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07 Nov. 2006
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Susan the Dead Ex-Roommate

I discovered in our subsequent life that she felt sorry for me.  It was a story she told me often.  At the beginning I had no clue.

Susan and I met in the early seventies.  I was twenty-something, she was something-teen.  She was the girl friend of Tommy, one of the recording engineers, and she would hang around the studio building which also was our initial company headquarters.  The recording studio was upstairs.  I would toil, mostly designing printed circuit boards, in the basement.  Designing PCBs in those days was physical labor—it was done with tape and a razor blade while stooping over a light table.  The main floor had offices and was a hang-out area for the musicians and other denizens.  Susan and I found ourselves having the odd babble at even odder hours there while my back was recovering from its stooping and she was, well, hanging out.  Susan's thing was art.  She had a sketch book and made flat arts all the time.  This is a talent I neither have nor understand, but do admire.  One day I asked her to take a look at the studio equipment and make a drawing for me of a new unit with knobs calibrated so, and switches that did the following.  She did, and I thanked her, and maybe even paid her a few bucks.  I should look around for that drawing; it's part of our history and I wouldn't be shocked to find it in some musty cabinet. 

Susan and Tommy drifted away, perhaps together, but eventually they separated.  Susan lived and had family in New York City and so remained.  Tommy was rumored to have ended up in Texas.  A decade and more passed...


I'm good with remembering names, and even though there are lots of Susans and Suzannes and even an occasional Susanne in my alleged life, when this long-lost Susan called me out of the blue one day in the mid 80s I had no trouble remembering our past association.  I'm sure I remembered it better then than I do now, now being another twentyish years later.  What I don't remember is exactly why she called—nostalgia, or perhaps she was on a mission since she knew that I had access to the successors of the product she had drawn so long before.  I asked her about her art and what she was doing and told her what I was up to, no doubt using the term "alleged" a few more times.  We decided to get together for a visit. 


Let me interrupt here to make it clear that Susan was a real person.  If any part of this is remembered inaccurately, it's because this story endedSusan Rickey (AKA Susan Blue on stage) just before the real internet age began, and I am no diarist.  She never had email, and at the time I didn't either.  My only camera used 35mm film and the hassle of getting it developed and printed prevented me from wantonly taking photos of bananas, pastry, and killer neon tetras.  Humans were right out.  The only photo I could find on the internet was the one to the left.  Grainy and monochromatic though it is, it's definitely her. 

I once did take a roll of film (how odd that is to write!) of her.  She needed publicity shots, wanted to take them outdoors, and felt that the privacy of my back yard was important given the kind of publicity the shots were intended to garner.  I pressed the undeveloped roll into her hand, on the theory that it would be less remarkable when developed in NYC than if I delivered it to the local pharmacy.  I never saw it again; perhaps it did its job too well, or perhaps she never even had it developed.  Neither would surprise me.  [April 2010:  I found a photo.  Click on the one at left.]


How Susan Became my Roommate

After our telephone conversation, Susan decided to visit me at our factory, which is much closer to NYC than my home is, and much, much easier to find.  During the visit we had a delightful babble talking over old times and catching up on lives recent.  Hers involved being the girlfriend of a successful Japanese businessman (of the married persuasion, to be sure) and being in the process of setting up her own rehearsal studio on the East Side to which he was staking her.  (I think he owned the building.)  I actually met the man—the three of us had an exquisite sushi dinner at a restaurant owned by a friend of his.  He seemed like a nice enough guy, not that it was any of my business, and he certainly wished Susan well in the endeavor.  I have read that this sort of relationship is not unexpected for successful Japanese businessmen, and particularly not unexpected by their official spousal units.  Did I mention it was none of my business?

But I'm getting a little ahead.  Susan and I had a nice chat, and as she was leaving, I told her that since I had almost completely moved to NJ but didn't want to give up my apartment in NYC, did she know anyone who might be interested in being my roommate and sharing the rent?  After a few seconds of thought, an  "I'm interested" was emitted, and a surprised look came over me.  I reminded her "but you already live in the City!"  Susan explained that my apt would be closer to her studio - walking distance, in fact - and that would be much better for her.  We discussed what the terms would be and she went off to discuss it with her beau, who approved.

