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The Tale of Carlos

I met Carlos at the Xerox machine, which is odd, since he was absolutely unduplicable. We were two of the six research assistants Senator Moynihan hired each year. We had little in common yet became the bosomest of buddies. He was a Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx who had scored off the charts on the standardized tests given to public school tots, whereupon he had been funneled into various private schools, concluding with Harvard. He and I broke into our personnel files one night and found a letter from some Harvard eminence—James Q. Wilson?—calling Carlos the most brilliant student he had ever taught.

Carlos had a Menckenian vocabulary, which he deployed with effortless and often hilarious ease. He read philosophy incessantly; his favorite was Nietzsche, always Nietzsche. He wore black and white or white and black, nothing else. Our musical tastes were antithetical: regional punk versus smooth disco, so we compromised on nondescript bars with cheap beer. We’d stagger home in middlenight with my roommate Bob and make drunken crank calls to the massage parlors of D.C. (This was before caller ID ruined phone fun.)

Ah, the salad days.

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Carlos found the self-importance of senatorial personages and their flunkies vastly amusing. I recall one Puffed-Up Washingtron in a neighboring office boasting to a semicircle of young women that he’d just been promoted to deputy counsel of the Subcommittee on Civil Service, Post Office, and General Services, or somesuch dreariness.

“It’s a start,” shrugged Carlos encouragingly.

Carlos scorned such petty striving. His ambition, he said, was to be a security guard at a drowsy and isolated factory, where he could read all night and not be bothered. Like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, he preferred not to do things. If asked about his political or philosophical views, he replied, cheerily, “Nihilist.”

He despised Capitol Hill culture and bailed out as soon as he could, landing not in a security guard’s chair but rather as an assistant to ex-President Nixon. His job was to listen to the tapes, then in possession of the National Archives, and recommend which material should be released and which Nixon’s attorneys should fight to keep under wraps.

Nixon?” we asked. But Carlos was happy. He liked the tape-listening solitude, and he liked Nixon, especially his awkward attempts at humor. He said that when he would sit down with his boss to go over the transcriptions, Nixon would ask him, with what I imagine was a twinkle in his eye, “Uh, Carlos, can I get you anything: Coffee…tea….drugs?”

I’ve been soft on Tricky Dick ever since.

The last time I saw Carlos he was helping Lucine and me load the U-Haul for our voyage of repatriation. He moaned all the while about a sore back, but he’d have helped us break rocks in the hot sun if we’d asked him. Neither of us was the lachrymose sort, but we each had a tear in our eye as we said goodbye.

We fell out of touch. The last I heard from ’Los was a Christmas card in which he had scrawled a sweet message of friendship—no sardonic twist. A couple of us tried to track him down over the years, with no luck. Finally, I asked a friend who is part of the presidential library network if he knew any of the Nixon folks. He did. He reported back almost immediately:

“I’m sorry to say that your friend took his own life.”

The how and where were carbon monoxide in his parents’ garage. (Carlos was so mechanically maladroit I’m amazed he figured out how to do it.) As for the why….

I was curious if he had left a note; I suppose I’ll never know. There was speculation that he was distraught over a failed relationship, though I doubt that. He always regretted the pain he caused the women who flipped for him, but, well, not that much.

On occasion Carlos used to ask me—a Pollyanna, he thought—to give him “one good reason why I shouldn’t kill myself.” I assumed he was joking. I guess I never gave him a good reason.

His folks, I understand, returned to Puerto Rico. I thought about contacting them, but their pain must have been so limitless, so ceaseless and all-encompassing, that I let them alone. I dedicated a book to Carlos—coincidentally, it included a chapter on Puerto Rican independence, a subject about which he could not have cared less.

Twenty years have passed since his death. To this day, when I see certain words—calumny, loathe—I hear his mockingly drawn-out pronunciations thereof. I think of him doubled over in laughter at some supercilious twit. I imagine every security guard I see to be a secret reader of Kant, Nozick, Nietzsche.

Carlos, I hope and pray you knew just how much you were loved.

Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t my America. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "The Tale of Carlos"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 14, 2018 @ 3:17 pm

“I’ve been soft on Tricky Dick ever since.”

The reality is that President Nixon was not very good at being “tricky”. He highly intelligent, astute and had a broad mind for placing matters in context on grand scale. He was out of sync with the detailed human machinations that ensnared him.

Much to his credit in my view.

Truth be told, your friend’s attraction may not have been off the mark —

President Nixon was not an insider either.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 14, 2018 @ 3:21 pm

What a wonderful tribute . . . the reference to Puerto Rican independence — priceless.

appreciated this.

#3 Comment By David J. White On May 14, 2018 @ 3:23 pm

I’ve known a couple of people who died by suicide. Thank you for sharing this moving tribute to your friend.

