A tiny Korean guy with thin eyes hidden behind thick glasses under a well-worn and faded ball cap, he looked kind of mousy under awkwardly baggy clothes and behind a soft voice. And even though neither of us drank much, we met at a bar — me speed-sucking a gin and tonic through a needle-thin straw, him warming a well-nursed beer and occasionally taking baby sips.
When he mentioned he was from Boston, I asked about the Red Sox and he played along well enough. “Big win last night,” he offered cautiously. “Maybe still have a chance at the playoffs?” Of course, that launched me on a rant about the bullpen and whether Curt Shilling had enough steam for another big run. He nodded on, listening intently, asking genuine and serious questions, and letting our friendship take root over sports, of all things. Of course, he never watched the stuff, but was nice enough to let me talk mindlessly about it all night.
Full of wry smiles, awkward pauses, and mock-serious faces, Chris was a complex, fascinating, creative person who grew into a remarkably close friend during the two years I lived in the US. He got excited about little things, like caramelizing onions perfectly for an hour on low heat, getting randomly selected to fill out a survey of his radio habits, or learning a new keyboard shortcut in Microsoft Excel.
But it wasn’t the bar scene that helped our friendship bloom. It was the car scene.
Yeah, when I showed up to school on our first winter morning shivering to the bone in a flimsy nylon coat, my hair wet, my face dripping, Chris asked where I lived and if I needed a ride the next day. As I was at that moment toweling my face off with a fistful of balled up Kleenex, I took him up on it right away. (Lucky for me Chris had signed up to be a senior student in an undergrad residence way off campus, spending his free time for two years chaperoning social events, holding heads above toilets, and editing two or three resumes a night on a steady clip.)
Anyway, he began picking me up every morning for the next two years, probably at least a couple hundred rides, never once accepting money for gas because, as he said, “I’m going that way anyway.” When other students heard about my taxi service, they got in on it, too. It started with a “Hey Chris, if there’s a blizzard tomorrow, can I catch a lift?”, and turned into Chris emailing three or four of us each night, giving us the Bus Schedule, as he called it, timed precisely to the minute for the next morning. And so it went — us piling into his car after he’d spent the first few minutes warming it up for us, tightly blanketed in fat mittens and his trademark big blue hat.
Two years later, in Spring, 2007, Chris and I went on a three week roadtrip with our friend Ty, which I’ve mentioned before here and here. Not too long after the trip began, we started joking about how much Chris was text-messaging his friends. It was non-stop, how in touch he was constantly with people. “Jake says hi,” he’d deadpan, his back facing the Grand Canyon, surrounded by people all looking the other way. Eventually, he made a joke of it, letting us take photos of him obliviously focused on his cell phone in front of every big site we stopped at. He absolutely loved the gag and laughed wildly before and after each photo.
Last year I nervously started up this page, tentatively dipping my toe into cyberspace where anyone could see. Chris of course adopted his Mexican half-brother pseudonym San Carlos and peppered us with comments of support from the get-go. On #1000 Broccoflower, he wrote “My policy is to avoid all foods that look to be from outer space. Eggplant. Mushrooms. And, apparently, broccoflower.” On #885 Paying for something with exact change he wrote “I save all my pennies in my car. And then, the next time I do McDonald’s drive-through, I fling all the pennies into the server’s face. … No, actually, I put the pennies into the Ronald McDonald’s House box right underneath the window.” On #859 Playing with a baby and not having to change its diaper he wrote “I don’t mind changing my nephews diapers. It only got weird when they began to talk. Awkward!”
I loved his sense of humor and his way about himself. I loved how he laughed, frequently, at little things, and got so excited about tiny details most people overlooked. Chris and I spoke three or four times a week over the past year, in ten or fifteen minute snippets usually, but sometimes for an hour or two. He’d tell me about the sourdough bread he was going to bake that day, the elaborate meal he had planned for friends coming for dinner, or the New York Times article he read that I should check out. I would ask him for ideas for this page — he had plenty — and occasionally go on long rants about sports.
Chris died suddenly this past week. He was 32.
No amount of the usual closing rhyming couplets or fist-to-the-sky proclamations are going to bring him back. But I know he’s in a peaceful place and would want us all to just be happy, keep plugging, and enjoy our lives as full as we can. So thank you, Chris. You’ll always inspire me.
And you’ll always be so incredibly awesome.
This entry is in The Book of Awesome