A Reminder that Every Life Matters
September 29, 2010 1:59 PM   Subscribe

"A solitary man who knew his likes and lived within his means, a man who could be counted upon." Responding to vicious Internet snark following a hit-and-run death, the St. Petersburg Times asked award-winning obituary writer Andrew Meacham to write on the life of 48 year old dishwasher and Boston sports fan Neil Alan Smith.
posted by l33tpolicywonk (52 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite

 
That was moving, and one of the best responses I have seen to the trolls that seem to comment at every newspaper's website.
posted by TedW at 2:07 PM on September 29, 2010


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posted by sswiller at 2:07 PM on September 29, 2010


What an extraordinary thing to do. Thanks l33tpolicywonk.
posted by WPW at 2:07 PM on September 29, 2010


Shortly after the St. Petersburg Times announced Mr. Smith's death on its website, a reader posted a comment stating the following: A man who is working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48 is surely better off dead.

This is just repulsive. There are a lot of things I love about our internet culture, but the jackass commenting on local news sites is not one of them. I wish we could go back in time and remove that whole trend.
posted by something something at 2:08 PM on September 29, 2010 [14 favorites]


That was compelling
posted by found missing at 2:09 PM on September 29, 2010


He sounds like the kind of guy who would be mortified by an article like this one.
posted by enn at 2:09 PM on September 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


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it wasn't all just fluff.
it sounds like Meacham spent quite a bit of time actually talking to people who knew the guy.
posted by sio42 at 2:09 PM on September 29, 2010


While offensive comments on news sites are indeed a cancer on the public noosphere, I was more offended that Smith wasn't given a nominal wage increase after years of solid service.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:10 PM on September 29, 2010 [28 favorites]


I honestly don't understand why newspapers allow comments at all.

It just seems pointless; I cannot recall having ever read a useful comment in any online news story from any venue. Not once.
posted by aramaic at 2:10 PM on September 29, 2010 [37 favorites]


There's really no good reason to have public comments on most articles. The local paper's site, SFGate, has one of the most horrible comment sections ever. I'm sure newspapers see it as a way to get people to spend more time on their site, but I'm starting to spend less.

However, I'm actually more nonplussed that the man worked at the same place for ten years and still only earned minimum wage. WTF is up with that?
posted by oneirodynia at 2:11 PM on September 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


One value of such comments is that it reaffirms a fundamental truth about the human condition that is not always pleasant to see. This whole story reads like bait to 4chan and other Internet griefers. Just remember there are real people behind these hateful comments too - many/most of whom pass as decent people in our daily lives.
posted by allen.spaulding at 2:15 PM on September 29, 2010 [6 favorites]


The only local news station that had comment boards recently shut them down as they were being hijacked by nutjob tea partiers and racists. When I was in a dour mood I would go read a news story just to see how many misspellings of Muslim or misuse of Mexican I could find in 30 seconds.
posted by msbutah at 2:15 PM on September 29, 2010


A few moons ago, I sent Jim Sheeler an email about this.

Told him, "I and everyone I have sent it to was in tears at the end. I really don't know if you are aware of it or not Jim, but you just won a Pultizer Prize buddy."

I got a quick email back saying "thanks." And one a year later after the announcements, saying. "You were right."

Writing obits was some of the finest, and most fulfilling work I ever did as a writer. In fact this makes me want to go back and do more.

This chap, deserves a nomination. To start with.
posted by timsteil at 2:18 PM on September 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


When I was in college, some asshole yelled out his upper story dorm room at a young woman strolling across the lawn. Something about her being dirty whore. But, I just took that as an indication of the human condition, and realized that he too is a human being.
posted by found missing at 2:20 PM on September 29, 2010


This is probably the only good thing that I've seen that has come from people commenting on newspaper websites.

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posted by zabuni at 2:21 PM on September 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


However, I'm actually more nonplussed that the man worked at the same place for ten years and still only earned minimum wage. WTF is up with that?

The whole obit is pretty depressing in my opinion. His boss said that he was "like family to us," and yet Smith himself apparently complained about never getting a raise or any kind of recognition for being there for 10 years, and "I'll probably go through another 10 people to find somebody like him" reads like a backhanded complement to me. The only people who seemed to know anything about him were his roommate, landlord, boss, and neighbor, and none of them seemed to have known him particularly well. If he had moved somewhere else and gotten a different job shortly before his death it would be plausible to guess that Meacham would have had a hard time finding anyone to say anything substantive about him.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:23 PM on September 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


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Random thoughts:
1) Good for them to showcase a little humanity; most of our lives are uneventful but deserving of respect and dignity

2) I hate to be the one to say this, but.... "Crab Shack"? Oh poor Mr. Turtle..

