Goodbye, Mr. Carlo

My former boss, a bestselling crime author, passed away a week ago, and I wrote him a eulogy.  It is below.  Don’t know exactly of how much interest those who didn’t know him/me will find it, but people at the ceremony seemed to like it and so I’m posting it here to prove to myself/the Internet that I accomplished something in the past six days:

To open, I’m going to tell Phil’s favorite story about him and me, the story of the first time we worked together.  Now that I have a captive audience, I’ll get to tell it my way.  In Phil’s version of the story, I get flustered.  In mine, I do not.

It was late summer of 2007 and I had only met Phil once a few days earlier when he had offered me the job of assisting him after we had chatted for maybe seven or eight minutes.  At the time I was juggling three jobs and I left one early from one to meet Phil and Laura, who were coming from Phil’s parents house in Long Island, where they were staying while their apartment was being renovated.  They were late so I milled around the Duane Reade perusing the tabloid section as the clock ticked away.  Phil called me intermittently to give me an update –– still stuck in traffic, sheets of rain, be there ASAP.  Perhaps two hours later, we met inside of Georgia’s Bake Shop on the corner of 89th and Broadway and I opened my laptop and he dictated to me for the first of many, many times.  Laura had to run an errand so she dashed out leaving us alone with the work.  The sky was void-black, the rain showed no signs of stopping and the café was packed with typical Upper West Side characters, mostly female duos dressed like former art professors, seeking shelter from the storm.  After a few minutes of working, Phil said he had to go to the bathroom, and I, not yet fully aware of the magnitude of his diagnosis, kind of looked at him like, “Okay, so… go.”

“Can you help me get there?”

So I stood up and Phil, with the aid of his cane and my arm, managed to traverse the crowded bake shop and reach the restroom.  I waited outside for him and after two minutes the door eked open.

“I couldn’t get my pants up,” he said.  “Could you pull them up?”

I did so as he stood with his back to the wall.  His fly was still down but he insisted he could hold the waist of his pants with his elbow until Laura returned and could do the zipper for him.  Two steps out into the café, however, the pants dropped to around his knobby knees and the two of us leaned back a little in an attempt to hide from the clearly bemused, well-coiffed café patrons, who watched intently as a small blond creature tended to the pants of a wobbly-legged man.  After flies had been zipped and buttons buttoned, we returned to our little table by the window and resumed working.  And this is the story Phil told everyone when they expressed interest in his little assistant: the first time I worked with ___ and my pants fell down at Georgia’s.

It took me four days to even begin to write this speech.  I worked with Phil for a quite a while (somewhere between two years and a lifetime) and thus have a bevy of funny anecdotes I could share and a textbook of lessons he taught me.  In an effort to avoid making this too long, though, I’ve decided to stick to the two main ideas that I had two years ago when Phil first asked me to eulogize him.  Both fall under the category of Gifts Phil Gave Me (not material gifts, of which he gave me many, but what they were exactly, you do not want to know, trust me.)

First, and I know how vague and Hallmark Card this sounds, Phil taught me how to live actively and how to enjoy it.  This is not a new observation about this man; so many of us have said over the past few days how inexplicably shocked we were at his passing because he seemed so vibrant, so indefatigable.  He adored the fuck (can I swear in a chapel? I think if Phil were here and I asked him he’d respond, “Fucking A!”) out of life, and having grown up in a rather staid environment with a brain that sometimes forgot there was a body attached to it, the idea of taking deep and serious pleasure from life’s luxuries was downright radical to me.  It was only from watching this man, my surrogate father, eat and drink wine and get massaged and slather his perpetually brown skin with oils and lotions and soak up his beloved sun that I for the first time realized the value of the body.  He loved not only the intellectual work he did but the simple and corporeal pleasures of life, and he insisted I learn to love them as well.  “If you’re not happy, I’m not happy,” he used to say as he booked a massage appointment for me despite my half-hearted protests.

The second thing that Phil gave me was the most effusive and genuine encouragement of my own literary ambitions that I have perhaps ever received.  When I was in college, before I met Phil, I worked part-time for another well-known New York City writer.  This man has been something of a literary scion for decades and has had a string of female assistants over the years, and yet whenever he asked anyone what her professional goals were and she said writing (inevitably, because why would you work as a writer’s assistant if you didn’t want to be a writer?) he would always respond with something condescending and dismissive such as, “Oh, I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone” or “But why?  There’s no money in it.”  And this was a blind man who lived in an Upper East Side classic six entirely furnished by Sotheby’s.  As this is a sharp crowd, I doubt I need to dissect this metaphor.

But Phil never once bemoaned the state of publishing or suggest I consider accounting.  From day one, he wanted me to develop relationships with everyone and anyone he knew in the business of writing books.  He knew he was giving me a wealth of material by insisting I tag along to interviews with DEA agents, editorial meetings at big publishing houses and pizza dates with men in the Witness Protection Program.  Phil’s idea of the writer was a somewhat antiquated and romantic one; he liked to believe in the writer as wanderer, as artist, as renegade.  He himself lived that example, and he encouraged me to embrace my own unconventional, peripatetic nature.  He made concessions for me so I could go after stories I found compelling.  This past winter in Miami, when I wanted to write a piece about python hunting in the Everglades, he gave me the day off and requested simply that I try not to get eaten by a twenty-foot long snake.  It didn’t take much for him to admit that it would be pretty funny to have to interview new assistants and explain that the position was empty because his former assistant had passed away.

“Oh no, how did she die?” the little interviewees would ask.  “Car accident?  Plague?”

“No,” Phil would say in response, “she was eaten by a python.”

Another thing we shared was a somewhat sick sense of humor.

Phil knew that the most valuable gifts you can give a fledgling writer are experience and support, and he gave me bucket loads of both.  He asked me numerous times over the course of our working together if I would write a book about him after he had passed.  The only way I can respond to that request now is by saying that after everything we went through together, how could I not?  Don’t worry, Phil.  The process has already begun.

The writer in me that Phil so valued, she wants to end this speech on the most poignant note any New York Times book reviewer could fathom.  She wants to be able to give everyone, including Phil and herself, a sense of closure, of comfort, of finality.  She wants to whine to Phil that eulogies can never be anything but trite and cheesy and she’s never written one before, she doesn’t know how.  If Phil were here, he would tell her to read A Moveable Feast and follow Papa Hemingway’s example by sticking to simple, declarative sentences.  He would tell her to look at the horizon and be inspired by it.  He would tell her not to worry, because no matter what, she’ll do a great job.


PS I have it on good account that my eulogy was the best of six, and do you know what that means?  I deliver a better eulogy than Tony Danza.  Say WHAT!

4 Responses to “Goodbye, Mr. Carlo”

  1. allen mezquida Says:

    This is damn good writing. I wish I could have heard you read it. You moved so adroitly from the hilarious to the poignant. It’s to your credit that you absorbed such great life lessons. Carry on.

  2. katrina Says:

    i might get in trouble for saying this, but i think you can definitely curse in churches. god knows you’re cursing in your head so why try to hide it from everyone else? although, i guess people who are very reverent might be offended that you offended god. look on the bright side, you’re giving them a chance to practice respect for and acceptance of others! but i think god is on our side! sigh. lovely eulogy. i’m sure phil was smiling at you.

    • itinerantdaughter Says:

      I said in the speech (a slight ad-lib from what was written) that if I asked Phil that question, he would have said, “Fucking a!!!” 🙂

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