Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Till Death When I Part

I can only hope my obituary does me justice.

After all, I'm out here, actively trying to live the kind of interesting life that will inspire someone to weave a seductive historical spell describing me after I've kicked the bucket. That I may live long enough that my obituary will only show up online because newspapers will be long gone is just a tragedy.

Unlike a lot of people, I don't have any quarrel with Mondays. They're just as likely to be fun days as nose-to-the-grindstone days since I work for myself, but today's started off strangely because the power went out. That may not sound like a big deal, but in 11 years of living in Jackson Ward, I think I've lost power twice. We're spoiled that way here.

Then there was the little matter of the weather. Intellectually, I knew that after last night's rain it would turn cooler - I even closed all but one of my bedroom windows last night - but emotionally, I wasn't ready for a high today of 63 after yesterday's glorious 80 degrees.

That meant swapping out yesterday's shorts and t-shirt for a wool dress, leggings, a jean jacket and a scarf when it came time to head out. Wool, for crying out loud because it's going down to 46 tonight.

Starving after a day that had been busy physically and professionally, I walked over to Asado only to find the bar looking full. Reluctant to waste a table on just me, the bartender pointed out a lone stool wedged unseen between lively happy hour revelers.

Immediately the guy at the end of the bar greeted me, asking how come I hadn't walked past his nearby barber shop lately. I told him my walks usually lead me to the river these days, causing the guy next to me to ask if I was talking to him. Nope.

"Well, you don't have to be snippy about it," he joked, then pivoted. "Do you know what Skunk Works are?" Um, nope.

He went on to explain that it was the code name for some revolutionary aircraft program and he was asking people because he was curious if they knew where their tax dollars were going. Clearly, I didn't, but I also discovered that the only reason he knew was because of a sister in the Air Force.

Just as he was introducing himself as Charles, sirens began wailing and lights flashing just outside the restaurant, so we turned around to see two ambulances had pulled up to deal with an accident that had just happened at Laurel and Broad. Some people flocked to the windows to watch, but I had no desire to see strangers put on stretchers.

Meanwhile, Charles is showing me a photo of an SR 71 Blackbird (which meant nothing to an aircraft imbecile like myself) and explaining that he's an accountant by day and a tutor in math, accounting and economics by night, which is why he's at this bar in the middle of campus.

Although he and his buddy have obviously been enjoying happy hour beverages for a while, he assures me his compromised state will not be an issue when he begins tutoring in 15 minutes. Since he had just explained to me that the reason he has a second job is because he's in that 1% who are allergic to most medications (so he needs to save for the expensive drugs he'll need if he gets sick), I raised my glass to his health, minus the affection for alcohol.

He wasn't even out the door before some of his friends took their seats and began discussing itemizing on their income tax. The bartender looked at me and wondered aloud if I thought that was as boring a topic for a bar as she did (hell, yes) and one of them overheard us and ended the discussion.

The one next to me had on an Edo's Squid t-shirt (he lives right behind it) and frequently walks the Northbank Trail. His buddy was in the process of moving to the city from Mosely (kill me now) and he was worried he'd miss all that Chesterfield County outdoors.

I reminded him that we have a whole riverfront to help with that. Then I shared a couple of my routes with the walker, who thanked me, saying the Northbank had gotten stale after walking it so long.

I'm just here to help.

When my honey sriracha grilled shrimp tacos showed up, the bartender said that they were her favorite, causing the pretty young thing busy doing shots of rail tequila with a beard, to pause, lime wedge in hand, and announce, "They're my favorite, too!"

Now that there was a consensus, I could chow down. By the time I finally said sayonara to my fellow bar sitters and left, I passed three cop cars still blocking Laurel entirely as I made my way to the VCU Student Commons Theater.

The Society of Professional Journalists was showing the award-winning documentary, "Obit," the story of the New York Times obituary-writing department, something other papers don't have. That's right, a documentary about the people making a living writing about death.

Except, as they pointed out so eloquently, the death part of an obit is generally two sentences and the entire rest of the article - whether 500 words or 1,000 words and 15,000 if you're the Pope - about the most interesting parts of the deceased's life.

It's a huge amount of research to track down and talk to those close to the departed (now and in the past) and try to locate as much background information as possible in a single day. Then they've got to write it up in a pithy and compelling way.

In order for The Times to deem someone worthy of an obit, the person has to have made some sort of impact, whether it was Brezhnev or the creator of the Slinky.

The obit game-changer came in 2012 with a piece about the death of John Fairfax, a handsome adventurer who'd crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific in a rowboat. As a Boy Scout, he'd settled a fight with a pistol and as a young man, attempted death by jaguar over a broken love affair. Oh, yea, he'd also been a pirate's apprentice.

His story was too good not to be told in his obit.

As a result, the obit-reading public went crazy, proving that obits could be as riveting and swaggering as their subjects, the better to do justice to a life.

And while I've never written an obit, I could completely relate to the journalists onscreen, particularly the one who typed with two and three fingers (don't judge). But also, the familiar negotiating writers and editors do about word counts and article placement.

Then there were advance obits, ready to go as soon as someone shuffled off the mortal coil. The Times has 1700 advance obits ready to go, which is only a problem when someone dies young and unexpectedly.

Someone talking about the Reagan assassination attempt recalled the panic, because of course they had nothing ready, the man had only been in office four months. About his fellow staffers, one writer said, "I don't care if they voted for him or not, they were praying he lived because we had no advance obit for him."

The kind of thing only a journalist would say.

With any luck, my swaggering obit will reference my beginnings as a love child, my brief relationship with Bobbie Gentry and my time spent at Squid Lips.

They'll just have to use the blog to glean the rest.


  1. "Squid Lips" yes, sound mind...we'll have to weigh in on that one. New topic for porch conversations!