RIP Rich Cunningham

(One of my oldest and dearest friends, Rich Cunningham Jr., passed away on Friday, September 4, 2009. Age-wise, he was 32 years old. In terms of wisdom, knowledge and hardened life experience, he was closer to about a thousand years old. I started writing some random thoughts about my friend, but be warned, this might take a while. We were friends a pretty long time and seriously, the dude lived like no other. I’m adding parts as they come onto this post, so scroll down for the latest.)

You are dearly missed old friend.

Part 1

None of us really knew what to make of the person we would soon come to know as Rich Cunningham in the early days of September, 1991.

He was new in the school, having transferred to Matawan Regional from somewhere in Irvington, and lost like the rest of us, somewhere between not-jock and not-cool guy popular, but also not really giving a fuck.

And he was funny. In the best kind of self-deprecating, goof ball way. I think Rich learned this at an early age. No offense to Rich’s parents, I understand that legacies need to be maintained, but to be named Richie Cunningham, the title character from Happy Days, throughout the ’80s and ’90s, meant you had better be able to laugh at yourself. Because as soon as you introduce yourself, people start laughing and asking if that’s your real name. But there are better examples of Rich’s ability laugh to himself.

And the best to come to mind was the ditch in Rich’s chest. You know how most people’s sternums are? Rich’s wasn’t like that. It was almost sunken into his chest. And if he laid down flat on his back, it sunk in even more, creating a “ditch” in the middle of his chest. I don’t remember the surrounding details of the event, but I do remember Rich taking off his shirt to reveal pasty white skin, laying down on his back and pouring soda into his “ditch.” Then craning his neck forward and with a straw, attempting to drink the soda out of the “ditch.” It wasn’t for show or to prove how crazy he was; Rich just enjoyed being able to laugh at himself while simultaneously entertaining all those around him.

Before long, Rich had won over the majority of the school. He was a friend to all, a clever comedian and possibly the most revered button pusher in all of Matawan. In the name of sarcasm and comedy, Rich became a nation builder throughout the high school. He would pick the most uppity snob two years his senior, look up said person’s address, then randomly visit that person’s house to see what was new in their lives. I never went along on those visits, but I can only imagine Rich doing his best to make said person feel as uncomfortable as humanly possible, all in the name of a laugh.

But to speak of a teen-age Richie Cunningham solely in the name of comedy would be a disservice to him. Whether Rich wanted to admit it or not, he was smart as a whip, wise beyond his years and mysteriously possessed a wealth of experience in the art of living. All at the tender age of 16. As is the usual case in high school, you try to hide these assets, so that people think you’re “cool.” Not Rich. He would quote Shakespeare and Marx at random, wrote and compiled a politically based zine titled ‘A Fart In A Spacesuit’ and even though we didn’t realize it at the time, had his sights set on the bigger picture.

The other truly great thing I remember about Rich as a teen-ager was his ability to maintain what seemed at the time like a million friendships. He was here one day, with others the next, even more the day after and still back at home in time for dinner. And he did all of this, in a fairly big town, on foot.

Rich walked everywhere, a trait that would stick with him well into his college years. I know he eventually grew into his athletic self, but during his teen-age years, Rich never rode a bike, skated, or played any sports. He was even afraid to try the rope swing into the town lake, preferring to climb down the ravine and wade in knee-deep water. I never asked why; that was just Rich. Brief case at his side, hilariously devious scheme blueprinted out somewhere inside of that, and for a time, a trench coat.

This was pre-Clerks, so get that Silent Bob image out of your head. This was irreverent, witty and lovable Rich, just as I remember him today.

Part Two (Added on 9/7, a few hours after Rich’s funeral)

As stated earlier, Rich maintained a lot of friendships. Now I will be the first to say that Rich was indeed a wise ass throughout his life, but his wise-assed ness never crossed too many boundaries. But because Rich was here one day, with other people the next and still more the day after, he sometimes ended up in precarious positions with some of the many people he knew. The most infamous of which, I shall now relay. I take that back, they were all infamous. But this one in particular always remained with me.

My brother Kevin, who was Rich’s age, in Rich’s grade and also close friends with Rich, worked at a bakery called Heritage Bakery. Myself, I worked a few doors down in the same shopping center, at a drive-up fast food restaurant called Stewart’s Root Beer. By no coincidence, the Cunningham family lived just across the road from the same shopping center. So every day, when Rich set off, be it rain, sleet or snow, he had to walk past both Stewart’s and Heritage Bakery. So even when myself and my brother were working, we got our daily glimpse of Rich. Some days he was walking back home with live mice to feed his snake. And some days, as is the case with teen-age-dom in the suburbs, Rich just wandered looking for something to do.