I didn't see Susan every day or even every week.  I was in the City sporadically and she was in the apt episodically, having many other activities and a schedule that had little respect for the earth's rotation.  But being roommates, we did see each other frequently, and pretty informally.  I met her sister, her parents (her dad died during this interval) a handful of her friends, and learned a lot about her.  Some random Susan facts:  She was very clean.  She actually paid a maid to come in and clean the mess, mostly of her making by then, weekly.  I wasn't allergic to her cat.  I allowed it with much trepidation, but was shocked to find that it had no effect (beyond entertainment) on me at all.  She ate TV dinners, which she cooked herself in my "toaster oven."  Something we had in common!  As I mentioned at the very beginning, she had felt so sorry for me in those early years.  How I was wasting those hours in the basement working on my stupid useless electronic equipment that would never be good for anything.  I know she changed her mind later, since I supplied some equipment for her to use in her studio. 

And, I learned how much I really liked her.  I learned to get beyond "I'll meet you at XX time" by simply ignoring any plans or appointments that weren't to eventuate within the next five minutes, and even for those, to find a book to read.  There was something innocently engaging about her, and I was engaged.  Of course I, a human male, am not totally equipped to analyze this.  Possibly nobody is.  I just enjoyed being with her, babbling with her about her putative career as a singer and studio owner, and gossiping about the handful of people we had in common.  We even went (once) for a walk in Central Park.  Becoming "involved" would have been out of the question.  In addition to the guy who was paying her rent, she was an object of obsession to at least one guy of whom I was aware, and probably of others of whom I (and possibly she) wasn't.  Although she had the courtesy not to do it in my presence, I have no doubt that she was at least a casual user of recreational drugs.  I doubt that she ever had to pay for them.  In other words, our personalities and lifestyles were totally incompatible.  I preferred to cherish her from a bit more distance.  Even human males can acquire a bit of wisdom after enough observation.


How Susan Became my Ex-Roommate

This is the short paragraph.  I've told you her situation.  How long could it possibly have lasted?  Her Japanese boyfriend's wife became more aware or perhaps less indifferent to the situation.  He in turn closed down her studio, which obviated the need for her living in my apt while simultaneously depleting the coffers which allowed it.  She returned to her uptown apt and reconfigured her life.


How Susan Became my Dead Ex-Roommate

If you're more worldly than I am, you've probably figured it out already, and are just waiting to hear the name of the drug.  You will turn out to have been correct, with only a little more twisting and turning than you expect.

Susan was the product of a middle-class upbringing.  She was not a "that kind of girl" by choice as much as by default.  She had ambition.  She was always drawing and making odd art-like things.  I have no doubt that she could have had an acceptable job at an advertising agency or magazine somewhere, made a decent living, and still be with us today, albeit a in a lot more boring incarnation.  But her ambition didn't quite overcome her impulsiveness.    She was a good singer.  One of the last times I saw her was in mid-1995, doing a short gig for some other performer's demo project.  It was also the first and last time I saw her on stage professionally.  In my estimation, she could have had a career as a rock or blues singer, but, as everyone knows, you need talent, luck, and incredible perseverance to be successful at that.  One and a half out of three won't do it, and give her credit for at least not having the illusion that it would.

I mentioned that she reconfigured her life, and so she did.  Although she made a brief attempt to do it right, it didn't work.  After a while, our contact had slipped to the occasional telephone call.  Even though I passed by her apt in the City on one adventure or another, a "shall I stop by" on the cell phone was inevitably met with a "no, my boyfriend is home."  I did meet him once, at a party.  He was a British rocker, I believe an unknown, who was living with Susan and, hard to believe, being supported by her as well.  I don't know if he was in United States legally, but he was unemployed and so far as I know unable to contribute in material ways to their upkeep.  Worse, he somehow had her terrorized, or so it seems to me.  If Susan and I happened to be in one of our infrequent telephone conversations and he came in, she had to get off immediately.

