Dr Seuss, from I Had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew
Last Thursday, I found out a friend of mine passed away. I worked with him at the bookstore for almost a decade, although in recent years our communication had languished to the point of an occasional card or phone call. Michael Richardson was a great guy: well-read, smart, sensitive, tormented, and side-splittingly funny. He died just short of this 50th birthday.
In my first years at the bookstore, I often spent lunch hours alone because I was one of the few employees who didn’t smoke. Everyone went to the restaurant next door to eat greasy spoon and smoke their brains out, and I stayed behind reading my book, or working on a crossword, or whatever came to hand. Sometimes when I felt like company, I’d join them, sacrificing my hair and clothes to the reek of smoke for the sake of conversation. Mostly I’d come to hear Mike, leaning back in his chair, casting off one sardonic comment after another, smoking one cigarette after another, quoting from books we’d never read, movies we hadn’t seen. The novels of William Kotzwinkle and Carl Hiaasen line my shelves because Mike raved about them, as I have since raved to others. The first time I ever heard the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band was on his CD player. His tastes were delightfully obscure and in a way, isolating, but he was generous (and sometimes careless) with his brain cells. He could fire off a one-liner like a sniper.
What? What did you say? He’d just smirk.
One day Mike walked into the lunch room, sat down, and said, “Donna, I’m going to read you a story.” He opened a copy of I Had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew by Dr Seuss, and started to read:
“I was real happy and carefree and young. And I lived in a place called the Valley of Vung. And nothing, not anything ever went wrong.”
He read with a slight Seussian inflection and a smile on his face, and every so often he looked up at me, staring at him. It was strangely intimate, and whether or not he intended it as such, romantic. To this day, it’s still one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me.
Another time, Mike had to pick me up from a hotel in the far west end of the city after hours of book slogging at a conference. Locked inside all day, I had no idea that it had been snowing, blizzarding actually, and the dark sky was still pitching snowballs at us. I looked at the old van with the rusted out floor that passed as a company vehicle, and figured we were doomed. The snow was driving into our eyes, beating against the windshield. Mike loaded up the back with the books that hadn’t sold, and we inched out of the parking lot. I gripped the oh fuck bar above the window, and prayed to an absent god for a break, or at least brakes. Working brakes, which were never a sure thing. It was rush-hour traffic and the roads had not yet been sanded. Mike was quiet and focused, but managed to crack a joke or two. I studied his face for reassurance. Half way to the store, I felt my hands unclench and my shoulders relax. Clearly, he was up to the challenge, and I remember thinking that I was safe with him. He was going to get me home.
Eventually the core group of friends at the bookstore went their separate ways, and some of us continued to stay in touch. But not Mike. He could be awkward and shy on the phone, as he was in person, unless he was talking about something he loved, like books. At various dinners and get-togethers someone inevitably recalled a conversation with Mike, or just as frequently, an incident, from years ago, and we’d all laugh and make plans to call him. Invariably, no one did.
Three years ago, a few of us were planning a retirement party for a fellow bookstore friend, and we all mentioned how excited we were about seeing Mike again. Especially me. When he walked through the door, he looked older, but in some ways remarkably unchanged. He had that same self-contained, observant, relaxed but not relaxed bearing. The same acid quip teetering on the edge of his lips. We caught up, but only barely. There was so much more to say.
I started sending him Christmas and Easter cards, and he phoned a few times to thank me and we made tentative plans for dinner, and then lunch…and then coffee…and it never happened. With Mike, you had to be the initiator, but my own lifelong shyness made that role difficult. Now it’s too late. That’s the way it always is, isn’t it?
A few days ago I was talking about Mike with another friend of mine. I said I wish I’d been a better friend. He said, “But it’s not always clear how to do that, is it?” No, maybe not. It’s tough figuring out what people need, and even if we know, it can be even tougher giving it to them. But I think the least we can do is tell the people that pass through our lives that they matter.
Michael, I am telling you now, you mattered.
Seuss’s character never makes it to Solla Sollew…to the place where “…they never have troubles, at least very few.” He ends up going back home. I have nothing pithy to add here. I don’t know where Mike is, if indeed, he is anywhere, other than in the pages of this sweet and sad book, and in the images and memories flooding my brain these last few days. It’s not enough, but it will have to do.