My Tribute to friends

"My Tribute to friends"

“When I die, all my memories will die too”

This was a statement from a long time friend recently, with no lead in or context.  He is extremely intelligent, and generally only speaks once he has given a great deal of thought to what he wants to say, and to whom he says it. Although I can’t say for certain what timeline of thought brought him to this statement or to direct it at me, I am sure it wasn’t random.

His words came to me today, when I heard the news of another friends passing. It was sudden, although his health had been a trouble issue for him the last few years. Steve was one of the neighborhood guys that I have written about in many posts. “Bearded Steve”, for his ZZ Top facial hair, “Motorcycle Steve”, for the 1980 Fat Boy Harley he bought new and still rode. “Smoke Shop Steve”, “Gun Shop Steve”, because he worked on the block at those places. His friends over the years knew him for his many other ventures and kindness. “Mac and Murph” for long running DJ business; The many electrical jobs and projects he worked on over the years; His behind the counter attitude at any of the pizza shops opened by his friends Joe and Jim - Pizza Stop and Joe’s Brooklyn locations. 

 I had coffee with Steve many days a week through my 20 years.  On many of those days he could be found hanging out in my kitchen as we caught up on recent events if it was too busy to sit.  When he married Joanne he solicited my help to ask a judge friend to perform the ceremony. He obliged and we met one afternoon in the judges chambers.  He asked me to be a witnesses and I had to do so in my stinky work clothes that day, due to my own oversight.   

The link for one of the stories I have written about Steve MacNeal are here. He features prominently in many of my tales because Steve fit the mold for what makes life interesting and unique. He was a true outlier, like so many of my other friends.  That seems to be a commonality among the people in my life. 

The end of Steve’s life was quick, and I will try to find some solace in that fact. He fainted behind the counter at the pizza shop where he was helping out a few hours a week. His wife came and took him to the hospital where his heart stopped. He was revived, but fell into a coma. He lasted about a day, and said his final goodbyes. Quickly, quietly, and to the point. That was quite indicative of Steve’s personality. The same way he would leave my store most days. He was just gone. 

 Steve died on My 14, 2015. He was 66 years old.

Steve’s passing has brought back the memories of all the other friends and customers that have gone over the years.  I have had to say goodbye to friends far too often in my 50 years. I know loss is not only a part of life but one of the only guarantees we are given. Whether at the end of a long, well lived life, or suddenly in the middle of something unfinished.  Most of have had some experience with loss or will have some in the future.

I would like to say my goodbyes here for a few of them, if you’ll indulge me.  There is a two part past post on this site about a man I call “Van”. If you read those posts you know the story. One of the things Van and I talked about often was the difference between the aging process on the body and on the mind. More specifically, given the choice (which we aren’t), what would be your preference.  Would you rather have your mind go first so that all of the other physical problems you encounter are less impactful on your mind. Or would you rather have your mental faculties stay acute as your body refuses to cooperate. The slow deterioration of the body with full awareness and inability to fix the issues.   

When the mind goes first we depend on others for what used to be our daily mental tasks.  When the body goes first we often depend on others to assist in our daily physical tasks.  Not sure which is easier on ourselves or on others. I don’t think either of us ever came to a conclusion on this subject matter. In the end, Van fell down a flight of stairs because of his physical limitations, which drove him nuts, and never recovered.  

Van died on November 20th, 2004. He was 89 years old.

Jim Rizzo was a lawyer on our State Street block. He worked alone, probably for his sake and for the sake of others.  He was a kind man through every action and through every part of his body. He laughed at the end of most of his statements, mainly because I think he found life entertaining, and people interesting. Some may have found him a little socially awkward, which made others think he was odd. He fit right in with me.  Jim’s commentary on life was often a reach for others to comprehend but if you could find the connection, he always made sense and it ended up to be funny.  He had this hobby of flying small planes and was the president of the Finger Lakes Soaring club. Jim often took the trip over the finger lakes to enjoy the glorious views. Something happened one day as he took to the skies and that was how Jim’s life ended. Obagelo’s had closed for good when Jim’s plane had crashed, and I never had the opportunity to memorialize his life in my small way. He went fast, doing something he loved. 

Jim Rizzo died on August 25, 2012. He was 66 years old.

“Lenny” was another local attorney and by and large he was considered an asshole.  He liked that people thought that of him. He was brash and crass for no other reason than to make it known that he was brash and crass. Other customers not only avoided him but the tables around him also. He enjoyed getting a reaction from anyone he encountered. In his later years he was short and round and the unverifiable stories he told with that arrogant and overly confident style of speech either made you run fast or cringe.  There were a few of us who barked back and that usually gained you some respect, but it often led to full on arguments. Lenny and I had many of these over the years and he stopped coming in as a protest, off and on over the years. When he returned it was in true Lenny style with a lecture on the things that were wrong with me and my impending failure on those accounts. I served him with a smile, asked him to keep quiet and try to not to be the cause of this doom by talking to other customers.

