I'm not sure that I really expected to see you again, but I definitely didn't think that the last time I saw you would be the last time I would ever have a chance to see you.
I still remember you vividly, smoking with the wind blowing your hair sideways, squinting to keep the smoke out of your eyes.
"What are you going to do?" I asked
"I don't know, whatever pays the most to do the least." You said with a teasing smile, one that I had come to know too well on countless weekend mornings. Your humility was a good match for your dry humor, you may have had a penchant for slacking off whenever you could, but it was never the same as shirking responsibility.
I can remember the first time I saw that mischevious grin, you were sitting in my aunt's car, playing with a toy made for toddlers, trying your best to make it work in a way it was never designed. One hand holding the dial firmly in place while the other finessed the lever with precision. "The cow says - The cow says - The cow says - The cow - The cow - The cow- The cow says MOOO."
I had all but forgotten you until I got my first job where you were already a seasoned veteran. On my first day, you offered to help me take out the trash, at first I resisted, indicating that I could lift the can alone, but after one flash of that troublesome smirk, I never had to question you again... Trash-Breaks we came to call them... Once the can was emptied and the overfilled dumpster had been smashed down enough to close, what more was there do to but catch a few minutes of conversation and smoke before returning to the hectic pace of the kitchen.
Outside the building, near the nook where you liked to hide from the wind, there was a hole in the siding where you would deposit your snuffed out butts. Another cook who you worked with before my time had started the tradition, and you continued out of sheer curiousity, wondering where they went, feeling as though the wall should have surely filled up and overflowed by now. That is, until one day when someone called the fire department because the building was smoldering. No one was ever sure whether it was because of a cigarette or some other cause, I think the official declaration was electrical fire, but we all snickered quietly knowing that every restaurant in the building had a smoker who dropped butts in the hole. We always assumed that someone dropped one in while it was still smoldering, but how can you find out about something like that without self-incrimination?
I know you were glad that you hadn't smoked that day, but we didn't really talk about it, you were afraid that Sheila would find out and fire you or turn you in, even though she rarely did more than give us a sideways glare when we got into trouble. Now that I think about it, you probably never told anyone about that who didn't already know.
At lunch-time one day, you over heard me making an order and introduced me to an invention of your own, the B.L.T.T. (Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato and Tuna). The combination never seemed right in language, but I tried it anyway, knowing that I could hassle you for a few days if it was disgusting. Like yourself, the sandwich represented a combination of it's own individually meritous objects which you wouldn't expect to blend into such a unique experience.
I liked it enough to have it again several times, once getting too lazy with my hand-writing, making the head-cook Stefan proclaim loudly "What is a BUTT Sandwich?" Which is exactly what he and I called it from that point forward.
That is the kind of humor which keeps you level in a stressful environment, everyone in the kitchen would laugh when you would beat eggs in our two gallon jars with the giant wisk. The vigorous up and down motion always made you smile and we all knew what was on your mind.
On a particular weekend morning, several people had called in sick, you and I joked about sneaking out of the kitchen and calling Sheila from the payphone, even though she'd already seen us at work. I found some way to get outside and call the kitchen phone... "Sheila, I'm pretty sick, so I don't think I'm going to make it in today."
"HA!" She laughed, immediately walking as far as the phone cord would stretch to try to figure out where I was "Where is he? Where did he go? I know I saw him." she continued, ending with "Very funny, now get back in here!"
As time went on, you taught me to do your job, not just so I could help you out, but to prepare me to take over for you when you finally decided to leave. I still have you to thank for teaching me the faster ways to dice potatoes, mince parsley and crack eggs one-handed (with both hands, at the same time), and how to steal knives from the cooks... After I took over for you, one of the cooks would usually catch my eye when I was beating eggs and we'd both laugh, remembering how much fun you were to have around.
In my life, I've learned that the people you work with are never appreciated the way they should be. You spend hours, days, weeks and years with them and you rely on them to keep you level and focused, or at least entertained, and in the end they represent a narrow cross-section of how we see ourselves.
This is why I had to write this for you; When I learned you were gone, I had to get this down before it was lost with you. Up to that point, I knew you were still somewhere, making dark places bright with humor, but now your bright light only lives on in what parts of it you shared with all of us left behind.
I didn't go to your memorial service, it's never been my way of dealing with things, and I never got the feeling that it was yours either. Compared to the many people who knew you better, I didn't feel I could offer them more than what they already had and I already cherish the great memories you gave me.
What I did instead, was introduce my family to an almost forgotten sandwich, the same that you introduced me to over a decade ago, and told them stories of our shenanigans.
I don't believe it's our place to govern our times to come and go, but I like to imagine that if you ever had the chance, you'd like to help me take out the trash, one last time...