Just last week a longtime writer remarked to me how much fun people have in newspaper offices. He was right; we take it as a God-given perk. Even when griping, we usually don't have to wait too long for someone in the newsroom to make someone else laugh.
Day in and day out, our little news factory on Sunflower Avenue is like that.
Except for Tuesday, when for a time in the afternoon no one felt like laughing and the baseball playoffs didn't matter anymore.
Stan Allison, one of our favorite office mates and chief merrymakers, hadn't shown up for work. Worried editors dispatched staffers to his Cypress house and, sometime after lunch, most of us learned that he'd been found dead in his bedroom of as-yet undisclosed causes.
If you knew what a big, funny guy Stan could be, you'd appreciate how quiet the office suddenly got. He used to slap me on the shoulder and I'd wince at the force of the blow. "You've got a hand like a bear's paw," I'd say. "Sorry, honey," he'd say with a grin.
There's not a person in the newsroom who hasn't written about someone's death, but it was hard to accept that we were now talking about Stan, who when he left Friday night was talking about turning 53 the next day. Hard to accept because in our small newsroom, his voice could always be heard on the telephone -- sometime serious, sometimes upset and sometimes lapsing into what I'd call the "street talk" from his native Staten Island while he talked to a longtime friend.
Stan was probably pushing 300 pounds and knew he needed to lose weight, in part because he'd had a scare a few months ago with a heart problem. Typically, he dived into his "rehab" with vigor and humor.
"Oh, man, what a chore to make oatmeal in the
office," Stan had messaged colleague Bill
Lobdell just last week. "Two cleanups in our kitchen's microwave, but man, was it worth it! Tossed in some banana, a little sugar and skim milk. Delicious. Thanks for the tip."
That was Stan -- excited and challenged by oatmeal.
He was part of a group of us hooked on the TV show "24." In each of the last three years, we've had a party to celebrate the final episode. It was at my place last May and, afterward, as people took turns leaving, I was outside when Stan belatedly emerged from my condo. "Uh, big trouble back in your house," he said.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"My big fat ass just broke your chair."
We erupted in laughter. He'd cracked some underpinning and vowed to pay for it. I apologized for providing inferior furniture, and we laughed again.
Last week, he asked if I'd fixed it yet. Nope, I said.
Now I'm thinking I'll keep the broken chair as a memorial.
He was a grown man with a kid's sensibilities. When another colleague, Jennifer Mena, had a Sunday shift and fretted over baby sitters for her kids, 4 and 7, Stan -- who had no children -- volunteered to take them. On Wednesday -- four days in advance -- Stan met with the kids and, with pen and paper, jotted down their upcoming activities. He took them to Adventure City and El Pollo Loco. After the long day, Jennifer says, Stan brought her kids home and told them to go to their rooms. "I need a break," he announced.
"We don't call him Uncle Stan for no reason," says colleague Mai Tran.
Stan would like to know that some of the somberness wore off as Tuesday afternoon wound down. He knows we had a newspaper to put out. So conversation returned and so did some laughter, some of it as we shared "Stan" stories.
"Remember that time when his duck was kidnapped?" Mai reminded me, referring to a few years ago when Stan couldn't find a plastic duck on his desk. It had disappeared just as staffers were scrambling around in a last-minute office search for a "cheap gifts" exchange for Christmas.
The laughs were never far removed from Stan -- but right now we all know we've lost a colleague and a unique friend.
He used to grouse to me that he struggled to write and that it came easily to me.
Not really, I told him.
And seldom, big guy, as tough as it was this time.