Thursday, March 03, 2005

Famous for His Deeds a Warrior May Be, But It Remains a Mystery Where His Life Will End, When He May No Longer Dwell in the Mead-Hall Among His Own

I had a fine wet business lunch at John's Grill in San Francisco the other day. It was my pick, and I picked John's but not because of the Dashiell Hammett connection. Which is antique. No one there remembers him. No one remembers anyone who remembers him.

I picked it because I haven't been there in seven or eight years, not since the Jerry Carroll retirement "party," those quotation marks apt and unapologetic. One of the reasons I will probably continue working at USF until I die -- and longer if I can stay downwind of the deans -- is that a glorious retirement experience probably isn't going to happen so what the heck. There will never be closure. No big party. No plaque saying I'm an honorary Jesuit what do you think of that Mrs. Robertson? hahahahaha. The university really is a place you leave not with a bang but with a whimper.

If you are a scholar part of your work is solitary, and part of your work is with colleagues scattered far and wide. Nobody in that group to brush away a tear or squeeze your shoulder on your last day. If you are a teacher, you are dealing with a transient population. Most of them have two or three years history with you, and most of them have spent most of that time avoiding you. You're a droning voice and a bald spot, less a fixture in their lives than Barney the dinosaur or Jeff Probst. You're leaving? Good for you! They came here to leave.

Your department colleagues are people you meet in the hall or frown at in meetings. You have a meal here with one, a drink there with another. You fight about things, the smaller the better. Certainly you have a handful of good friends, about enough to fill up a table at Martin Mack's in the Haight on your last day. Though there will be some gaps at the table. University life is unregimented. A few of those few probably have conflicts -- leaving early for Back East, grading a whole class of essays. It's hard to make retiring from the university an event.

But retiring from a newspaper, like retiring from any organization where people stay for years crammed together in cubicles in one big room working under cruel masters, you have had the chance to carve yourself into the landscape, as a rivulet wears through rock. You are part of the history. There are those you grew old with, those you mentored when they arrived, those promoted over you, those you have protected and those who have protected you, those you slept with more or less seriously in a moment of loneliness, boredom or curiosity. (I do not speak from experience here, only on good authority.)

You have been thrown together against your will with these people for a very long time, and if it's a very very long time you have become a piece of newsroom furniture, useless perhaps but reminiscent, like a pica pole or words like "slot" or "copy boy." You are somehow associated with the success of the place. If there hasn't been all that much success, you are at least associated with the paper's endurance.

Your exit is like the ending of an epoch. People, including your enemies, are moved in odd essential ways that puzzle even them. Ah ah ah. I was not at the Chronicle long enough to have quite that splendid an exit. But my friend Jerry Carroll was there nearly forever, so this story inexorably returns to him and to John's Grill.

It's 1998. I get a call from someone at the Chron. Jerry has just give the paper one week's notice -- one week; pretty cheeky but he is pretty cheeky -- so I am asked if I want to come in for his goodby party next Friday.


Next day I get another call. Jerry has ordered his friends not to give him a goodby party. Time for Plan Two. I am to ask him to go lunch on his last day. We will meet at John's Grill, which is close to the Chron and a place all of us frequented as often as the expense account would allow. Then, once Jerry and I are at the bar, the well-wishers will crowd in for a good old three-martini celebration.

Sure. Great. Tax deductible.

I ask Jerry. Friday comes. I arrive at John's Grill and order a stiff one, so I will be ready to deal with the glee soon to come frothing around me. Jerry shows up. I buy him a stiff one and look to the right. Two, maybe three guys slumped at the bar. Times passes. Glasses are dry. I buy Jerry yet another stiff one and look to the left. Bartender looking bored. Wrong day? Wrong restaurant? What?

Meanwhile, since I have been talking loudly about Jerry's retirement in case everyone is waiting for some signal, a PR guy who knows Jerry a little comes over. He may even handle the restaurant. I don't remember. He is enamored of the moment, of Jerry's final Chronicle lunch taking place before him. He insists that he will be our host, that it's all going to be on him.

Jerry and I are journalists -- he, in fact for another four hours, and I in memory. We can talk about the past, cement our friendship, get serious, bond in a manly way some other time. Privacy is overrated -- and expensive. Free food and wine and hard liquor from a PR guy to whom we are no longer obligated, cannot possibly be obligated. We spend the next two hours eating and drinking everything in sight, listening to the PR guy talk about himself.

Jerry goes back to work. He looks steadier than I feel. I walk back with him to find what went wrong. I am told in whispers that Jerry really really really did tell everyone very firmly that he didn't want a party.

So gosh they decided to skip it. You know? That's what he said.

You know?

Pshaw. I tell Jerry gu'by, I get the hell out. What happens later I only hear about. Since Jerry comes in early, his drop-dead, walk-out moment is 4:30. Around rolls the final 4:30. He is in the middle of a story, typing like a bandit (I am told). At 4:30 precisely he stops in mid-sentence, puts on his coat and walks out with a word to no one.

Half-completed sentence right there on the screen.

But they give him a standing ovation, the whole room.

He never breaks stride. And then he's gone.

Goosebumps hearing about it. Goosebumps.

Addendum: The following is from an email from the man in question. If I am betraying a confidence here, let it be on my head.

I declined the honor of one of those cheesy farewell parties, upsetting many. I tried to leave as inconspiciously as possible the last day, but alas got a standing O. My first and immediate act of freedom was to drink a martini with Susan Sward. Then on the ferry to Larkspur I threw my Chronicle ID into the Bay.

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