What About Bob?
The obit is a death notice, but it can also alert of a life lived.
By David Wallis
Robert Aronson was not a borrow-the-sugar kind of neighbor. A balding man with a bushy mustache and oval black plastic spectacles that dominated his face, Mister Aronson — as I always called him — kept to himself. He only offered a polite hello and perhaps the West Fourth Street weather report when we occasionally passed each other on the stairs of our Greenwich Village walk-up. Once or twice he knocked on my door to alert me that my keys dangled in the lock. I always found his reserve strange, considering that we shared a profession. Mr. Aronson worked as a copy editor at a daily newspaper in Jersey City, retiring in 2002; I sensed that he might have been downsized or had taken a buyout. We occasionally complained to each other about the dismal state of the newspaper industry, but that was the extent of our camaraderie. I chalked up his aloof demeanor to the difference in our ages. He looked to be about 20 years older than I, but it turned out to be a 31-year gap.
Over the years, I gleaned hardly anything else about Mr. Aronson. I can’t recall ever seeing him with company. He apparently enjoyed hiking. Sometimes in the summer he looked like a big kid in shorts, a T-shirt, tube socks, and hiking boots. And he must have loved jazz. Sax solos routinely burst through his black metal door. I imagined Mr. Aronson methodically removing a Charlie Parker record from the jacket stored in a plastic sleeve, checking both sides for scratches and gently placing the disk on a vintage turntable. But he could have owned a brand new MP3 player for all I knew, as I never set foot in his apartment. In Manhattan, proximity does not necessarily mean close.
Nevertheless, the sight of a DayGlo-green sticker affixed to his suddenly padlocked door — “Police Department, Seal for Door of D.O.A. Premises” — stung like a jab to the jaw. Mr. Aronson, 73, had died alone in his apartment while I was I on the other side of our shared plaster wall. Since we were never pals, I felt that I had no license to grieve. Yet I surprisingly choked up, wondering about his demise.
I hoped that he had suffered a massive heart attack in his sleep rather than a paralyzing stroke that left him unable to call for help. Would he have breached the barrier of politeness and called me in distress? Did he have next of kin? Would my neighbor end up in a potter’s field?
I did not want Mr. Aronson forgotten. I called his old newspaper, assuming that they would publish a brief obituary, a one-paragraph courtesy often reserved for jettisoned copy editors. But I received a call right back from one of his bereft former colleagues. She thanked me for the tip and promised to e-mail me Mr. Aronson’s obituary.
In the meantime, I delivered the bad news to some of my older neighbors, the dwindling clan of the rent-stabilized. Tears welled up on the weathered cheeks of Sylvia, the gray-haired Southern woman on the first floor who always keeps me up-to-date on her many medical maladies. “What a nice man,” she stammered. “I voted for him.”
Voted for him?
“I think he ran for something,” said Sylvia.
This was news to me. Mr. Aronson, the seeming hermit next door, had lived a far richer life than I assumed — as his lengthy obituaries in The Jersey Journal and a local Manhattan paper, The Villager, soon revealed.
A native of Bridgeport, Connecticut and an Army veteran, Mr. Aronson once worked for the heralded afternoon newspaper The New York World-Telegram. I would have loved to quiz him about the golden age of print journalism.
But we had more in common than the profession of journalism and a mailing address.
Mr. Aronson, like myself, fought for the rights of his colleagues. I have long advocated for writers, starting a syndication agency that pays contributors the majority of revenues, editing books on censorship, and suing New York City for denying press credentials to online journalists. Mr. Aronson served for many years as an officer of The Jersey Journal’s newspaper guild, negotiating contracts with management.
We both have been involved in local politics. I volunteered on a mayoral campaign before entering journalism. Mr. Aronson had more extensive experience. In the early 1960s, he backed Democratic reformers who battled, then beat, the vestiges of the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. Mr. Aronson was appointed to our neighborhood’s community board and was a member of the storied Village Independent Democrats (VID), a political club once led by Ed Koch before he became the city’s mayor. After Koch’s election, an anti-Koch bloc seized control of the VID, which prompted Mr. Aronson to help establish a rival political organization.
One of our mutual hobbies was foreign travel. At the time of his death Mr. Aronson held airline tickets to London, a city I once called home. He frequently caught West End shows that were bound for Broadway, his brother Richard Aronson told The Villager. I had not known he had a brother, and I feel relieved that he had enjoyed a close familial relationship. Richard Aronson lovingly described his late brother as a “real renaissance person.”
Those words proved a pleasant surprise. But I got a bigger shock when I chatted about Mr. Aronson with Brian, another neighbor that I ran into on our stoop. “He was a huge Jets fan,” remembered Brian. It’s my favorite team too. I only wish that I had knocked on the door, or the wall, some Sunday afternoon and watched a little football with my remarkable neighbor, Bob. • 22 April 2009
David Wallis has contributed to The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and Slate, among other publications. His most recent books is Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression (W.W. Norton).
Photograph by sea turtle via Flickr (Creative Commons); homepage photograph by smiling_da_vinci via Flickr (Creative Commons).