Leonard Relin had a heart attack while out of town and spent a long time in a hospital in North Carolina where he succumbed to his ailment.  He had to know it was coming as he lie in that bed and the few friends he retained over the years probably didn’t visit much.  I liked Lenny somedays, and on other days, he ventured to the top the of the list of difficult customers.   

Lenny Relin died on May 6th, 2010. He was 73 years old.

“The other Ned” was a regular lunchtime customer during the week.  On Saturday’s he would bring his two young kids for fresh bread. The kids loved to munch on our fresh rolls and it was a regular outing with dad. Ned worked at what was left of Kodak. In the store he was a great optimist and I can’t recall a time he didn’t have a smile on face.  Based on the references of his humor (the ones I could follow), he was smart enough to be a character on “The Bing Bang Theory”. Ned Wolf had an inspiring personality. No matter how obnoxious I was, he was still smiling.  Ned had some form of bile duct cancer, and tried his best to manage through chemotherapy, knowing that the survival rate for stage IV cancer of this type was 2%. He was a strong, intelligent, and positive man. One I am happy to have had the pleasure of serving over the years.  

Ned Wolf died April 10th, 2011. He was 37 years old. You can read his blog at to get a better picture of the man I knew. 

When I first moved back to the city, I rented a loft on St. Paul Street from one of the meanest people I have ever met.  This little old lady that ran Harry Forman’s Clothing store was the epitome of a time long since past, in a city that doesn’t exist any longer.  There was one other loft in the building and Alan Farkas and his wife Wendi lived there.  Alan was a commercial photographer that worked for Kodak, and on his own over the years.  Proximity and commonalities in life drew the four of us together in a very nice neighborly way.  I still have fond memories of their wedding on Block Island in Rhode Island. Alan had cancer when he was younger and was a survivor.  He and his wife supported my business when I first opened and throughout his time with us. 

They had a daughter and a few years after, the cancer came back. This time the caner won. 

Alan Farkas died on October 3rd, 2008. He was in his forties.

“Bobby Shaps” was another lawyer in town that became a regular and part of our Saturday crew.  Bobby was a big man. A really big man. I think he enjoyed the Saturday thing because it was easier for him to park and get into the store. It took him a little time to negotiate that whole process. Even though his weight was an issue for as long as I knew him, he always looked good. Good looking suit and even better glasses.  His father was an optometrist in the city and Bobby had the eyeglass bug.  The other regulars and I looked forward to seeing him sometimes just for the fashion statement of his eyewear and clothes. Your first impression of Bobby might be his size but after a couple of interactions with him that took a back seat to easy going and witty personality. 

Like Norm on cheers, a few of the other crew members would announce his arrival almost every Saturday and would then enter in a dialogue about nearly any subject matter. He was good like that. A memorable smile and a unique voice that was as soft spoken as his charm.

Robert Shapiro died suddenly on August 15th, 2010. He was 67 years old.

Chris was a U.S. attorney and worked across the street in the federal building. Convenience brought him into the store, and the banter kept him coming back (I think). Chris had a confident aura about him that could be mistaken for arrogance, but only for a moment or so. His down to earth mentality quickly appeared and his humor was based on that image of arrogance.  He could take crap from me like a pro, and bounce back with a confident smile and and witty retort. Probably part of his legal skills. Chris was married to another friend of mine’s sister. Something I didn’t learn about until he passed away. Chris left behind 2 younger children, and many friends.  

Chris Taffe died on July 7th, 2009. He was 52 years old.
One of the first customers to pass away worked as a public defender in town. “Hippie Jeff” was a deadhead at heart and his easy going personality seemed to represent the positive aspects of that categorization. He had hair that was somewhere between wavy and curly and he let in grow long where it was still available.  This created a unique look of large long hair on this sides of head. He knew how it looked, and just didn't care what others thought about it.
He came from the Boston area, and still had hints of an accent left in his speech, but not very often. Several years after his passing the public defenders office created an award in his honor. 

A family man, a great defender of the poor, and an ideal public defender as the purpose of the office mimicked his personal belief system.

Jeff had brain caner, and survived eight months after diagnosis.

Jeff  Jacobs died on November 4th, 2006. He was 50 years old.

I met Jim while I was still in the planning stages of o’Bagelo’s, sometime in 1989-1991, Our “wive’s to be” worked together, and they brought us together.  Jim and I stayed friends until his death, long after both of us were divorced.  He continued to come into the store, and we became close. Like Steve that started this post, he was another nonaffiliated Harley guy, and many in the place knew him as motorcycle Jim.  He had been painting cars and bikes most of his life, and even had his own shop on Lake Avenue for many years. He had a great talent for painting motorcycles and his work was shown from Rochester to Vegas in many competitions. Jim always smelled like Patchouli, probably to cover up the strong odors of paint fumes that didn’t wash off. It was very noticeable on his rough hands, and probably all those years working with that toxic substance contributed to his illness.  

