When saying hello to a friend was saying goodbye

BY KATE WALTER |  Last September, on a perfect late summer afternoon, as I walked up Hudson St., I saw Larry sitting on his second-floor fire escape reading. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and looked comfortable. I debated whether to say hello because he — always the English professor — was immersed in his book.

 I hadn’t run into him in the neighborhood lately. Nor had I seen him on campus. Classes had just resumed at Borough of Manhattan Community College, where we both taught remedial English, but in different departments. 

I decided to shout up, “Hi, Larry.” I yelled and waved. He looked down to the sidewalk and waved back “Hey, Kate.” He seemed glad to see me.   

When I first met Larry in the summer of 2006, I was going through the painful breakup of my 26-year lesbian relationship. My ex had cut me off cold and I could barely function. Larry was also going through a divorce, so we were kindred spirits. We commiserated in the campus cafe over coffee. 

Back then, Larry and I worked at the college as certified readers who scored the entrance essays of incoming students to determine their class placement. We were adjuncts, who needed the extra cash. For me, going into work to read papers was a distraction from sitting home crying and obsessing about my ex.    

Even though he was straight and I’m gay, we bonded during that awful summer when we hung out together during our breaks. It felt comforting to talk with someone else going through an inexplicable breakup. Neither of us had the answers we craved.  

“Why is she doing this to me,” I asked, “when she says she still loves me?” 

“Why is my wife being so difficult?” asked Larry, who struck me as a good father. At least I was not dealing with custody and alimony issues.  

As years passed, our careers evolved: We were both hired full time and now had real salaries. After I stopped scoring essays (our main meeting place) we saw each other less often on campus. 

But Larry was also my neighbor in the far West Village, where he had moved after his divorce. He lived on Hudson St. above Dublin, the Irish pub, where he hung out greeting me from the bar’s open window on the street. I’d run into him Saturday mornings at the Abingdon Square Greenmarket, where we discussed the merits of heirloom tomatoes. I’d see him grocery shopping in D’Ag’s on Bethune St. 

Larry was tall, lanky, athletic, with close-cropped gray hair. He wore jeans and cowboy boots, played basketball and always rode his bike to work. On Rate My Professors, a student wrote, “He’s so good-looking you will be distracted.” 

About two weeks after I saw Larry on the fire escape, the cleaning woman came into my office, agitated. She told me everyone on campus was upset about the professor found dead in his apartment. She didn’t know his name but he had gray hair and rode a bike. I flipped through possibilities: Who cycled to work? Was it Larry? But I’d just seen him. I raced from my office to find out.  

Over the next few days, I picked up pieces of the story: Larry had cancer but decided to forgo treatment. He’d watched his father suffer through the same illness and did not want to endure that diminished quality of life. He kept his condition quiet but was clearly not well when he returned to work in September. During his last classes, he was so weak that students asked, “Professor, do you want us to call an ambulance?” He refused.

When their teacher did not show up for the next meeting, concerned students went to the department office. After administrators called Larry’s phone and got no answer, they contacted the N.Y.P.D., who gained access to his apartment. 

I was stunned as I heard variations of this news unfolding. But, mostly, I was grateful I had decided to interrupt when I saw Larry reading on his fire escape. I thought I was saying hello, but I realize now I was saying goodbye.

A month later, I was walking up Hudson St. and I saw a carton of  books on the sidewalk. An avid reader, I’ve always rummaged through piles of discards left on a stoop. When I pulled out the stash, I discovered lots of new texts, literature and writing. And I thought to myself, “This person must  be an English teacher.” Then it hit me: I was standing in front of Larry’s building. 

I took a brand-new three-volume boxed set of world literature. I also took “The Counterculture Reader” and a book on writing research papers. The latter is in my office at the college and the literature collections are on my bookshelves in my loft.

After I rescued these books, I saw workers renovating Larry’s old place.

I felt sad and turned down Bank St. recalling the summer he helped rescue me.

One Response to When saying hello to a friend was saying goodbye

  1. Dear Ms. Walter, I am Larry’s brother, Robert. Thank you for that very warm memory of my brother. It is really comforting learning of all the people he touched in his too-short life. I miss him every day.

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