It was the summer of 1997. I was living in Memphis, attending college, and working full time as an assistant manager at Party City. And I was ready for a change. I loved Pier 1 Imports, and a new store was opening across the street from a new mall called Wolfchase Galleria which had just opened in February. I decided to apply, was interviewed by the store manager on the spot, and started there two weeks later. After a few months, I was promoted to an early hours assistant manager position that would be in charge of unloading the freight, receiving it, and stocking it. I was trained by the 1st assistant manager, a man named George Ettinger. George was nine years older than me, and like me, he was gay. We got along great. We liked the same music. We often saw each other out. George was an all-around nice guy with lots of friends. Like many, I loved having him as a coworker and friend.
Less than a year later, I found myself having to look for a new place to live. There was an ad in the Memphis Flyer for someone looking to share a rental house on North Parkway, close to downtown. I immediately called the number to see if it was still available. It was, so I went to look at the place that night. I accepted it and began moving in the next day. My roommate was a young man named Spencer. The house was a tall two story rectangular old brick house with a flat roof. It had a large front porch and balcony, a small front yard. For the neighborhood, it was a bit creepy but it had such charm on the inside. The entire bottom floor was Spencer’s apartment: a three bedroom unit with a large kitchen and hardwood floors in the front room. It was mostly empty because Spencer didn’t have a lot of things. The rest of the house was divided into two apartments upstairs and two one room apartments on the back of the house. The landlord was an old man named Bill who had grown up in the house. And the rent for mine and Spencer’s apartment, the largest in the house, was only $500 a month and that included utilities!
In December, Spencer got into some trouble and vacated the apartment. It was an uneasy situation, but I was happy to take over the apartment and try to find a new roommate. At the time, George was wanting to move back to Midtown so I mentioned the place to him. He followed me home that night to take a look at it and immediately agreed to move in. He loved the placed and had enough stuff to help finish decorating it. We set up the third bedroom as a TV room. We painted the entire place. George loved tinkering with things and fixing up the place. I remember coming home and finding he’d removed all the hardware from the kitchen cabinets to clean them. George was also a good cook. And he liked to work outside so he set out improving the front yard and making our quaint little porch a nice retreat for us and the neighbors. We threw wonderful parties…Christmas, Birthdays, whatever. With his friends and my friends, the house was always filled with laughter and smiles. George and I became close friends, and he was the best roommate I ever had.
As time passed, George and I both left Pier 1. He became a full time bartender at the Pipeline, which eventually became the Pumping Station when the owner died and one of George’s friends took it over. I went to work as an assistant manager at Bookstar, a position I’d only keep a year before going back to Pier 1 to be a manager-in-training. I was tired of Memphis and ready for a change. And I wanted to find love. So, in the Fall of 2001 I interviewed for a position as store manager in St. Louis, Missouri. I was offered the position and accepted it, and soon found myself surrounded by movers packing up my things in the house at 925 North Parkway. In September, 4 days after 9/11, the house was half empty, my cats were crated in the backseat of my car, and George and I stood on the porch saying our good-byes. He was the last person I saw in Memphis before driving away to my new life in St. Louis. Before I left, George slipped a gift into my backseat. When I arrived in St. Louis, I discovered it was one of his jewelry boxes shaped like a dragon, and inside was a post-it note on which he’d written, “It will all be okay.”
I saw George and his new husband, Greg, again in 2003 when I returned to Memphis for a visit. They’d made even more changes to the house, opening a doorway through my old bedroom that led into the front room. It really looked nice. They would eventually buy the house when Bill passed on. From then on, we lost touch. Miles and distance and time were all that kept us apart. We found each other on Facebook ten years ago, and though we didn’t speak much on there, it was still like I was part of his life. I could see photos of the house. He and Greg grew vegetables in the back yard. That’s the magic of the internet I suppose, a super power that we take for granted because it’s such an everyday part of our lives.
And it was on Facebook last night where I learned that George had passed away quietly in his sleep the night before at age 47. I immediately messaged a friend in Oklahoma who had been our neighbor back then. George and Greg were the God parents of her child, so she’d kept in closer contact with them than I had. She told me George had had a heart attack a few years ago. He was diabetic and had neuropathy in both feet. Despite his health setbacks, he was in good spirits so the cause of death right now was unknown. I messaged Greg who told me that George had spoke of me often. I had spoken of him too and thought of him often over the years, and now regretted that I had not spoken to him or visited. I was just speechless, recalling all the good times we’d had at 925 North Parkway #1.
Despite our lack of contact, I still thought of George as a friend. A close friend. I had a lot of friends in Memphis and I was selfish for leaving them. I haven’t stayed in contact with any of them, and though they are guilty of the same I don’t fault them for that. And yeah, we are all friends on Facebook, keeping up with each other’s lives through witty posts and pics but we rarely speak to one another. But if we gathered in a room, there would be no anger. We’d pick right up where we left off, where time left us all those years ago. And we’d say a toast to George…Bubba, as his good friends and family called him.
I still can’t believe he’s gone. I learned so much from him now that I look back. He taught me how to stack fancy wicker chairs at Pier 1 without damaging them, a savvy skill I haven’t had to use in years but I was damn good at it. He taught me to have fun, and not be so serious about life at times. And now, he’s taught me how important friendship is and how though we have Facebook, we still need each other in our lives. Sure, George got along just fine without me. But if we never forget someone, and have never forgotten them or the impact they had on our lives, then just being friends on Facebook can’t be the excuse we have for not reaching out to one another. If it is, then one day it might be too late, like it is now for me.
I know George wouldn’t want me to beat myself up about this. Sure, he’d razz me a bit and give me a hard time for not visiting, but I could do the same to him. But then he’d probably remind me that he never forgot about me and probably thought of me often, as I have with him. And that’s good enough for me, and makes me feel a bit better to know that no matter what, no matter where I find myself, I still had a friend.
It will all be okay.