Bruce Colen was my friend

I just read on LA Observed that Bruce David Colen died Nov. 7.

Until several months ago Bruce was my neighbor. But, more important than that, he was also my friend.

Our first meeting was in our building's elevator not long after he moved in next door. Bruce asked what I did, a question I dread more than any other. I gave him the short version, the one where I just use the verb.

"I write," I said.

He didn't tell me who he was, but asked for what publication I wrote. I explained that I was writing a book, and said something about freelancing for the LA Times. His reply included something like the word "crap."

It still makes me laugh.

Bruce loved The New York Times, and no newspaper in LA ever threatened that relationship.

We were the only two occupants of our building who subscribed to newspapers. Together that meant two copies of The New York Times and one Los Angeles Times. It proved a complicated order for our paper-delivery person, who often left either one copy of each paper, or two copies of the same paper on the stoop of the building's main entrance. It took some time for Bruce and I to figure this out as we unwittingy went about robbing each other of the news on alternating days of the week.

I began to see Bruce more often in the mornings after that. Usually, he was dressed smartly in a white, terry-cloth robe. We'd pass in the halls as he was doing his laundry, taking out his garbage, or reading his newspaper on the banister overlooking the courtyard (provided the carrier brought him a paper to read).

Eventually I took it upon myself to become Bruce's unofficial paperboy.

My wife and I were usually up by 6 most mornings and, so, I'd grab Bruce's paper from the steps downstairs, bring it up and hang it on his doorknob before he awoke. (He began subscribing to the LA Times at one point, making the two of us the only four regular newspaper readers in the building.) We'd sometimes go weeks without seeing each other, but still, I took my volunteerism seriously. I delivered his paper every day I was home, without fail. I even programmed his phone number into my cell phone and would call to let him know when I'd be out of town. I didn't ever want him to think I'd forgotten to get his paper, or, God forbid, that I took the only copy for myself.

At some point a fellow tenant in the building told me that Bruce had been a food writer. A writer in LA? Imagine. I didn't pay it much mind. I liked Bruce because he was a kind man, and, well, if he was a writer, then that only affirmed my conclusion that he was good people. It didn't matter to me what he'd done, or what he was doing. I didn't even know his last name until after we'd known each other for months.

Bruce didn't talk about his writing at first. He was hard of hearing and, in all honesty, I think it embarrassed him that people had to speak so loudly. To avoid the situation I took to writing him notes, mostly when the carrier screwed us out of a paper. "Time to give them hell," I'd write on a post-it and paste it to his doorknob. Other times I'd call and leave a voice mail. "They did it to us again," I'd say. On the days we had only one LA Times, Bruce would ask that I pass on the Sports section when I was done. That's all he wated to see — Sports.

Sometimes other tenants in my building whined about how loudly Bruce's phone rang. His window faced the courtyard and, in the summer months when the window was open, you could hear the ringing on all three floors. I'd wave such nonsense away like flies. There were louder neighbors in the building. Bruce didn't get that many phone calls, and never at night. These people needed to get a life.

Eventually, Bruce and I became friends. We were separated by generations, but we were both writers.

I remember him telling me that his doctor had advised that he gain weight. I'd spy him with a bag of burgers from time to time, and he'd tell me again of the doctor's orders, probably because he worried I'd forgotten. He'd grumble about how bad the burgers tasted, but I was never fully convinced. I only knew that he indeed looked frail and certainly needed to gain some weight.

Eventually Bruce's telephone answering machine went on the blink, so he sought my help to hook up a new one. Of course, the problem was not his fault. It was the moron patrol that works at the local big boximacallit store. They kept selling Bruce phones without a message-taking function despite his specific request for one. By the third return I volunteered to take control of the situation and gave him an old, but completely functional digital answering machine I had on the shelf in my office. It did the trick, and he was so happy to be through with the techno dorks that he thanked me for weeks afterward.

Bruce sought me out as tech support after that. I was in the middle of writing my second novel, so I was home, just one wall away. He was writing too, a murder mystery, his first one, though I'm not sure if he finished it.

As tech support went, I'm afraid I was about as much help as the owner of our building was at fixing his apartment's plumbing. Bruce was a PC and I've been a Mac since the 1980s. But, again, I was happy to tinker, as were the plumbers. Bruce had the kindest way of rolling his eyes when expressing his frustrations. The man had style and spirit.

Not long before he moved away, I finally learned more details about Bruce's accomplishments as a writer, and a few things about his late wife, a famous designer. He loaned me his copy of Meet Me in the Doghouse, and told me more about the mystery on which he was working, among other projects. We were both seeking literary agents. I'm not sure if he found one.

The last time I saw Bruce was when I returned his only copy of Meet Me in the Doghouse the day before he moved away. That was at least six months ago, maybe more. Still, I fully intended to call him up for lunch this month. I wanted to share my new manuscript with him. I just finished it last week. His number is still at the top of my cell phone list. I looked at it this morning before I heard the news.

But now I read that Bruce died Tuesday and I sincerely wish I would have called him sooner.

He will be missed.


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