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Glad to be Getting Old – Tom’s Story

When do you get to the point where you say, “Oh shit, I’m getting old!”? I mean, not the facetious attention grabbing commentary that some (like myself) have been guilty of running since the ’90’s. No, I mean the knowing deep down, the kind where maybe you don’t utter the statement so flippantly. I know now it happens during times like when you realize you don’t know what came after “Generation X”; or maybe when you reflect back that those grey hairs of yours now have a history of their own. As if the grey hairs themselves are getting old and looking back. OK I’ve got it, it’s when you start doing relativistic math, like “from the ’30’s to the ’70’s is like from the ’70s to the ’10s” and then kind of shudder at the ability to remember entire eras. Or how about this, when the people you knew start dying.

Not like when Prince died, who I felt I knew in a way; though that was really bad, for it was like a piece of my childhood dying. It affected me more than I would have imagined. But I didn’t know him, not actually. But I knew Tom Streicher. I hadn’t seen him in years but that didn’t matter; I once knew him, so really, I always knew him. I’m not saying people don’t change, their appearances do, sure, but you can count on some of the stuff inside staying the same.

I met Tom when I went to school in New York in 1988. He was my roommate in the 17-story dorm we all begrudgingly called home (when we were not planning summer escapes, that is). Tom was one of three roommates I had, Lewis, Chris, Tom and then me. Lewis, Chris and I were all between 18 and 20 years old. Tom was 23, maybe 24. He stuck out immediately to us because he seemed kind of, well, old. It was almost as if our attitude was, “why is this guy here, he’s too old to be here!” I asked him if he had been in jail or something. He just smirked. It wasn’t that, he was just a transfer student with a similar backstory to our own. He was tall, maybe 6’3″ and had these dark circles under his eyes. He majored in Architecture (he always called it Archi-Torture) and said he worked so much he didn’t get a lot of sleep. He had occasional digestive issues mixed with an addiction to Haagen-Daaz pints that I think we would now call lactose intolerance.

He had blond hair styled in such a way as to give his head a slightly squarish aspect. Tom wore a kind of uniform that consisted of buttoned up casual patterned shirts with jeans and white sneakers. He smelled faintly of Right Guard and moved about in a ponderous manner that made us think he was even older than he was. His gait made him seem grouchy much of the time, he definitely wasn’t silly like the rest of the boys in room 218. But I liked him. I was never as joshingly familiar with him as I was the others; for I regarded him as kind of an elder. I didn’t drink as much when he was around, if I could get him to smile or laugh I felt victorious. When I got to know him better I realized he smiled and laughed all the time, he just had a default expression that today we call ‘Resting Bitch Face.’ But hang on, that sounds kind of harsh, with Tom I would characterize it as ‘Resting Don’t-Interrupt-Me Face.’ For he was an Archi-Torture major and he had a lot of work to do.

Tom had a sense of humor that had to be activated by others. He rarely got off the first joke, but could parry insults in kind. He would usually follow such remarks with “I’m just yanking your crank,” which told me he was a sensitive sort and didn’t want to offend. This observation, gleaned early on, was in line with what I’d already gathered from his introvert nature. Usually garrulous myself, I have always regarded the introvert as a nut to be cracked; and like Skrat in the movie Ice Age I would get after it doggedly until I was rewarded. But unlike Skrat, I usually succeeded. When I really succeeded I could get Tom to laugh with an expression that said, “I can’t believe I actually find you funny.” Those were the best ones.

Tom was my roommate my first year at Pratt Institute. When Thanksgiving rolled around that first year, the Fall of ’88, I was distracted, enthralled in love with my new girlfriend Isabelle. Tom was always very nice to her, he never leered like some others, and I respected and trusted him for that. Isabelle and I didn’t make plans, or our families were busy or something (I’m getting old and don’t remember, see?) but we ended up stuck in Brooklyn for Turkey Day. Tom very kindly offered for us to come up to his family home in Monroe, New York. Isabelle and I were very grateful but I also remembered trepidation over meeting his family. We wondered if they all looked alike, tall, maybe, a little stooped, under-slept. We decided probably not, as they didn’t have Tom’s all night dates with the lamp and drafting table.

Isabelle and I met Tom’s parents, they were very nice, I believe his sister was there too, there was some family resemblance but not enough for such presupposed generalizations as I had had earlier. We thanked them for letting us in their house for the holiday. Later, Tom asked cautiously if we wanted to see his room. Isabelle and I replied, “Sure!” at about the same time. It was a standard room, but for the trophies arrayed along one wall. They were awards of some kind, I figured they had to be for academic achievement or something. Two of them had balletic male figurines on top, I thought, ‘What the hell?’ Looking at Isabelle’s expression, I could tell she held the same questions.

“Tom, what’s going on here, are these yours?” I asked.

“These are just my ice-skating awards, I told you about them.” Then he paused a beat before continuing, “Thanks for paying attention to my stories guys!” Another pause, “Just yankin’ your crank.” Then a chuckle. I told Tom I had never ice skated and he was incredulous, even after explaining that it was because I had grown up in Miami and Los Angeles. Isabelle chimed in with, “And I’m from Miami!” We looked at him expectantly, feeling a little left out of Tom’s world, like maybe we had disappointed him.

“They have indoor rinks you know!” I nodded at Tom’s logic. He cajoled us into a trip to the local rink; and though we agreed I was almost as afraid of falling and breaking something as I was excited to see what the guy we sometimes called “Lurch” could do on the ice. Curiosity won out. We went not long before the rink closed for the night. It was delightful to see him lace up his boots like a pro, then stutter step across the carpet and launch himself out onto the ice. What can I say, he looked like a Teutonic, manly Dorothy Hamill.

