I met Conor a long time ago–fifteen years ago or thereabouts. And though I didn’t know him very well, I knew of him for so many years that he was part of the architecture, part of the air.
My memories of Conor from the late 1990s are all hazy and indistinct, for various reasons. In Boston in 1998–well, Cambridge, to be exact–time seemed scrambled; everything moved too rapidly and too slowly. I was 18 years old then, and a sophomore at MIT. In addition to school, I was working two jobs, and running a magazine on the side. I befriended Theo, a tall, lanky waiter at nearby Café Pamplona, who cut a striking figure in head-to-toe black and a top hat. Theo was dry, sarcastic and funny; he was fond of speaking darkly, about dark things. The café had many good espresso drinks, but at the bottom of the menu–as a joke, perhaps–‘Sanka’ was listed. I would always try to order the Sanka. Theo would, on cue, tell me it was not available, but that there were many other fine drinks on the menu.
I also became friends with Theo’s good friend Noah. Noah also dressed in all black, and wore a trenchcoat. Noah looked and acted like a fellow MIT student; he tied his long dark hair in a ponytail and he knew his way around a UNIX command line. Like Theo, he was wildly intelligent, and somewhat obsessed with Oingo Boingo. Both of them were mostly self-taught. Neither Theo nor Noah were in school; Theo had dropped out of high school. Theo and Noah’s friends had names like Starchy (which was short for ‘Starchild’, from what I was told) and Scuba. Together, they represented a rough-and-tumble world hidden inside of stuffy, pompous Cambridge. Their world, and that red cobblestone pit behind the Harvard Square T stop, seemed more human than MIT, in all its brutalist concrete glory. MIT could often feel suffocating and strange, like a cold dystopian ’70s sci-fi novel.
Through Theo and Noah, I met Conor. Conor was disarmingly handsome. He had a chiseled face and a devastating look in his eyes, like someone you’d see in a Calvin Klein ad. Except Conor was a total nerd, and a goth, and he looked ready for battle, in army-navy surplus camos and combat boots. His hair was dyed–all of us had odd-colored hair at the time, so I don’t even remember what color it was. On the surface, Conor seemed to have it all together. He was perhaps two years older than me and Noah, which instantly made him seem more sophisticated and worldly than we were. People looked up to Conor. They imitated his macho swagger, his facial expressions, his sardonic sense of humor. He reminded me of a rough cross between Cary Elwes in ‘The Princess Bride’ and Bruce Campbell in the ‘Evil Dead’ flicks. Women had impossible crushes on Conor. Anytime I saw him, it was as part of a group of people–maybe five or six of us–or I’d see him at a party at the Cloud Club, or at MIT, or in Central Square. At parties, Conor commanded attention by his very presence. A room automatically became cooler if Conor was in it. Like Amanda, who I also met at around the same time, Conor had a theatrical air about him; he performed well in front of an audience.
The last I had heard of Conor, sometime in 2002 or 2003, was that he was hanging out with sheep in New Zealand. This was mostly a joke, but he had traveled to Australia, and there was some business about llamas. I didn’t see Conor again, or much of anyone from that crowd, for a long while.
Fast-forward ten years, to December 2013. I’m at a party in San Francisco, my adopted home of two years. It had been a tumultuous two years in San Francisco, but finally things were starting to settle. I am at a party in a lovely house and Amanda is standing on a chair, and it’s like old times. And Conor is in the kitchen – who I hadn’t seen in over ten years.
San Francisco finally felt like Home, for the first time since I had moved here at the start of 2012. There was food and good drink and friendly people and there was Neil and Amanda and Conor. Conor didn’t recognize me at first–we all look different now–but he looked almost exactly the same. I talked to him for maybe an hour, in the kitchen, catching him up on news of lots of people he knew from his Boston days. Conor seemed to have it all together. He had a fancy job now, as an engineer at BitTorrent. He had a baby (!) and a wife. I was amazed and impressed. We talked about a lot of things. He texted me his number; we were going to hang out. If only I had sensed the deep sadness in his eyes, when he was telling me how great everything was.
“Conor’s eyes were always sad,” Scuba told me at the grim ‘after-party’ following the funeral yesterday, at an old church in Oakland. I half-expected Conor to saunter into the room, to supply a clever riposte. It all felt so surreal, and so strange. Some people were pouring themselves drinks. Some were talking to each other, in hushed tones. Some were crying hysterically. I was struck by how many people were there–Conor had a huge contingent of friends in California, who all seemed so wonderful and interesting and well-dressed. I didn’t recognize most of them, but I recognized Starchy and Scuba. Starchy was heroically fighting back tears until they finally flowed. It broke my heart to see him cry–in these terrifying, huge, gaping sobs that wouldn’t stop, the kind of sobs that make your throat and lungs hurt. I had a long talk with Scuba, who was morose, but more composed.
“Think of it like an overdose,” Scuba said to me. “Conor overdosed on sadness.”
His voice choked up a bit.
“Conor overdosed on confidence, too. Sadness, and confidence.”
I gave Scuba a hug. He gave me a hug. Then I went home, to San Francisco.