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My wife, Maria Teicher, and I founded and run a 501(c)(3) arts non-profit based in Philadelphia. Among our objectives is one to support emerging and mid-career artists living or exhibiting in the Philadelphia area. As such, our online presence is focused on promoting artists’ work as well as sharing tips and tricks; and at times giving some much needed motivation and encouragement.

Maria recently posted a very famous Kurt Vonnegut quote that speaks to the importance of the arts:

KV

 

After seeing that she posted this I went to our bookshelf to leaf through a specific book: Like Shaking Hands With God – A Conversation About Writing, by Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer. The book, published by Seven Stories, is a series of interviews between Vonnegut, a veteran writer of several novels at the time of the interviews, and Stringer, a new novelist who had recently published his first book. Like Shaking Hands With God is a book in which Vonnegut gives honest and razor-sharp insight to Stringer about creativity, life, and humanity. This book was a great one for me, as Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers, and I myself am a member of the creative community (musician, writer, etc).

When I returned the book to the shelf, I saw a book I had recently spoken with a colleague about: Enough. True Measures of Money, Business, and Life by John C Bogle. This book’s introduction starts with the following:

At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds “yes, but I have something he will never have…enough.”

All of John Bogle’s books are tied to the financial world. While I am not a financial-book aficionado, this introduction was such a beautiful welcoming to what would become my favorite book by him.

John Bogle is the founder and former CEO of The Vanguard Group, the company I have worked for since 2006. Though no longer CEO, he still is the head of the Bogle Financial Market Research Center within Vanguard. He still publishes books, interviews regularly, and continues to make an intimidatingly large impact on the financial arena.

Among the perks of Mr. Bogle continuing to be on Vanguard’s site is occasionally spotting him walking around campus or in the cafeteria, being able to receive copies of his book and to have him autograph it, and to be able to have conversations with him.

On November 24, 2008 I received my copy of Enough. I was able to briefly meet Mr. Bogle to obtain his signature on my copy. In doing so, we struck up an extremely short conversation, in which he asked me what I do outside of work. I said that I was a musician and had recently returned from a tour. I had stated it in a way that I recall feeling somewhat ashamed – akin to the way a teenager might feel if they said to their parents that they “want to be a musician” when they grow up. His response caught me off guard, and stuck with me over these years. He said that being a musician is something I should be very proud of, and that I was contributing to society through culture, and how that was extremely important.

Autograph

 

Our interaction likely only lasted 30-40 seconds, but it stuck with me. For the hours afterward, I wasn’t the business professional who played music on the side – I was a musician who played an important role in culture.

Encouragement goes a long way, whether it’s an empowering quote or meme, or quick conversation in passing. Granted, I understand that I will not be the biggest musician of all time, but the act of creating is immensely rewarding itself; and in a world where creatives are continuously told to ‘grow up and get a job’, hearing Mr. Bogle’s feedback had the same positive and uplifting response as the Kurt Vonnegut quote Maria posted on our page.

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Fred S. was a guy I met nine years ago, in 2006. He had an established Craigslist and eBay business that focused on computers, software, and electronics. I wrote about him in my book, Please Excuse This Mess (not yet published), though in the book I viewed him through a fictional character’s eyes, and with a different timeline since the book takes place in the recent past. In Please Excuse This Mess, I said:

About six years ago I was selling some personal electronics to raise money. I met a guy on Craigslist who wanted to buy a mini laptop-like device I had, made by NEC. I met him at his house in west Philadelphia. He was a very aged looking man, looked to be in his late 50s, and had a salt and pepper beard. He invited me into his row home.

 We ended up talking about computers for hours. For income he worked exclusively from his home, buying and trading various computer parts and electronics and selling them on eBay and Craigslist. He also was a hacker and torrent-enthusiast, so he also sold pirated software. In fact, in lieu of my asking price he offered me discs of programs and less cash instead. Here, six years later, the Adobe Photoshop/Audition/Premier-Pro, Microsoft Word/Excel/Powerpoint, and Windows XP I use to this day are all compliments of him. Best trade I’ve ever made.

