My neighbor died yesterday. I didn't know him. He wasn't a friend. We had little in common. We were friendly but indifferent waves of hello to each other. We came from different worlds even though we lived in the same neighborhood. We had different lives that just would not mix without something curdling.
And yet I find myself feeling a deep sadness over his passing because he was too young chronologically. He should have had many more years of life. He should have had a chance to know what it was like to not work at backbreaking labor for most of his life. He should have had a chance to know what it was like to live without the constant stress of bills and being a member of the working poor. He should have been rewarded with an easier life for working so hard, not condemned to live somewhere on the poverty line until the day he died.
The first inclination of many is to see such a man as insignificant, as someone who was a cog in the machine of providing goods and services to those who could afford to buy them. He was poorly educated. He listened to loud, bad music that he played on an old boom box. He loved that box. He fished it from the dumpster when one of the college students in his apartment building threw it away. There was nothing wrong with it. It just didn't fit in the one suitcase he was taking on the plane when he went home after graduation. He knew he would eventually have a bigger, better, and far more expensive music system.
But I doubt he would ever enjoy that music system as much as my neighbor enjoyed his discarded boom box. It went everywhere with him. He set it on the balcony as he drank beer after cheap beer until he was so drunk he forgot most the words. He sang loudly and incoherently to the songs of his youth when he still believed that life had something called a future, when love was something sweet and filled with promise, when he looked in the mirror and saw a young man ready to take on anything looking back.
When he was really drunk, he played it in his bedroom late at night with the windows wide open until the neighbors on the other side of him called the police to shut him down. He was on first name basis with all the police. It became routine to knock on his door and tell him it was time to close down the show. It went with him in the car because the radio in his old beatermobile quit working sometime in the mid 80's. He played it at work on his break.
But he loved it second best. His first love was always his only love--his wife that he married when they were both sixteen and pregnant. They both drank continually when they weren't working. And every day like clockwork, they would argue. They were never violent. They were just loud. Loud like the music. The words and the music and the arguments. It was so much a part of our neighborhood, just like the mating cats and the raccoons screeching at each other over a scrap of cat food someone forgot to take in for the night.
She is why he could never be dismissed as insignificant. She grieves for him in a way only someone who has had only one thing of value in her life can grieve. He was her boom box, her treasured possession that brought her joy and love and noise, constant, reassuring and wonderful noise. They had children. Young adults now who gave them their first grandchild last year at much too young an age. They all grieve for him. They all make him significant with the ache of loss in their hearts and the tears that keep coming no matter how many have already come. And he had friends. People who valued him, who counted on the certainty of his friendship as if it were the purest gold. They also make him significant. They also cry for him.
I didn't know him, but tonight I opened my window and turned up the stereo. I put on the loudest music I had, music he would understand, music I would have given him had I known him better, had I been his friend. No one called the police to complain because the only thing that bothered us today was the silence. It was too damn loud.