What finally happened?  First, Susan tried to get a real job.  Receptionist or some-such.  Not enough money from the employer, not enough reliability from her, the anti-surprise of the year.  She finally took a job which paid better and offered a flexible schedule.  She became a "dancer."  Yes, that kind of dancer, where people put money in the modest (as in tiny) elastic garment the dancers wear for that purpose.  It was a living.  I should mention that Susan was quite pretty, and had a perfect body.  Her (hypothetical, of course) drug abuse while we were roommates never seemed to affect her health, which was excellent, and certainly didn't affect other aspects of her appearance, which were admirable.

Susan wasn't tough enough or stupid enough.  If she were either, she could probably have endured her career with fortitude and some grace, and followed the rules of the establishment which were designed to protect her from forced activities with the patrons.  But Susan wasn't stupid.  She read books, she spoke in complete sentences, she made arts, she had real talent and some of the sensitivity that comes with intellect.  Whoops.  Tough would have done it, too.  Susan was sweet, goofy, earnest, flaky, funny, a bit fatalistic, but definitely not tough.

So she drank.  Not the mock-liquor that "the girls" get when the patrons buy them drinks.  Just plain real liquor, with its high percentage of what we're now calling "ethanol."  Whenever offered.  And, presumably, when alone as well.  Susan called me one day to tell me she was dying.  She sounded fine, and I told her so.  No, she explained, the doctor told her that if she didn't stop drinking it would destroy her liver and kill her yet she couldn't stop drinking. 

I'm a guy.  For that matter, I'm a guy who doesn't drink.  Being a guy-person, it's my job to "solve problems" even when the babe-person just wants comfort.  That's OK, because I did have a solution, while I'm not good at the "comfort" stuff.  My solution was this:  Susan, come out here and stay as long as you need to.  I'll pour every drop of liquor in the house down the drain right in front of you if that will help.  I told her that it was too far to walk to the store (not entirely true—I could do it and she was if anything in better shape than I).  It was a genuine offer.  One totally mysterious aspect of her character was that she was a news junkie.  Put her in front of CNN and she'd watch for hours or days, taking occasional breaks to eat a TV Dinner or maybe sleep.  All of which would have been fine with me.  I have plenty of room, a spare teevee, and while reluctant to admit it, am capable of "shopping", at least to the extent of finding replacement TV Dinners.  (They're in a special case in the food store.)

No go.  She didn't want to leave New York City.  She didn't want to leave the man who seemed to be terrorizing her, and—who knows—maybe life wasn't just that important to her any more.  So her doctor's prediction came true.  Maybe there was a genetic component as well.  Some people can drink far more than others, but either she wasn't one of them or she did.  A mutual friend called to tell me she had died after a few days in a hepatic coma.  At that point it had been many months since I had heard a word.  He and I chatted for a while about her, hung up, and carried on.


Of all the deaths in my life, Susan's has been the most distressing.  Anyone who knows me has probably heard this story, a bit abbreviated, at least once.  It happened maybe ten years ago, I actually don't remember the date or even the year, since I have no email to pin it down.  I don't remember her exact age—I think it was about 41.  Death wise, I've been lucky.  Not only (despite the golf-course incident) am I not personally dead,  but none of my close contemporaries are, either.  I'm at the age where the next-older generation—mostly parents—are saying or have said their farewells.  Sad, to be sure, but not tragic.  Susan's death was a tragedy.  The System got her, and it isn't even the same System that I know and hate.  It's the backup, auxiliary System that does stuff like this, and unlike the main event, it's preventable.  Even I could have prevented this one if kidnapping were legal, or maybe if people closer to her were paying more attention.  Or if she were tough.  Or stupid.

She wasn't, and now she isn't.  I like sweet, goofy, earnest, funny people, and I have no trouble coping with flaky.  I miss Susan and I'm sure I'll continue telling her sad story.  You may be surprised to be reading it here; this blog has no history of great sentimentality or more than off-handed emotion.  What prompted this was my sudden remembrance that today would have been her birthday.  Had she continued to exist, she would have made it to 50 last year or maybe the year before, and I could now say "50-something" rather than the "something-teen" she was when we first met. 

When people die young and under unfortunate circumstances, it is customary to try to learn some sort of lesson from it.  Try these on for size:  For everyone:  Don't drink too much liquor.  For me:  Be able to foretell the future.  For Susan:  Have been a different sort of person.  Sometimes lessons are either too difficult or are learned too late. 

© 2006
Richard Factor

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