Paint your palette blue and gray
— the prophet don mclean
I think I saw Herman today. You know him.
OK, you don’t. But you know someone like him. Or you should.
I was coming off a day of searching with Mo for the Virgin de Guadalupe and cat murals in small mining towns in the hills outside of Phoenix. Mo sometimes gets these hankerings, and I am scared of her. The trip ended in a close call. I mocked the virgin Mary on social media, and a half hour later, at a small shrine in which she’s the centerpiece, the car wouldn’t start. I checked, and she’s not a Facebook friend, so I have no idea how she found out.
But Mo, who is a much better mechanic than I am, grabbed a pair of pliers, popped the hood, and started whacking on the engine. “This is how we did it in Venezuela,” she exclaimed. A bit psychotic, but she was hungry and on the verge of being denied Mexican food. After a handful of whacks, I humored her by turning the key. And it started. We hobbled back toward the Big City, stopping at the midway town for enchiladas. Because if you’re going to be stranded, do it on a full belly. For the record, no cat murals. You probably had to be there.
So I was emotionally drained by the time I went out for my evening saunter. Mo goes to a pottery class at our old stomping grounds on Mondays, so while she does pot, I stomp. I run a loop around a couple of blocks in downtown Mesa. It’s repeats of a half mile, mile or 2 miles, depending on how many homeless guys are camped out and their moods. There’s the arts center, a Subway, the piano lady, the inconvenience store/halfway house, a couple of bars, a pizza joint, a boxing school, a bunch of statues. And my old newspaper.
I spent 25 years, more than half of my adult life, at this place that I stumbled into by accident when a fistfight with the news editor in Austin led to my hasty exit. We busted deadlines, had snowball fights amid the computers (yes, I killed one and got lectured), won a Pulitzer, got sold, had a grapefruit fight amid the computers (yes, I killed one and got lectured), made the world a better place, got sold again, and eventually got shut down. It’s the only place I’ve ever been violently kicked in the groin. Nobody said journalism was easy. I have so many memories there.
One of them is Herman.
He was our custodian forever. He marched to a different drummer, or possibly an entire band. A nice guy in an off-speed pitch kind of way. Always wore huge headphones while listening to music from a huge cassette Walkman at 200 decibels. Rode an old upright bike with a basket. Backpack. Hard worker, dependable. Invisible.
I never talked to him much. I never talk to anybody much. But I’d say hello and he wouldn’t hear me so I’d wave and he’d wave back and he never hit me with the big trash can. What more could you ask than that?
He worked there for a lot of years. He was part of the fabric of the newspaper, someone you took for granted like the presses and the coffee machine and the crabby guy in the lobby who didn’t get the comics in his Sunday paper. He would pull into work the same time as me on that old bike. Left the same time as me with his awkwardly fitting helmet and blazing headlight on the handlebars. I thought we’d be doing that forever.
Then one evening, he killed himself.
It’s romantic when an artist commits suicide. Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, Taylor Swift — it feels like some sort of grand statement, a final act before taking a bow. But when a normal guy kills himself, he’s just dead.
Was there something I could do? I guess not. Sometimes things just happen. But it left a void in the collective heart of our newspaper. He was family.
They made a plaque for him and mounted it on the short brick wall that was built in front of the lobby after a guy stole a school bus and drove it into the lobby one evening to express his opinion of our choice of the previous day’s front-page photo. It was a lovely plaque, with his name, date of birth and death, and a bicycle. A fitting memorial.
Running by today, I saw this.
It’ s a bit of cement left where the plaque used to reside. The place is some sort of state agency now. I don’t know if our guys took it as the last lifeboats pulled away, or if the new guys said whatever and tossed it. I guess it doesn’t matter. Nothing lasts forever.
I’ve run by this spot a lot since we came back, but this was the first time I had thought about the plaque. And that’s the best thing about running. Your brain has a million channels and not much to do. So I spent the next 45 minutes thinking about Herman. How goofy he could be, in the best possible way. How you could hear that music coming from way down the hall. His dedication. And that bike. The newspaper is gone now, but the memories are still there. So is Herman.
As I was coming down the back stretch a couple of miles later on a dark part of Main, a bike came suddenly out of an alley. I was blinded by a huge headlight. As I instinctively jumped, I saw the bike. It had a basket. Old guy, long beard. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to hit you,” he said.
Was that him? I don’t know. Depending on your religion or philosophy and your belief in the power of the spirit and mind, maybe. Just in case, I wanted to tell him I was sorry we didn’t talk more. And that I was glad he was part of my life. And that I hope he’s OK, wherever he is. But I just waved and smiled. Did I mention I’m not much for talking?
I finished my 3.5 miles, wondered again why the hell I signed up for a 5K this weekend, and waited for Mo. It was a warm Arizona night. I felt happy. It’s always good to run with a friend.
You know a Herman. Maybe take a moment today and tell him hello.
And yes, we found the Virgin de Guadalupe. And sat on her. Our car is never going to work right again. Thankfully I’m married to a mechanic …