I found my friend Abner Lee dead in his West Los Angeles condo the other day. It looked as though he had died as heíd lived, alone.
A neighbor and I called the paramedics, but, even to us, it was clearly a case for the coroner. He had no family around nor friends close enough to claim his body. A paramedic said he had been dead three or four days.
Abner was my tennis coach. I thought it was unusual when he didnít show up for our weekly session at the Cheviot Hills-Rancho courts. He was compulsively punctual and would harangue me if I were just a few minutes late.
I called him, but nobody answered. I left a message. He didnít call back, also unusual. I called a few more times during the weekend. There was still no answer. I dropped by his condo, which is near my house. His buzzer was connected to his voice mail. Same message.
The thing about condos, I discovered, is that they are so well protected that they are inaccessible to outsiders, even well intentioned ones like me. I checked the garage under the building. His black Mustang wasnít there. That was odd. In our conversations, Iíd learned that he never went anywhere except to the tennis court, Ralphís or a fast food place. I didnít know that most of the cars were behind the building. I couldnít have checked anyway. The only entrance to the rear parking was through the well-locked building. There was no way to get in.
I talked to several people at the tennis courts, but none of them had seen him in several days; they thought this was odd. I returned to the condo a few days later, encountered one of the residents, and explained the situation. We walked back to the parking spaces and found Abnerís car. Then we walked back inside and tried the door to his condo. It was unlocked. We went in. Abner was on his bed, eyes closed, clearly dead. He was wearing his warm-ups. The television was on. His tennis shoes were neatly placed at the side of the bed. His phone was by his side. Maybe he had tried to call for help.
I feel terribly sad that he had died alone like that. He had been teaching me for about three years, and we got to be friends. He was a good teacher He broke the game down, and made the student work on each part of the serve, the forehand, the backhand, the volley and everything else. He was gruff, to put it mildly. Some of the players at Rancho didnít like his method or his manner. They had been playing for years and didnít want to go back to basics. I had only been playing for a decade and wasnít very good. I was willing to try anything. He improved my game, and when I went to Arizona to watch the baseball teams during spring training, I noticed that the coaches used exactly the same method as Abner, breaking down each step of a pitch, a swing and all the other moves. And they did this with pros who had been playing the game since little league.
When we talked about current events, Abner Ė who was African American Ė was filled with rage at the way black people, especially men, were treated. He grew up in Baltimore, had gone to college to study art and had been an elementary school teacher. There were paintings in his condo, sensitive portraits of people. I was intrigued that a tough guy like Abner could do such work.
Heíd quit teaching to join the pro tour. He didn't make it and, like others in the same boat, became a tennis teacher. For most of them, itís a hard way of earning a living, and Abner was always short of money. He was also overweight and a heavy smoker. In his late 50s, heíd already suffered a couple of heart attacks. Maybe thatís what killed him.
If thereís a lesson in this particular LA death, itís for people like Abner, who live alone and who donít have family and friends around. Find someone you trust. Give him or her a key. If youíre not in good health, arrange for someone to check in with you regularly. What we all have to keep in mind is Los Angeles, despite its great weather, is a lonely, big and indifferent city.