3) This kind of reminds me of Orson Scott Card's "Speaker for the Dead"

4) One of the saddest truths to me is not that some people are such undeveloped materialists that they'd call his life pointless because he wasn't wealthy, beautiful or famous. No, what's sad is that such people will never, ever, ever change or learn. That inside the cosmos of your own head you could be as enlightened as Jesus or Buddha... then be casually pedaling your bike home one muggy Florida night when one of these jackasses plows you into a street pole before tearing off down the road, never to be seen again.
posted by hincandenza at 2:23 PM on September 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


I washed dishes part-time for a year and a half in grad school, it wasn't a bad job at all. A little like riding a bicycle, the constant effort's easily put on autopilot, giving you plenty of time to be alone with your thoughts. A much more pleasant experience than serving rude or drunk diners, and something I miss about better paid jobs I had since, the knowing exactly when you're done for the day and what you're expected to do.
posted by 7-7 at 2:28 PM on September 29, 2010 [8 favorites]


Bravo. I don't remember A Most Peculiar Man, or Elegy in a Country Churchyard (both of which offer similar narratives, to my mind) making me cry, but this did. Bravo.
posted by tigrefacile at 2:30 PM on September 29, 2010


the fact a dependable person who lived, was happy and was not rich is proof that if one is happy but poor - is worth more than a lot of unhappy wealthy rich people.
posted by tustinrick at 2:35 PM on September 29, 2010


This is why I like Metafilter. Thanks.

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posted by everichon at 2:40 PM on September 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Somebody loves you Mr. Hatch is a children's story that captures a similar sentiment as the obit. It's a wonderful reminder that you don't have to wait until someone passes away to admire their humanity and celebrate them as a person. I get choked up even thinking about this book.

Here's the story read by Hector Elizondo if you want to check it out.

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posted by JimmyJames at 2:42 PM on September 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Part of me thinks...trolls gonna troll. They always have and always will. And the other part of me thinks we're becoming a nation (planet?) of sociopaths.
posted by JoanArkham at 2:43 PM on September 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I washed dishes part-time for a year and a half in grad school, it wasn't a bad job at all.

Back when I used to work at a pizza joint, when someone would get dangerously fed up with all of the shitty customers, the one good manager we had would put them in dishland. We called it "the solace of the dishes."
posted by vibrotronica at 2:45 PM on September 29, 2010 [23 favorites]


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posted by skepticallypleased at 2:48 PM on September 29, 2010


The only people who seemed to know anything about him were his roommate, landlord, boss, and neighbor, and none of them seemed to have known him particularly well.

I would guess that's because he wanted it that way. ""He set his boundaries," said Peggy Rogers, 56, his roommate of six years. "He didn't pry into your business, so you just kind of respected that and you didn't do that to him."

So, in a way, not so depressing - a man starting over, maybe, or a man who finally had found a place in which he could be content with his past. There is a novel in this man's story, but it would almost feel like a violation of his desire for privacy to research and write it.
posted by anastasiav at 2:49 PM on September 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


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posted by redyaky at 2:51 PM on September 29, 2010


No joke, I often eat at the Crab Shack when visiting my in-laws. The inside has picnic tables and benches. I recommend the smoked mullet.
posted by gnutron at 2:52 PM on September 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


The minimum wage prob is unfortunately big in the St. Pete/TB area. Lots of service workers, not much corporate (at high levels) activity. Weather is so unobtrusive there and cost of living cheap. Not to make his death into a statistic, but he seemed to be a baseball fan, but prob was not going to afford a trip to Tropicana Field where the Devil Rays are playing winning baseball. Their stadium is amazingly empty despite their winning (more empty than other somewhat less than expected capacity at other playoff teams stadiums) and it's because the area, and much of the country, has workers of this sort. It would seem sensible to give these hard workers more money, where they'd be likely to spend it (on goods) rather than wealthier people who stock it away in stocks or what not, but it looks like the voters are rejecting it. It's not hard to figure why morons would post comments like the one that prompted this piece also -- that's not where the countries priorities are.
posted by skepticallypleased at 2:53 PM on September 29, 2010 [6 favorites]


Fuck Tyrone Dayhoff, 53, the Crab Shack's manager.
posted by splatta at 2:58 PM on September 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I washed dishes part-time for a year and a half in grad school, it wasn't a bad job at all.

Jobs like dishwashing are little different when you're older, though. When I was in school, it was easy to look upon jobs like dishwashing in the light of "making ends meet until I graduate and get on with building my career."

When you're 48, dishwashing is a completely different animal. It's still making ends meet, but it's also a sign that there is likely no longer a career to be built. That this IS your career. This is all that will ever be. Trust me on this. I'm 52, and I'm beginning to stare-down some very similar possibilities.

That obit is very touching, and you can get a real feel for Smith, as well of a slight inkling as to what may have transpired in his life to set him on his course of solitude and detachment from the world.

