’re getting ready to retire to south Jersey,” he said.
This would leave him homeless and he had vague plans to move north to Boston where he daughter attended school. But he didn’t know what he would do for a living when he got there. He had no way of knowing that by the end of the year, a few days before John’s 49th birthday, his father would pass away.
After our lunch, we shook hands and made our way out to our cars. He sat in his for a while without started it, and waved as I pulled out of the parking lot, -- me just one more ghost from the past moving through his life again, a ghost who had at some point contributed to his doom.
What if I had left him in peace back at Cosmetics Plus? Would his life have turned out any better?
Who can say?