When I was in high school, I worked at a leather store; not the type of leather store you find in a strip mall, but a family owned, first generation, hands-on business. The owner was a transplant from the East Coast that had a running commentary on politics, attended jazz concerts and often waned semi philosophical with clients. His store offered an eclectic mix of hippyesque leather goods such as hand carved leather belts, Indian moccasins and fringe leather jackets, as well as luxurious lamb’s skin leather mini skirts, full length fur coats and hip bomber jackets. Racks of stylish leather hand bags, wallets and hats filled every last bit of space. Somehow, these items created a cohesive collection, which fit the upscale name, First Street Leather.
In the morning when I opened the store, the intoxicating smell of leather filled my senses, confirming that I had stepped into a world of perceived luxury. Over time, I learned to accurately size someone up when they walked in the door–not in a sense of casting judgment, but in knowing that this particular man wore a size forty-four coat, that woman most likely a size seven boot. I learned to speak confidently with strangers, no matter their walk of life, and to refrain from judging a book by its cover–a skill that has proven surprisingly useful throughout life. For example, the rough and tumble man in black leather biker chaps with a red bandana tying back his long, windblown hair was just as likely to pull out a thick roll of hundred-dollar bills to purchase a fur coat for his babe, or go sentimental over his child, as was the man in the tweed jacket and corduroys.
But what proved more poignant were two other concepts I was introduced to by the owner of First Street Leather: that activism is for everyone and that life is short. Activism in those days required a bit more hands-on work. Like actually writing a letter. On several occasions when it was slow, he had me hand address envelopes to leader’s of other nations.
“You’ll need to do this one over.” I must have sighed out loud in a way only a teenager can, because he went on to explain why exactness was in this case so important; “When you’re writing the President of Sri Lanka to voice concerns over human rights in his country, you can’t make a mistake in the spelling of his name. Otherwise, he won’t take you seriously.” Indeed, I had misspelled the last name of then-President of Sri Lanka, Junius Richard Jayewardene.
My boss was also outspoken. One time, when a woman passed him doing 80 on a windy country road, he followed her for 20 minutes until she pulled over, verbally chastising her driving style. Nevermind that he had to copy her dangerous driving to catch up with her. I had no intention of emulating his style of standing up for what you believe in, but the lesson was clear; speaking up for what you believe in is not something you can do from the sidelines. It takes commitment and decisiveness, and not everyone will be pleased with you along the way.
The other lesson I learned from him was that people sometimes go before their time. He had just turned forty, and suddenly friends of his started to die; friends in the middle of successful careers, friends with young families, friends who had been in perfect health one day, and were suddenly gone the next. I could see that my boss was still fit, quick of wit and very capable, but at the time, forty sounded ancient to me. I was, after all, of the invincible age of sixteen and had more than two and a half decades to go before I’d be so darned old.
But what struck me was the melancholy that settled over him as he mourned his friends, and how uncomfortable it made me feel. He was my boss–someone who I expected to always be strong, decisive and right. It seemed that with each friend’s passing, he probed the holes that suddenly existed in his web of life connections–connections that had played a role in forming who he was. Perhaps he felt his own mortality. And no matter how vital and strong you are in daily life, you become vulnerable if you probe such darkness–especially if you don’t believe in a happy afterlife. Although there were two tragic deaths of fellow schoolmates during my high school years, they were shocks that startled me. And although I may have contemplated how short life could be, it did not stick with me.
Now that I’ve reached the ripe old age of forty something, his melancholy comes back to me in a wave. Friends and acquaintances of mine have made the journey to the other side, and thus far I’ve received no postcards telling me how it is over there. Watching the news is a daily reminder of just how short life is. Yet it really hits home when someone from your youth, a thread to your vibrant beginnings, passes away. Especially if it is before their time. Such is the case with former classmate Kim Denuzzo. Although we were not close in high school, she was this positive force in our class–always friendly, upbeat. I went on Facebook to peruse what was up with my friends, and discovered that Kim had suddenly passed away–in the middle of her life, leaving behind her family. Saturday October 6th was her memorial.
And so it begins. She is not the first in my life to pass away. There have been many. And I know, being the mortal humans that we are, that the numbers will only increase. But what is comforting is the faith she had, and the solid feeling that comes to me that her rich life energy is celebrating somewhere else. Faith can make all the difference for those left behind as well. If you believe you will see Kim again, or your friend, father, grandmother, whoever it may be, the blow still comes, but is softened with such eternal hope.
And what else happened on October 6th? Two new friends of ours, also vibrant life forces, got married. And somewhere in the world, babies were born, someone made love for the first time, someone ended their marriage, another got his dream job, yet another received an extension on life through a transplant, and so forth and so on. I suppose these musings are also a part of melancholy. But to explore life’s processes in earnest is not a form of weakness as I thought in my youth. It’s about gaining strength that will carry you forward in life.