Let me tell you about Paul. We were not the best of friends but we admired each other, enjoyed each other’s company and had spent about seven years working often side by side on the night desk of a wasting newspaper. Paul and I agreed on who the assholes were among us – shared contempt as good a criterion as any on which to build a friendship —— and an appreciation of good food and the joys of putting together a good meal.
Once every month or two, we’d get together with three other newspaper survivors – men who had been similarly comfortable to work with. A few weeks ago, we agreed to meet Tuesday for lunch at a deli. Paul was all for it, especially after I described the caloric joy of an old-fashioned authentic Montreal Club Roll, a two-inch thick sandwich of steamed and grilled deli meats, every mouthful a suspected or confirmed carcinogen.
Paul was not well and he wrote, “the sooner the better.” The clarion email went out. “Tuesday at the Main,” shorthand for the dozen or so notes that go back and forth to organize and find consensus on date, time and venue.
Tuesday it was. But, Paul never tasted that club roll. He died Monday.
So now there were four to talk about people we knew, stories we had read, confess to our news addictions slowly eating away our sanity. And, Paul, who was at table even if he wasn’t.
Those hours between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. often lure me into a place of dark solitude, where sleep is circumvented by a need to immerse in the silence.
The stillness is mined for long thoughts, uninterrupted reading, taking notes, a finger of something fermented to stir the pot.
Lately, Paul’s joined me. I see him in the over-lit newsroom, peering over at my nightly smorgasbord displayed beside my computer. Munching radishes, cheese, tomatoes and carrots as we bulled through stories and heads and pictures and cutlines, my substitute for smoking to calm a nervous system stoked by the newsroom clock inexorably ticking toward deadline.
“Those local tomatoes?” He’d ask. “What kind of cheese you having?”
While deadlines and a good headline were important, how you fed yourself was a better measure of a person, at least to Paul and I. For some reason, it was important he approve of my Lebanese cukes, cherry tomatoes and Nantes carrots. Paul was not one to hide his distaste for the mundane.
He was one of a handful of guys on the desk that didn’t froth hysterically from time to time. He didn’t explode over sloppy writing, too many pages to fill, too few staff to fill them, too few hours to get it done.
It was a job, not the priesthood. He learned early owners cared only about the bottom line, the quality of the product beneath secondary to them, often beneath contempt to us.
Paul had been in publishing a long time and he didn’t sweat the small shit and it was, despite some of us thinking a brilliant headline would bring peace in our time, all small shit.
If you teased him, he would say with only the slightest of smiles, “Don’t make me come over there.” Paul was maybe five and a half feet, give or take an inch or two and was trim. But, he had a touch of bulldog in him and I never doubted if I did touch a raw nerve, he would come over and set me straight, even if I had six inches and 30 or 40 pounds on him.
He was circumspect about his life – he never spoke about his philanthropy, working to help Middle Eastern immigrants settle in Montreal. – and rarely spoke about his approaching demise.
But over the years of working and eating together, I concluded he was a man at peace with himself, happy in his marriage, devoted to Jasmine, his partner, disappointed to find himself spitting out stories under the ugly fluorescent lights, surrounded by ugly everything. And his home with Jasmine was the hook he hung his life on.
He had zero patience for incompetence but no shortage of appetite to read tales of it in governments across the border and share them via email with our little lunch crowd.
Trump and cohorts’ insanity would prompt, “I’m losing the will to live.”
It seemed funny back then, but when he was hit with COPD, it was no longer an attempt at dark humour. He knew where he was going, like we all do, but his arrival was bound to be quicker. And a hard ride.
He made the decision to accelerate the process by continuing to smoke tobacco and a little weed. It was his way of saying, “bring it on.”
He continued to come to lunch. He looked smaller. And pale. Easy humour was gone. But he remained good company and was comfortable among his friends even if his appetite was shrinking along with him.
We were five different people from five various places and now there are four, the only things in common we share is a number of years working nights at what was once a newspaper and we enjoy each other’s company now as we enjoyed humping out the paper when schedules we didn’t control found us working together.
I don’t really know my luncheon companions. Don’t know their spouses, can’t tell you how many kids or grandkids they have. They’re all amiable, curious men, like to read, converse, laugh, encourage each other in whatever pursuits and open to food from every nation. Just like Paul.
So, we had lunch without our fifth member. Paul would not have approved. The bread was stale, the meat tough, the fries frozen. Paul might’ve said, “I should go into the kitchen and show them how to cut and fry a fucking potato.”
And had the server inquired how our meal was, he might’ve said, “It could’ve used a little work, but you were perfect. Maybe you can tell the kitchen how to make decent fries. Thank you.”
So, there were four, though Paul wasn’t far.
He didn’t get a taste of the club roll. But we didn’t either. They’d taken it off the menu.