Live in the present tense
Really? Bobbie Smith, too? Geez.
This is what I’m thinking when word comes that the lead singer of the Spinners has died. It comes a month after Richard Street and Damon Harris, who sang on “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” with the Temptations, passed away just days apart. Now Smith, whose ice cream dollop of a tenor on “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” serenaded me through junior year in high school, has joined them. It feels – and this feeling has become uncomfortably familiar lately – as if Somebody Up There is taking a sledgehammer to my childhood.
I send Howard a text: “All my heroes are going away.”
Howard has been one of my best friends since we were hired within weeks of each other by the Miami Herald way back in the year of our Lord 1991 and I am sitting next to him a few days later in the newsroom as he chats with these interns. Half the desks in the place are empty these days, stark evidence of the economic woes the news business faces, and many of the occupied desks are held by interns, none of whom appears to be older than 12. One of them asks Howard a philosophical question:
“Do you feel like your life went by quickly?”
Howard, who is 49, with a bit of gray just beginning to infiltrate his blond temples, is dutifully answering her question, when I tap his shoulder and suggest that he did not quite hear what the young lady asked. She spoke in the past tense: “went by.” As in done, finito, kaput. As in, this 12-year-old sees no difference, my friend, between you and a cadaver.
Her question strikes me in a tender spot, coming as it does, just after Bobbie, Richard and Damon have gone, after Bonnie Franklin has died, after Valerie Harper has announced she is dying of cancer and on the very day, as it happens, that we are having a party to commemorate the end of an era. For 50 years, the Miami Herald has been headquartered in a so-ugly-it’s-beautiful building on Biscayne Bay. But, the business being in the shape it is, they’ve sold the place to some company that’s going to smash it down and wants to put up a casino. So a thousand of us, employees present and past, have come home this day to bid the place farewell.
The old joint is filled with shouts of laughter and those fierce hugs you give people you haven’t seen for way too long. There are patches more of baldness, strands more of gray, inches more of fat – time doing its merciless work. There are updates on marriages and divorces, grandchildren, illnesses, career changes, lost friends. There are memories.
And a 12-year-old’s question hangs over me like smoke. Do you feel like your life went by quickly?
It’s funny. You go to sleep a kid with Spinners songs all over the radio, wake up married with children and Spinners songs suddenly “classics” on the oldies station. You go to sleep yet again and wake up a grandfather. Bobbie Smith is dead and a roomful of old friends are wondering where life went.
And life doesn’t just go. It also takes. Your knees, your hair, your waistline, your looks. Your loved ones, your friends, the career you used to have, the building where you used to work.
But – and you don’t quite understand this when you’re 12 – for as much as life takes, it also gives: the solace of memories, the tough teachings of experience, the hard-won recognition of the difference between marathon and sprint. And grace.
“We are all terminal,” said Valerie Harper after her diagnosis. Her point was not despair. It was, rather, to cherish the sweetness of then, but honor the urgency of now, balance the goodbyes with hellos, miss no chance to be in the embrace of old friends. I don’t know if the 12-year-old stuck around to see all those fat, gray, bald people, but if so, I hope she heard the laughter echoing off the walls of that doomed building.
“Life went by quickly?” No. We live. And that’s a verb in the present tense.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His email address is email@example.com.