My larger-than-life friend Mike Altenberg, gone too soon



Mike Altenberg and I met when we were 10 years old or so. We'd both joined the YMCA Boys Choir
Photo courtesy Mike Altenberg's Facebook page
in our hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, and for a variety of reasons (he was a tad chubby, I was a loner) we were both outcasts of sorts, so we stuck together in that way that 10-year-old boys do when they feel like they're a little different from everyone else around them.

We were an odd pair. He came from an affluent Jewish family, I was middle class and Methodist. He could be outgoing, even brash. I was, by comparison, the introvert. In our early days in the choir a lot of the other boys mistook Mike's confidence for arrogance, and teased him. I stuck by him, not out of any sense of altruism but because even at that age I somehow knew I'd found a kindred spirit. For the better part of the next two decades, we were the best of friends.

Through our tweens and teens and young adulthood, we made all of the mistakes and did all of the stupid and wonderful things typical of our age and gender. What I remember most is how fun it all was, and how that was almost always because of Mike. Even from the time I first met him, he was brilliant and funny and acerbic and irreverent in a way that few people are. He could also be cutting and (frequently) profane and profoundly irritating at times, but even though he abhorred sentimentality he he was possessed of a warmth and a bigness of heart that was rare.

Even through the fog of the intervening decades, I have so many memories of our times together. One night when we were in our early teens we sneaked into a theater to see "The Exorcist" with a group of older boys. When we got home to Mike's cavernous house his parents were out for the evening. It was eerily quiet, and we were both creeped out from the film, but of course, boys being boys, we couldn't admit as much to one another. So we stayed up most of the night watching any boring TV show we could find to keep from having to go to sleep and - god forbid - dream about Linda Blair spewing green pea soup. And this was in the days before 500 cable channels, so when I say boring, I mean boring. I distinctly remember us watching some entirely obscure tennis match at about 3 a.m., both trying to convince the other how fascinating it was. Scared? Not us.

But the problem with recounting such moments is that they are stripped of their context, the context being Mike. Trying to convey my times with Mike is a bit like trying to re-enact an old Monty Python sketch; if you can't convey the larger-than-life character of say, John Cleese, it invariably loses something in the translation. And Mike was just such a larger-than-life person. As any of his friends will attest, Mike was one of those people you just had to know.

Of course, friendships, like everything else, wax and wane with time, and as our twenties turned into our thirties Mike and I slowly but surely lost touch. He became an accomplished and deservedly renowned chef in Chicago, and I pursued a career in journalism on the east coast. We both married, had kids, and did all the wonderful things typical of our age.

And then, this morning, Mike's sister Lisa messaged me on Facebook to say he had died. Mike, a person who was more full of life than just about anyone I've ever known, was gone.

Now, I could write something pseudo-poetic here about a part of my childhood being gone, but that was gone a long time ago, and anyway I keep imagining Mike looking over my shoulder and grinning and saying something like, "give me a break, man. What a load of maudlin crap." (He wouldn't have said crap, but you get the idea.)

Instead what I'm going to say is this: It's not the loss of the past that's so crushing, but the loss of the future, his future. And I'm angry that Mike won't get to do all the wonderful things that people typically do in their fifties and sixties and seventies. I'm angry because my best friend's story has ended too soon.

I said at the beginning of this piece that I stuck by Mike, and that's true. Both of us went through some tough times as we made the transition from boys to young men, and I always tried to, as they say, be there for him.

But what I didn't say was how Mike stuck by me, that he was at least as good a friend to me as I ever was to him. And even though we hadn't talked in years, Mike had messaged me on Facebook a few months back and said he'd like to get back in touch. I messaged him back, but nothing came of it. We were both busy, too busy to notice that precious time was passing. I kept thinking we'd get together again, that maybe we'd spend some time in our fifties or sixties just hanging out. Maybe have a few beers, and a few laughs.

So more than anything I'm angry at myself for not picking up the phone or sending a letter. And when the anger subsides I sit in my chair in front of the computer, staring at the screen, a middle-aged man who has just lost something whose meaning he can't yet quite fathom, a grown man whose shoulders are shaking as he wipes away something that's gotten into his eyes.

Too maudlin? Sorry, old friend. Just this once, I had to say it.