I got the call yesterday that an old friend from my college days died. Even though TJ and I hadn’t spoken in several years, the news hit me like a kick in the gut. It knocked the wind out of me and left me at a complete loss for words. TJ and I met sometime during my freshman year of college. Our paths crossed often, as we ran among the same circles of friends. Like a VENN diagram, our paths kept crossing.
Somewhere along the way, our mutual interest in music clicked—probably when I learned he worked at Camelot Music at University Park Mall—and that’s what set the wheels in motion. Over the next several years TJ and I, along with several other students at IU South Bend—Brit, Tom, Robin, Mark, Pat…and too many others to name here—became the big circle of college friends. Between student newspaper, student government, campus activities, trips to conventions and trips to Florida for Spring Break, these were the people with whom I spent most of my time. Invariably, TJ became something of the hub for all most of us.
All the guys hung out at TJ’s house; “the Den,” as we knew it. Whenever I was hanging out there, I could count on seeing at least two or three other people who’d just show up. Usually, Brit, TJ and I hung out. Or Tom, TJ and I. Or maybe Rob H. would come over. And then Brit’s here again.
It’s a good thing TJ’s parents and sisters were so cool with it, because we spent countless hours in that Osceola basement room of his.
TJ’s collection of CDs rivaled mine; probably dwarfed it, actually. If you recall, this was long before the internet was a thing, so our only conduit to new music was MTV and Camelot Music. TJ had the hookup on the occasional new stuff coming down the pike. Our mutual interest as audiophiles evolved to a point where I purchased a cheap mixing board and would take it to TJ’s house, where we’d record what would be described as podcasts today. Our maiden voyage was TJ, Tom and I. Then, while I was away at Spring Break, TJ and Brit took over and made mixtapes.
In case you ever wondered whom to blame for my love of the 70s band Badfinger, blame TJ. He stumbled upon original vinyl pressings of Straight Up and No Dice. The sound quality was horrible, through no fault of TJ, but rather whomever previously owned the copies. “It sounds like they were played with a nail,” he once said. But we slapped those albums on cassettes and played the hell out of them on a daily basis.
You may recall me talking about Celestial Navigations recently (featuring actor Geoffrey Lewis in storyteller mode). I hooked into those recordings, courtesy of TJ.
Later on, TJ and I became de facto DJs for our friends’ parties: Kim Hall’s graduation party and Audrey Knoblach’s New Year’s Eve party. What I remember the most about Kim’s party is it rained like a son of a bitch! It poured buckets; so much so, that we had to move the party indoors, off the back porch.
Music nerd-dom aside, all the time we spent together back then continues to inform my decisions today. No, seriously. TJ was one of the most ridiculously organized people I knew. He had organizational systems for everything. When we were in student government together, I picked up on his systems and have used them in some form ever since. You laugh, but it’s true.
After college, we all went our separate ways, but kept in touch. Around 1997, when I moved back to South Bend for a job, TJ and I began a weekly ritual of getting together every Wednesday night at Mr. D’s for a beer (or three). We kept this ritual until I began working at a casino and my work hours prevented it.
Somewhere around Spring 2001, TJ called me from out of the blue. We hadn’t spoken much lately for the simple fact that we were just living our day-to-day lives. His father had gotten very sick and was in the hospital. From the tone of his voice, I knew it was serious; more than just a routine procedure. I know he reached out because we’re friends. I also assumed he reached out because, not even a year prior, my dad died.
I went up to the hospital the following night. TJ, his sisters, mother and entire extended family were there. Having been in similar situations, I could feel the tension, anxiety and stress in the air. Everyone was pleasant and chatty, but it was clouded by such a palpably nervous atmosphere you could cut it with a knife. I don’t know if everyone there realized how grave it was for TJ’s dad, but they put on brave faces and hoped for the best; TJ included. When I left later that night, TJ walked down to my car with me. This was the only time he let his guard down. I think he knew he had to be strong for his mother and sisters. “Kevin, I’m losing my dad,” he said to me when we were outside. I really didn’t know what to say.
To this day, I regret that. This is not about me, right now, but that always bothered me. I even apologized to TJ a few months later, after his dad died. I felt like I let him down. Having just gone through a similar experience with my dad, you’d think I would be able to offer some words of comfort or wisdom. I had nothing. I think I was too sad, knowing what they were feeling and going through.
And a word, for a moment about TJ’s mother, whom I always loved. At the funeral for TJ’s dad, she said to me (knowing about my dad), “this must be hard for you.” She just lost her husband and she’s looking out for me.
It’s probably been at least 10 years since I last spoke with TJ. The last time we connected was on Myspace, if that tells you anything. I knew he’d gotten married, but that’s about all I knew. Nothing bad happened. There was no falling out or anything. Again, life gets in the way.
Even though we haven’t spoken in years, TJ always remained a friend. He was still a part of one of those circles from way back when, even if that circle got a little less active. After all, most of us in that circle no longer live near one another. TJ moved to the Indianapolis area. I moved to Vegas. Brit’s over in The Region, near Chicago. Tom’s in California. Robin’s in Detroit. And several others I haven’t named have moved around too, I’m sure. If not that, people have families now. It’s fairly cliché, when you stop to think about it.
Anyway…I’ve spent a lot of time tonight reflecting on all those days, nights, weekends, parties, bowling leagues, student government meetings and other nonsense we shared back before I was even 21. Goddamn, we had some fun back then. Yeah, it’s nearly a lifetime ago, but those memories feel like they happened just yesterday. And even though years and miles separate us, I’m glad TJ was a big part of those memories.
But, yeah. It’s still like a kick in the gut today. That being said, I’ll leave it on this song, a favorite of mine and a favorite of TJ’s.
Until we meet again, friend.