Last week, I went to the memorial service for a friend I grew up with. We walked to school together. We played touch football and all sorts of sports together. We sat next to each other at the first-run showing of A Hard Day's Night. But somewhere our paths diverged. He was often homeless as an adult.
The moment I heard he died last week, I immediately wondered about all the incessant bullying he'd been though as a young teen.
Being bullied hadn't killed him -- cancer took care of that -- but what role had the constant bullying played in the life he led?
Tony had been the butt of a never-ending series of jokes at the hands of another guy in our crowd, a guy who was callous and cruel and the type of person who earned the testimonial: "He was a real prick." Even as a child, I thought the bullying of Tony was out of hand. The bully had given Tony a crude nickname and yelled it at him all the time. It got old very fast.
But I have to be honest. I never tried to stop the bullying. I even laughed at a few of the jokes hurled T.'s way. None of us wanted to become the new target of the bully. He targeted all of us from time to time. The thought of standing up to him frankly never entered my mind.
In his teen years and later, Tony developed an alcohol problem but I wonder how much of his drinking problem and his low self-esteem had to do with being verbally knocked down over and over again during early adolescence. We're all the products of our environment and Tony's was not pretty.
It seems those who are bullied and can no longer take it, either lash out against society and their tormentor or they turn their anger inward on themselves. I think Tony took the latter path.
We grew apart as childhood friends sometimes do but we did finally reconnect (thankfully) twice in the past two years and, given what he'd been through -- sleeping on the streets for years -- I thought he looked pretty good. He was also still the funny kid I once palled around with and remembered stories of our childhood that I'd forgotten. But maybe that memory was a curse.
I asked him point blank about his years on the streets and how he dealt with being homeless. His answer surprised me. Sleeping under a highway exposed to the elements wasn't really that hard, he said. In fact, he preferred it. "I had no responsibility," he said. "I didn't have to answer to anyone."
And he didn't have to hear someone making cruel jokes at his expense. He could simply do what he wanted. He could walk away ... and he did. Rest in peace, my friend. I wish I had had the courage to stand up for you at the time. All I can say is that I hope the bully reads this.