That said, this comment from Smith's boss really fucking pissed me off...
"This guy was a human being. He might not have meant something to somebody else, but he was like family to us. He meant something to us."

And yet, over the course of 10 years, you couldn't fucking give the guy so much as a Christmas bonus, let alone even a slight bump in his wage? Fuck you and your invocation of "family." If that's how you treat family, I feel sorry for your kids.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:01 PM on September 29, 2010 [7 favorites]


It's depressing how a little bit of anonymity can make people do and say such wretched things. I experienced a bit of the crappiness of news site comments yesterday, when the gunman was running around University of Texas in Austin. I live in Austin and have friends that work at and around the school, and news was dribbling in aggravatingly slowly. I went to a local TV station's news page for updates and they were scant, then looked at the comments section where a couple of students were chiming in. One random creep made an asinine and dismissive comment, then right after made another comment saying that he was told seven people were dead and the gunman was still on the loose. On retrospect it's obvious he was just trolling, but to do so at a time when people are worried sick and desperate for any news? I don't know what that says, but it's not good. Seeing such a bankruptcy of empathy is sickening.
posted by picea at 3:12 PM on September 29, 2010


what a beautiful thing to do, and thanks for this post
posted by Danila at 3:20 PM on September 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


That was good. Thank you for posting this.

That first link led me to another obituary by Meacham. This one of Hope Witsell, a 13 year-old girl who committed suicide. Previous Metafilter post on Hope. I read that obit before the one of Mr. Smith and my eyes were starting to moisten up and I thought "Shit, I haven't read the one the post is about and I'm already crying."

The one of the dishwasher hit me a little hard because I used to know guys like that. I worked at a lot of restaurants in high school and in between stints at college, there always seemed to be someone like Mr. Smith around. Sometimes we'd get "Mr. Smith" to buy us some beer. I probably ignored him or made fun of him otherwise, little shit that I was in high school.

A well-written obituary can be some of the best writing there is. If anyone else likes reading a good obituary, I recommend The Last Word the New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells: A Celebration of Unusual Lives. It has obituaries of some semi-famous folks and some not so famous folks.

One thing I've always remembered from the introduction to that book: "Obituaries don't tell us who died, they tell us who lived."
posted by marxchivist at 3:24 PM on September 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


splatta: "Fuck Tyrone Dayhoff, 53, the Crab Shack's manager."

I think it's fair to point out that the manager isn't always the person who has the final say over whether or not someone like a minimum wage dishwasher gets a raise. In a small restaurant, that sort of decision would very often be made by the owner. But the manager is almost certainly the person who would be able to look the other way while the dishwasher helped himself to a couple of well deserved brewskis.

Just something to keep in mind before you anonymously trash someone in the comment section of a website.
posted by dhammond at 3:48 PM on September 29, 2010 [22 favorites]


I honestly don't understand why newspapers allow comments at all.

Really? Really?

Newspapers are in the eyeball business. People who comment are reliable eyeballs. Comments for some are reliable eyeball candy.

It's all about selling ad space.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:04 PM on September 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


He broke no laws, other than a 2007 open-container violation.

This sentence struck me hard. It speaks to the good character of the man while also seeming to me convey a sense of loneliness. I like the author's writing. I think I would have liked to have sat with my back to the freezer next to Mr. Smith, saying nothing, just drinking a beer and smoking a smoke, rocking back in my plastic lawn chair safe in the knowledge that nothing had to be said between us, but we had each other and each other's backs if we needed it.

I just wish I could read stories about folks when they are alive.

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posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:14 PM on September 29, 2010 [6 favorites]


I know a Neil Amin Smith, so suffice to say I freaked the fuck out for about five seconds on first skim.
posted by djgh at 4:34 PM on September 29, 2010


Ach. It sounds so lonely.
But maybe he was happy.
Touching story.
posted by joost de vries at 5:17 PM on September 29, 2010


Just something to keep in mind before you anonymously trash someone in the comment section of a website.

Sorry, it's just that this poor man spent 10 years washing dishes and they kept him at the minimum wage, and that bothers me. They were literally paying him the lowest amount that the law allows.

I don't know how I could stand by and let that happen if I were the manager, especially if he was as valuable as Dayhoff said he was. That totally sucks.
posted by splatta at 5:28 PM on September 29, 2010



I don't know how I could stand by and let that happen if I were the manager


In the company I worked for until a few months ago, there were managers making 8 dollars an hour. Even if he had the authority to hand out raises i think it's very doubtful he would have been budgeted the money to make that happen. There is definitely a concrete place to pin the blame for the disgraceful wages of Mr. Smith and millions like him, but it's higher up the chain than the guy that manages the local Crab Shack. It's true that the obit doesn't make him sound very sympathetic, but he might just not be good with words.
posted by frobozz at 5:51 PM on September 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Too many people are working too hard for too little money.
posted by splatta at 6:07 PM on September 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


Companies don't pay you what you're worth. They pay you the minimum they can to keep you productive and employed. If you're desperate enough, that's minimum wage. But even for well-paid professionals this is true, your co-worker may be making much more if the company knows he has a better offer and needs to counter it, for example.

