July 17, 2004

Structural Integrity

I spent the day yesterday downtown with Richard and Nick.  It was a good day.  

I've worked with them for seventeen years.  Richard and Nick are structural engineers.  I first met Richard while employed at the architectural firm where I began working about a year and a half after The Boy was born.  (That was a fabulous job and deserves more than a passing mention but I'm not writing about that just now.)
An architectural firm often uses other disciplines such as structural, mechanical and/or civil engineers as part of the project team.  Most architects have their preferred engineers with whom to work.  Richard and Nick's firm worked on many jobs with us.  Usually it was Richard, because he had attended college with one of the principals of the architectural firm and they were pals.

When the firm where I worked went out of business (another interesting life experience but also not the topic of this story), I went into business for myself as a bookkeeper.  There's more to that story also but again, it's not part of this tale (gee that line is getting old).  Richard and Nick's structural engineering firm was one of my first clients.  Because the timing was right.  And because I was very lucky.
They are an odd couple indeed.  Richard is originally from Haiti and Nick is British.  I don't know how they became friends, but they are friends in addition to being long-time business partners.  I listen to them banter about soccer matches and current events and their squash game.  They like each other.  Their firm has always been small, but they seem to prefer it that way.  I know I do.  I adore working for small business.  I've met Richard's wife on many occasions as she comes into the office now and again, but I've never met Nick's although I've spoken with her on the phone.  Richard's wife is also Haitian and Nick's is American.  Neither couple has children, but they both have dogs.  They also both live and work in the District.  I've never understood how anyone could live in the District because it's such a screwy place (uh Marion Barry, anyone?) but to each their own.
So America strikes again.  It's a beautiful thing.  How did a Haitian and a Brit hook up and start a business?  And why don't I know more of their origins?  I don't even know what brought them to America or how long ago they came.  Maybe those are the types of questions I'll start asking after I've known them for 20 years.  Don't want to rush into anything, after all.  They know pretty much as much about me as I know about them.  The basic outline of my life with some shading in places as conversations occur and details are revealed.  Like they know I'm gay and that I have a son and he's in college and where he goes to college and what he's studying and that my sister is a Buddhist nun and that I live with a woman named Wendy and that we love dogs and miss The Boy.  And that I'm a basically a happy individual.  I know they know that last part because Richard often comments how wonderful it is to see me because I've always got a smile on my face.
I know they are both Democrats as politics often come up in discussion.  I've seen pictures of Nick's esophageal ulcer and the incision from his dog's recent surgery to repair a torn achilles tendon and his wife in curlers holding what looks like a beach ball but is actually a humongous lemon.  I know they both are quite into family as they often talk of their families.  Richard has his mother living with him and she's not in the best of health.  Nick's mother and sister and her husband and children still reside in jolly old England and he travels there periodically to visit. Richard's bulletin board is covered with photos of his nieces and nephews (he's got a ton of them!) and other family members interspersed with some childish drawings. One that sticks in my head is a picture of a Gameboy drawn in crayon with the notation: "Thank you, Uncle Richard! Love, (unintelligible)". That drawing has been hanging in on his bulletin board for a very long time.

Over the years I've seen employees come and go from their firm.  Either by leaving for another job or necessary layoffs (the industry is decidedly cyclical) or as happened this year, suicide.

Yeah. Yikes.

In February, I walked into their office building at 14th & K Streets, NW.  Our Nation's Capital.  McPherson Square Metro stop.  Orange or blue line depending on which train comes along first.  Then a short walk that seems really long if it is raining.  The first thing Nick said before I could even say good morning was "Jim is no longer with us."  He had a very odd look on his face.  Like he was queasy.  I decided to let him continue speaking rather than blurting out the obvious question:  "WTF?"

Nick, as is his manner, speaks in a roundabout way but eventually gets to the point after back-tracking and side-tracking and front-tracking several times.  All in his cute little British accent.  Which usually makes for some interesting conversations.  Not his accent but his all-over-the-place-edness.  This time I really just wanted to know what had happened.  Yet interruptions would have slowed it all down.  So I let him talk without showing a trace of impatience.  My sister would have been proud of me.  As I am just not capable of recounting it the way he actually told it, I'll tell it my way herein with a bit of backstory too.
Jim had been working there for about three years.  Early 30's, single, into fishing, shaved head, about 70 pounds overweight, seriously white boy.  No visible tattoos.  (If I had to bet, I'd put my money on him being a pothead.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing.)  He had one of those posters of the deck of cards with the faces of the "America's Most Wanted" hanging in his cubicle.  The Iraqi edition.  When one was captured or killed, he put a circle with a line through it over the card.  Black for dead, red for captured.  Evidently he was a competent CADD operator as well as good at taking care of their computer systems.  He seemed nice enough to me, just a bit odd as people tend to be.  His timecards were always legible.  What more could I ask for? 

I was there on a Thursday.  Jim had called in the Friday prior, saying he had to be in court or something which was weird in itself.  The fellows were a bit befuddled.  Then Monday was a holiday.  And Tuesday he was a no-show.  Nick tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with him.  They were worried.  It was unlike Jim to just not show up for work. 

When he didn't show up again on Wednesday and didn't call or answer his home phone, Nick was disturbed enough to go a bit further to try and locate him.  He called the local court in the county where Jim resided, since that's where Jim had implied he'd be on Friday.  Perhaps he was doing jury duty or something.  What Nick found out was quite far from that. 

Long-Nick-story-short, Jim had been expected at court the prior Friday.  But it wasn't for jury duty.  It was for sentencing after his stalking conviction.  Jim didn't show up for his court appearance that day so a warrant had been issued for his arrest.  He had subsequently been found in his apartment, dead.  Suicide by hanging. 
Then the WTFs began in earnest.  Richard and Nick had worked with this man day in and day out for three years.  Yet obviously the personal information he had shared with them was but a tiny piece of what really went on with him outside of the office.  There was no hint of legal trouble.  Or obsessive behavior.  Turns out his conviction for stalking was due to his actions toward a woman who lived in the same apartment complex as him.  Or she used to live in the same apartment complex but had relocated to get away from him.  And he tracked her down to her new location.  Because that's what stalkers do, I guess.  While we don't know the details, he evidently caused her enough distress that she had him arrested and followed through with prosecution.  And he was convicted.  He was going to go to jail.  Instead he killed himself.

So that 20-year thought on sharing personal information?  That needs re-thinking.  Richard and Nick were quite shaken by this event.  They have a smattering of pictures taken in the office at various times of various employees in various work postures pinned up in various places around the office.  Now on his cubicle wall, Nick has a rather large photo of Jim on a roof doing a survey looking like Jim as we all remember him.  He's smiling.  I know they wish they'd known more.  That Jim had trusted them with more.  While they may not have been able to help him, they would have supported him.  Because they are good guys who care about people. 

I am fortunate to know them.

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