I knew a lot about Ron’s reading tastes, but only had glimpses of his personal
life. He came to the office late, worked till the building closed; his uniform was
a dark jacket and a black Los Angeles Raiders cap. He had a brooder’s face. His
messages were full of hilarious abbreviations and nicknames, but I wondered about
his enforced solitude, working deep into the night. I discovered that he had a
temper once: His name appeared frequently in a communally maintained Atex file,
Tantrums, which chronicled fights in the workplace. Most of these were from the
80s, well before my time. It was hard to connect that belligerent figure with the
calm, encouraging one I knew.
One week in 2002, Ron didn’t show up at the office.I was asked to handle the letters section, a
task I’d done at his request whenever he went on vacation. Ron’s continued absence grew more
concerning. It was eventually discovered that he had suffered a cerebral hemmorhage at home, and
Suddenly my champion was gone — and just as suddenly, I had become him: I wasofficially assigned to the letters section. His cubicle effects were put out on the long filing
cabinet. Later I discovered that the managing editor — amazingly, another Powell fan — claimed
Ron’s copy of Hilary Spurling’s hard-to-find guidebook to A Dance to the Music of Time.
next two years, I wrote more and more for the paper, and eventually became its literary editor,
the only job I’d ever wanted to have there. In late 2005, the paper was bought, and the new
owners began getting rid of people. Others just resigned. I had coffee with one of the corporate
hitmen, who took notes on everything I said. When I asked him if he was reading anything good
lately, he didn’t name a single book. I had the distinct feeling that my days were numbered.
Clearly I needed to find another job, but how? Right before Labor Day in 2006, I listened to the
same person who couldn’t name any books tell me that I was being let go. It shouldn’t have hurt,
but after a decade at the paper, it did. On my blog I typed out the final words of Burton’s
Anatomy: SPERATE MISERI, CAVETE FELICES. Hope, ye unhappy ones, ye happy ones, fear. I didn’t
think about Ron on that day, but now I think about him all the time.