 Over the years we kept in touch, sort of as a friendship, sort of for mutual benefit. He would get a guitar in trade for computer equipment, call me, I’d come over to evaluate it, give him some ideas of what it’s worth – and one time even take it home with me to restore and return to him to sell. I would email him anytime I had any PC or Mac questions. He saved a crashed MacBook Pro that I borrowed from someone after the hard drive corrupted; which saved me hundreds of dollars from paying that friend back if it stayed broken. I brought him a bottle of whiskey that night. We were up until 4am, and I had to leave for work at 6am.

 The guitar I restored for him was a 70s Cheri asian-made Strat copy. He got it for next to nothing, I restored it, strung it, and set it up; and he ended up trading it for an iPod.

 I remember some of these details because I’ve been going through my old emails and read the threads in which we talked about some of those instances.

 Fred was a genius. Brilliant with computers, with buying/selling, with anything electronic. He was also a loner. That very much spoke to me. I sometimes looked at him as a picture of what my life could end up like, and I wasn’t disappointed.

 We definitely had similar reclusive tendencies, and could also seemingly smother those whose company we enjoy – which could push them away. The last chain of emails I have from Fred is on a day when he emailed me nine times. I remember that day because I was getting the emails on my phone and was getting annoyed. Ha!

 Each time I’d visit Fred I’d note that his house was probably how my house would look if I were his age and intelligence. No nonsense. No clutter (except for his computer parts). Home made home-security system composed of webcams on his home network. In his bedroom on the second story was a bed on the floor with canned food surrounding it, as well as a cross bow and several knives, and the NEC mini laptop I traded him years ago (which he used as a modified alarm clock). A couple cats.

 He didn’t fuck around either. He showed me some scars he got from fighting. Some stab wounds. He told me of the times he’s stabbed men. He was not a man to be fucked with. Not earlier in his life, at least.

 Each time I’d visit Fred he would be in worse and worse shape. He was dying of lung cancer. He was still smoking because he knew he was beyond the point of no return. The act if him coming down the stairs and answering the door would require him to sit down for ten minutes to compose himself. Ten minutes of heavy breathing breaking up the awkward semi-silence. We’d then walk up to his workshop that doubled as his bedroom. Another ten minutes for him to get his breathe. Then he’d have a cigarette.

 Two and a half years ago I met up with Fred for fun; no real purpose – just to bullshit. We talked about computers. He needed a ride down the block to grab a pack of cigarettes. It was too far for him to walk. I drove him there and back before I left. We talked about life, goals, and debt. He owed the IRS hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they deemed him as someone who would never be able to pay, so they stopped pursuing him. His income was under the table anyways. Go Fred. I respected him as an elder, and also as someone who could be me years down the line. Because of that latter part I hung on his words of wisdom and reflection. That day he gave me a pirated DVD. It was some alien movie I can’t recall at the moment, but I remember the parts of the aliens talking and the subtitles being in Russian. Hilarious.

 After the day I dropped him off after picking up cigarettes we emailed each other back and forth a few times. A little less than two years ago, according to my Hotmail Sent folder at least, I emailed him but he didn’t reply. I remember thinking the worst, but just dismissing it. I then emailed him three months after that saying we should catch up. No reply.

 So much happens in life that you don’t dwell on unreplied emails. I didn’t realize that it had been nearly two years since I last heard from Fred. I sent him another email tonight. The subject was a silly phrase: “Long time, no hear from!”. The email was returned as undeliverable. His email account had been closed. A sinking feeling started weighing in my gut. This was the first in a series of steps confirming what I had already supposed had happened.

 I started looking around the internet. I found out that he died six months after the last email I received from him (on that day that I received nine emails from him). He died of lung cancer. The first bit of my research, actually, was a family member running in a lung cancer marathon and referencing his memory as one of the causes she was running for. Most people feel pride in a person when they see something like that. I felt contempt as it was the first positive sign that I had that he was dead. Up until that point he could have just closed out his email, but her running in his memory was proof.

I’ve spent more time dwelling on this than I did thinking of either of my grandparents’ passing. That’s probably because I liked him. That’s probably because he was a potential future me. I don’t know.