#4 Comment By cka2nd On May 14, 2018 @ 4:44 pm

“His folks, I understand, returned to Puerto Rico. I thought about contacting them, but their pain must have been so limitless, so ceaseless and all-encompassing, that I let them alone.”

I can’t tell you how much the mother and sister of my junior high school and high school friend Ryo appreciated the fact that I attended his service after he committed suicide some 30 years after we graduated from high school together, and spoke on behalf of that little circle of friends from adolescence who had occasionally gotten together and still once in a blue moon communicated with each other in those intervening decades. I think Carlos’ parents might have appreciated your taking the trouble to reach out to them to show that you cared about their beloved son, and I think any of his surviving relatives might still appreciate it today.

Give me “one good reason why I shouldn’t kill myself.” That’s a real request folks, one that shouldn’t be brushed off, or forgotten in the rush to keep a loved one or friend from committing suicide.

#5 Comment By Miguel On May 14, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

“Nietzsche, always Nietzsche”. With all due respect, I think that is the “why”: nihilism. If there isn’t anything, there is no justification for life and it’s pains… or even its joys.

I guess I am being as cynical as that Carlos, but, “ex nihilo nihil”. No, Nietzsche cannot make a good adviser, specially if you are wondering why to remain alive.

But Friedrich has a fame, an “aura” (is that the word?) of bieng profound and intellectual, so is a favorite, even if, apparently, most of what appears as his is his sister’s forgery. But still.

I know what I am about to write is the king of the silly things, but the hollowness can be filled, maybe only, with a certitude of transcendence. As a matter of fact, for some, if not many, such a transcendence doesn’t need to be an afterlife, but other. Like other person -love- or to care about something considered worth, as Nature -to love nature-.

I assume it is insensitive, but maybe Carlos last action exemplifies the invalidity of individualism taken to its logical consequence: it is not poetry as far as I know; for conductist psychology love exists -rare as it is- and unites people, making them one at the time when it enhances the personal peculiarity which makes each of them unique.

And provides fulfillment.

Sure, it is easier to bet on nothingness, since it seems clearly proven. But the absence of proofs isn’t always a negative proof.

Good luck.

#6 Comment By Miguel On May 14, 2018 @ 8:20 pm

I forgot to mention that, to me, nihilism looks like the ultimate level of individualism; you start denying others and end denying yourself. The necessity for some “reconcilitation of opposites” among so much “mutual exclusion of opposites” couldn’t be better proven. And I think there is too much mutual exclusion of opposites in nihilism.

#7 Comment By Miguel On May 14, 2018 @ 8:28 pm

I forgot to mention that, to me, nihilism looks like the ultimate level of individualism; you start denying others and end denying yourself. The necessity for some “reconciliation of opposites” among so much “mutual exclusion of opposites” couldn’t be better proven. And I think there is too much mutual exclusion of opposites in nihilism.

#8 Comment By Hartley Pleshaw On May 14, 2018 @ 10:25 pm

Bill, I lost my oldest friend (going back to childhood) to suicide, so I know how you and others who have gone through this terrible thing feel. Thank you for a warm and moving tribute.

(As for Tricky Dick, I’d find his joke re: “drugs” a lot more humorous if he hadn’t been the president who declared War on same, thus leading to a half-century of stupid federal policy, prisons bursting at the seams and….no stopping of the drug trade. Next year marks the centenary of [alcohol] prohibition. It didn’t work then and it isn’t working now.)

#9 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On May 15, 2018 @ 9:52 am

The only really serious philosophical question is suicide. So said Al Camus. To be or not to be. So said the Bard. To be intelligent enough to see the world, as it is, and see what it could or should be, and recognize that the twain will never meet; perhaps it is unbearable. Clarity always comes with a price. Well written, well felt.

#10 Comment By Dennis On May 15, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

Says Miguel re. Nietzsche: “… even if, apparently, most of what appears as his is his sister’s forgery.”

This is so far off the mark that it is evident you have only the most shallow understanding of, and familiarity with, Nietzsche and his works. Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche did attempt to make some emendations to parts his Nachlass (published under the title “The Will to Power”, in order to make him appear to share her own vicious anti-Semitism – he was in fact an anti anti-semite, and also a critic of German nationalism and the then newfangled Hohenzollern empire), but to claim that “most” of what appears under Nietzsche’s name is a “forgery” concocted by his sister is simply flat wrong.

#11 Comment By Youknowho On May 15, 2018 @ 9:40 pm

@Miguel

Do you think that a heartfelt tribute to a friend is the place to discuss nihilism and the flaws of Nietzche?

I always loathed those who could not comment on a suicide without dragging some school of philosophy in it or talk about what not believing in God leads up to.

The fact is that too many factors converge into a suicide to make it a poster boy for a school of thought that you hate.