About the only people this isn't true of are those who set the salaries (top management). And of course they're not paid what they're worth either --- they're paid what they can get away with.
posted by wildcrdj at 6:37 PM on September 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


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posted by grubby at 7:43 PM on September 29, 2010


Yeah, I wondered if he and the "roommate" were more than just roommates. They certainly seemed to have an understanding.

But this is what good journalism is and does: gives you a window into lives that are ignored or otherwise overlooked, a different perspective. This kind of clean storytelling is hard to do-- but extremely valuable.
posted by Maias at 7:43 PM on September 29, 2010


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posted by sigmagalator at 8:03 PM on September 29, 2010


Rogers brought in a CD player and played Celine Dion.

I never thought a line like that would make me tear up.
posted by limeonaire at 9:09 PM on September 29, 2010


It took years to get the minimum wage raised to $7.25.
posted by Daddy-O at 10:15 PM on September 29, 2010


Mr. Meacham wrote the obituary for my grandfather a few months ago. When I first heard about the story, I was surprised -- like the subject of this post, he was a modest man who shied away from attention, even if it was well-earned. Reading the piece was a great comfort to me. Far from the prosaic CV I was expecting, Meacham painted an accurate portrait of his warmth, his charming superstitions, and the role he played in our extended family.

Getting such treatment from such a talented writer was an honor, but he really only received the attention because of family ties to some local and national sports stars. I'm glad Meacham and the Times chose to summon the same simple eloquence and eye for detail in memoriam of a less connected, though no less valuable, life.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:16 PM on September 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


The thing about service sector jobs (I work at one myself) is that there's generally high turnover, with plenty of people out there trying to scrape up some kind of job whether it's waiting tables, washing dishes, slinging drinks, or whatever. The training period is pretty short, and lots of applicants already have the relevant experience, so there's kind of a certain amount of understanding that we're basically just interchangeable units. That's not a totally hard rule, but there's enough truth to it that a lot of the time owners simply see a certain position as being worth a certain wage, whether that's the local minimum or whatever. It's a lot less than minimum for waiters and bartenders, of course -- I know plenty of bartenders who don't make squat from the bar, and work 100% for tips. That's right: they are not paid by their employers.

We seem to be building a society where jobs like these are the backbone of the economy, at least for the working class. Used to be (so I'm told, anyway) that people without the education or the personality or whatever to go into the "professional" (white collar) world stood a decent chance of finding a well-paid labor job in a factory or the like. Nowadays if you don't have the degree or don't want to deal with the B.S. of having to take your work home with you, you end up stripping or waiting tables or washing floors. It's building a vast underclass of customer service workers, many of whom never will never get out of the grind and into a job where they have a chance of owning a house, buying health insurance, sending their kids to college. That nobody seems to see this as a problem is something of a mystery to me to say the least. Or maybe not so much of a mystery, you know?

It's rough out there. To all the Mr. Smiths of the world: may you find peace, in life or in death. I'll raise a glass to you buddy, just as soon as I get off work and hit up my bar.
posted by Scientist at 8:06 AM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's building a vast underclass of customer service workers, many of whom will never get out of the grind and into a job where they have a chance of owning a house, buying health insurance, sending their kids to college. That nobody seems to see this as a problem is something of a mystery to me to say the least. Or maybe not so much of a mystery, you know?
To this European this seems a very succinct way of typifying class structure in the US.

Democratic socialist capitalism for the win!

in my understanding. IMO. Not europeanist.
posted by joost de vries at 10:56 AM on September 30, 2010


He broke no laws, other than a 2007 open-container violation.

This sentence struck me hard because it seemed so gratuitous. How many obits cite obedience to the law? Would this have ever come up if we weren't talking about a minimum-wage dishwasher? Or would it be expected that the reader should take it for granted?

Frankly, if I were killed biking home tonight, an obit for me would read a lot like Smith's. A 40-something bike commuter. I showed up to work every day. My co-workers and neighbors would politely say I got my work done and was an okay neighbor, that I was quiet. It would be clear they weren't close to me. It might conclude that I knew my likes and lived within my means. Mine would feature being survived by a wife.

But I really doubt it would feature "He broke no laws, other than a 2006 moving violation for turning left at an intersection where it was prohibited between 4 and 6 PM." Because I'm a so-called professional with a desk job and get the benefit of the doubt of something so basic as living within the law.
posted by Zed at 11:04 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


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