 He died before I sent those three unreplied emails. He died alone. Few friends. Not much family. No significant other. A couple of cats, packs of cigarettes, and a house of computers.

Install Disc

This is one of the install discs I got from Fred (marker covering up the key).

Most of what I said in the Please Excuse This Mess excerpt above is actually true, sans the personal musings that belong to the fictional charter himself (grammatical errors and all! Haha!). In fact, the “friend’s” MacBook that broke was, in real life, my wife Maria’s; and we did sit up until 4am, when I had to work the next day.

Today is January 31, 2015. It’s been five years since he’s passed (he actually passed in 2010). Thoughts of Fred come up again as I’m getting ready to update my mother’s laptop and my Parallels Windows XP with the updates still provided to Microsoft Windows XP institutional clients.

Microsoft stopped providing updates to the vast majority of their Windows XP clients in April 2014. It was the end of a twelve/thirteen year era. Microsoft agreed to continue to provide patch updates to their institutional clients, which includes banks that utilize Windows XP for their ATM machines; and apparently a local Philadelphia university, the pirated install disc I received from Fred nine years ago.

XP2015

As I wait for my mother’s laptop to download and install all the updates, I think about how I doubt this is the legacy he wanted to leave behind. I also doubt he was the kind of guy who wanted a legacy at all. But at any rate, here – five years after his passing, I’m left here thinking about him. I’m updating Windows XP. I’m looking up old emails from him and finding his old Facebook page that I didn’t know he had. I’m writing an essay about a friend I lost and miss.

Fred

Fred

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January 6th. Upon boarding the Broad Street Line at Tasker/Morris, I chose a seat that would tell me more about myself than I was prepared to learn that morning.

I felt eyes looking near me, but not at me. The lady sitting in front of me, perpendicularly, kept looking up frightened. Then, from behind me, I started to hear the sobbing, and the words “oh lord, just fuckin kill me.”

At first I thought this was a nutjob whose crazy crying rants I would have to ignore for my duration of the ride. It got much worse.

“You said you fuckin wanted me dead, then fuckin do it. Just fuckin kill me!” By Ellsworth/Federal, I realized she wasn’t trying to talk to her lord, rather she was using his name for dramatic effect. I thought she was on her phone, crying out to some wayward lover who had done her wrong.

“You posted on that facebook group message that you wanted me dead, well just do it!” I refused to turn around. I never did see what she looked like. What I did see were the looks of concern on the other riders’ faces. Although it was not the “oh, this poor girl” looks of concern. It was “oh, poor me, to have to witness this” kind of looks.

Before the next stop, I realized that she was sitting next to the person she was talking to; and it was not a phone exchange. Things got tense when the talking in the crowded car was almost only her sobs and cries to end her life.

We stopped at Lombard/South. A group of people squeezed in, obstructing people’s view of the show. I wondered if I blocked some’s view when I came on. Now I understand the tension I came into.

Context clues. I could tell she pulled out a knife by the way people gasped. “Just fuckin stab my throat! Fuckin do it!” The lady in front of me tried to get off at Lombard/South, but couldn’t make it to the door. People had the look as if they almost wanted to help. No one did. I kept my eyes out the window, occasionally watching reactions in the reflection. No one was recording video on their phones; I found that odd. I also found it odd that I found that odd.

The couple made their way to the door further behind me, their play’s dialogue fading. They got off at Walnut/Locust. The lady in front of me, I think Walnut/Locust was her real destination, but she stayed on until City Hall. No one said anything. We all had some stench of guilt on us for watching while doing/saying nothing. Voyueristic shame. I especially felt detached from the world, as I was thinking of how unnecessary the entire ordeal was; how I can’t understand how one can be so emotional about something so petty, in the grand scheme of life. But I’m not in that moment that she is.

I get off at City Hall, and start walking towards the green stairs to Suburban Station. I walk past two older ladies talking, either unmoved or unaware of what happened in the subway car I was in. Speaking of Christmas, one says to the other, “It was just money in an envelope. That’s all they really want.”

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