He skated and pirouetted, skating backwards and forwards with equal facility and speed. He zoomed by and grinned at us because he knew how we would react. We were gape mouthed, Isabelle and I. Tom had provided us with almost our very first nostalgia-story; one that we would recount to each other occasionally down through the years. I wish I had it on film, I really do, for he wasn’t just a good skater, he was positively graceful, like a plodding penguin diving into an ice hole and suddenly becoming a fish. His form lost all ponderousness; watching him that night I realized that Tom’s alleged grouchiness at Pratt was because he just missed his home. As he was more cheerful on the ice, so he was in his house.

I remember Thanksgiving dinner, a little. I remember it was really nice and it was wonderful to meet and get to talk to Tom’s family and ask them for ‘Young Tom’ stories (which they happily supplied as Tom mock-winced). Tom drove us back to Brooklyn and the dorm, the twinkle in his eye dimming a bit more the closer we got to the real world of subways, the Daily News and college. But after that long weekend he’d sometimes flash the look he had that night when he saw Isabelle and I, astonished. The look that said, “Yeah, you get me now, right?”

A few months later Tom moved to off-campus housing but we stayed in touch because his roommate was my best friend Stuart. Isabelle and I would come over with my fried rice and her chicken and broccoli, plus sweet and sour chicken for Tom or Stuart from KumKau Restaurant (Pratt’s official Chinese food). Then we’d watch Doogie Howser or Who’s the Boss with Stuart and Tom’s equally old running buddy Sal (who was also only 23, if that) and later on retreat back to the dorms. Later I transferred out and Tom graduated and well, you know how this goes, we just lost touch. It was gradual at first but when we fell out of contact it was nearly permanent. In 2009 I found him again on Facebook and was so glad to be back in the loop with him, as I had thought about him often over the years. We used Facebook Messenger to trade decade synopses with one another; he was very glad I had married Isabelle and she and I were so gratified to hear he had started a family back up in Monroe. Over the years we’d trade updates and he’d tease me a little, like the old days. We didn’t Messenger all the time (we talked once on the phone in ’09) but it was good to know he was there, that he was always going to be around. It was one of those times where social media had, in a small way, tied the eras of my life together for me.

Then in May of 2016 came news (via Facebook) that he had suddenly died. Tom was only 51 years old. I’m 48 myself now and, looking back with obvious clarity, I am reminded that not only did he die young; but he wasn’t old at all back at Pratt either. I just lacked the proper perspective that the intervening years have afforded me. Rather, Tom was just a regular young guy doing his work and in perfect health, yankin’ cranks along the way. Though we teased each other back in the day (admittedly, me to him more than the other way around), I’m glad that we were always respectful friends; that we regarded each other fondly. I’ll miss the Facebook updates, the yearly growsing about freaky spring weather and the braggadocio around his snow shoveling exploits. His stories of bike rides in all weather and pictures of his beautiful family and his Architecture work. Tom’s story has stopped, and the weird thing about this is, (hopefully) in three years I’ll finally catch up to him. I’ll be 51 too. But in memory he will always be a little older, because he was then, you know, back when I knew him best.

Tom died and my wife and I reminisced about him all night, sad. She was writing on her computer and I was watching TV, then suddenly she or I would stop what we were doing, look over and say, “Hey babe, remember that time when Tom…..” then the other would nod, agree, laugh at the memory and go back to what we were doing. Then we’d repeat; and in the middle of it all somewhere I had a thought, “Oh shit, I’m getting old; I guess this is what this is.” But at the same time I had the realization that he was very well-remembered, for it turned out my wife and I had a lot of stories about him. I think it’s obvious the people we liked best from our past are the ones we keep the most memories of. The next day I went back to Facebook, traced all of our Messenger conversations we had going back to ’09, and copy-saved them to a Word document. It’s not that I’m afraid of forgetting my friend Tom and our days at Pratt, but he won’t be on social media much longer. And seeing my friend die so young, I know I’m not old either, I’m just getting a little older, and with that I want to make sure I continue to remember him down the road.

2 replies
  1. Sal
    Sal says:

    I was googling around looking for some mention of Tom Streicher Architect, hoping this cruel world contained some positive memory. Nicely done Bill and well written.
    He was a great guy, and I believe he would have been a great architect if he had ever gotten the chance. I don’t know how much the non architect students realized that Tom was an outstanding design talent. Between you and me, I think that is part of what killed him. He had this huge talent but he was forced to do routine bullshit all day long. Architorture is a harsh buisness. A lot of things are either random, or very unfair or both. I had so many conversations with him about this over the past 5 years. He was going downhill in multiple ways but never changed from that guy we knew at Pratt. He was always the same good guy and I’ll never forget him and I will never stop thinking how goddamn unfair this all is. So sad. BTW I enjoyed hanging out with you and Isabell in those years as well even if I was an old man of 23.. Best regards, I bought your book.

    Reply
    • Bill Hardesty
      Bill Hardesty says:

      Hey Sal, I abandoned my blog for several months so I could work on my second book. I hope you like MoH, it’s a first novel (I keep book-splaining LOL). I miss Tom, I’m glad his FB page is still up, I see that his family talk to him that way some times. It’s weird getting older, those days do not seem long ago, but the times we live in and the images that greet us in the mirror sure say otherwise. I got a little glimpse of Tom’s abilities but I didn’t really understand it, besotted as I was with 40’s.

      Reply

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