Jim’s health problems escalated over the final years of his life, including liver damage and heart problems.  He needed a new liver, but his heart issues took him off most donor lists.  Those that knew him were well aware off the level of generosity that resided in that ailing heart. A very literal “Shirt off his back” guy. I spent many hours listening to him tell me about the things he was going through, and it always worried me.  He was an absolute fighter, and gave those health issues a good run for it. Jim and I  talked about everything in life, and I felt as thought I knew him pretty well.  Close to the end of his life, Jim was paring down his possessions. He said it was because he moved to a smaller place and didn’t have room.  I think he was preparing for he knew to be his future. He gave me two large paintings he had bought from my ex-wife in those early years, and they still hang in my home as a reminder. Just another testament to his generous nature.

Jim Czerkas died in June, 2012. he was in his early 60’s.

This hasn’t been as easy project for me, writing about the friends I have lost.  I have left out my family and those I knew outside of work, not because they are less important, but because this was going to be about people form the store. This next one is especially hard, because like Steve that started this post, Billy was like a family member to me.

I can still recall the first days that Billy came into the store. He used to show up just as we opened each day, right after leaving the YMCA.  He always wanted his bagel toasted and I would argue with him about the merits of bagels fresh from the oven. He got things his way, and I eventually left that discussion to an occasional antidote and joke.  Over the years, Billy became one of my greatest assistants.  He would help (or force, as I liked to say) me with the flowers inside and outside the store.  He would lend a hand every time I needed something, and somehow could befriend any person he ever met. If you were in my shop during the years he was alive and coming in, you knew his face, and probably his personality. 

Billy worked at Kodak in the secret division that was recently outed accidentally by a former employee (not Billy).  He would only tell us the location of where he worked but never anything about what was going on there. He never told anyone what he did either. Turns out the secret was a nuclear research reactor with 3.5 lbs of highly enriched uranium.  Yup, right in the middle of the city, and no one knew about it for all those years. 

Billy probably got the job because of his military career. He was part of many secret missions during his time in the service.  He was pretty good about keeping those secrets as well, but he would let some slip as he neared the end of his life. He referenced being in a plane while the government was testing nuclear bombs with animals in the plane.  He talked about being a payload specialist on trips to the Congo dropping off large unidentified crates, probably full of weapons.  Billy would tell me the pilots would land on a dirt strip in the middle of nowhere and wait for a group of people to come out of the jungle to meet them. He would unload the crates and they would fly away. He told me that the pilots teased him about getting the proper signatures from the guerrilla fighters coming to get the freight, and they couldn't leave without it. How he was supposed to get armed men appearing from the depths of jungle to sign something was his problem, not theirs.

Billy retired as soon as he could and spent his remaining years enjoying life. Six months in San Francisco and six months here in Rochester.  When he was diagnosed with a tumor on his liver, he stopped going to San Francisco except to visit.  He had the tumor removed and went for the recommended treatment for many months to keep it away.  It was tough on him physically and mentally. A few years later the doctors told him the tumor was back, and he started treatment again.  I don’t think he had an operation that time, but they seemed to think they had it under control.  But it was obvious that this was taking an even greater toll on him and part of his liveliness has been depleted. 
The third time it came back, Billy decided he had had enough, and refused  treatment. It was a conscious decision and one that I can hardly fathom making.  He had a large variety of friends and family who helped him out in the last year of his life, but probably not as much as he helped others in his life.  It would take an army of people working several years for that score to come close to being even. 

I spent a lot of time with Billy in the hospital and at his home, helping him and bringing him food when he was too weak to leave his condo.   One of the last times I saw him, he had called because he was having problems with a new T.V. he had just purchased.  I was sitting in a pub with two close friends, who had also succumbed to Billy’s enduring personality. One was an expert in the subject he needed help with and both knew of his choices. All three of us went to see him immediatly to help out.  It was a rough day as he wasn’t looking good and we all knew that end was near.  

It was a testament to how he affected people that my two friends, who only kew Billy through the store and my introductions, were willing to go to his home and help out.   He was that kind of guy. 

My friend Billy Hobbins died on March 24th, 2009. He was 69 years old.

I am certain I have forgotten a few people in this tribute of mine, and for that I apologize. 

The experiences and stories all these friends told have stuck with me to some degree. This leads me to think that others have a hold on some of their memories also. So I think I can go back to my friend and refute his hypothesis that when you die, all your memories die with you. I guess that is why I felt I had to write this, to share some of those memories. To keep the ones that were passed on to me alive. 

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