Don’t let me forget Heritage Bakery, because it is integral to the story. But as an aside, I need to say that during the summer, I worked a lot. And between the lunch and dinner rush, I sat on milk crates behind the restaurant with whomever else was working. An hour here, an hour there, pacing our long work days. These were often the times when a wandering Rich Cunningham would walk past. And almost as an unspoken rule, Rich became my entertainment. Between hamburgers, hot dogs and french fries, Rich would relay hour-long tales of whatever was happening in his life that day, often to everyone’s amusement. Eventually, Rich could come and do as he pleased at Stewart’s. Some days, I put him to work in the kitchen, and some days, he helped me break up boxes for recycling. But above Rich’s daily helpful hand and regaled tales, I think my experiences behind the restaurant with Rich helped to fortify our friendship. But I digress.

Kevin and another mutual friend named Don Zubritsky worked at Heritage Bakery. If baked goods didn’t sell by the end of the day, they were open for the staff to take home. At first, we ate whatever Kevin brought home. But as is the case with bored, teen-age minds in the suburbs, eating stale pies from the local bakery gets old after a few days. I can’t say for sure who made the judgment call, but eventually, day old pies, donuts and cakes from Heritage turned into weapons. We would drive the streets of Matawan at night, most of the time in Don’s car, and throw baked goods at whomever was walking the main highway through town or the surrounding streets. About a year ago, I was getting on the PATH train in Hoboken, and a guy with a skateboard stopped me. He said, “Do you remember me? You threw a jelly donut at me when I was walking down RT. 34.” (I know, in retrospect, it’s terrible, and I am most likely still paying that karmic debt.)

After a week of doing this, it became a mini tradition. That tradition came to a very quick end though. I wasn’t there on the particular night when it ended. Nor was my brother. But Rich Cunningham was. Sitting in the back seat of Don’s car, alongside another friend named Ray Otterbine, looking for unwilling victims to throw pies at from a moving car. Rich never threw anything, but I guess we’re all guilty by association at one point in our lives.

So Don is driving, Ray is shotgun and Rich is in the back seat. Ray spots a BMW, hurls a pie and tells Don to step on it. Within seconds, they are being chased by a car full of very unhappy people in the same BMW. Ray tells Don to step on it and that they might be waving a gun. From what I’ve been told, Rich heard that, hit the deck in the back of the car and didn’t move until the 45-minute chase ultimately ended with Don busting a u-turn on someone’s front lawn and loosing them.

The next day, Don took whatever bumper stickers he had off his car in an effort to disguise his car. And Rich made his scheduled stop to Stewart’s. He relayed the entire story in much more detail, and unofficially declared an end to throwing stale pies from moving cars in Matawan. I had to agree.

But Rich still liked maintaining every friendship he had. And if that meant piling back into Don’s car with Ray in the front seat, he did it. No questions asked. He was a trooper. He just didn’t want to get shot for throwing pies at strange people. And I’m pretty sure he said those exact words the day after that fateful incident.

Part Three (11:47 PM, September 8, 2009)

Please bear with me, cause at times, this might go out of chronological order. And since I am two years older than Rich, sometimes, in our earlier years, our friendship took several different turns. Rich could go from riding passenger in my car to teaching me about Nietzsche to tagging along while my dad and brother helped me move into the freshman dorms at Rutgers, which is where we will now venture.

I don’t remember the specifics, but for some reason, Rich Cunningham was free and willing to help carry boxes into my second floor dorm on the Livingston campus at Rutgers one early September morning in 1992. So he jumped in the car and made the 30-minute trek with me, my dad and my brother.

Now I don’t remember much about the day. And there’s not really much to remember; it was a moving day. We carried my random assortment of crap up two flights of stairs, we said our goodbyes, they left.

But Rich was always better with details than most, and he would remember the very subtle but important elements of any conversation within earshot of him. Sometimes, this would annoy me to death. (Rich could overhear any conversation in the world, seemingly know something about whatever was being said, and interrupt everyone in the process of schooling us.) But other times, he hung back, made mental notes and filed them away for more appropriate times.

Such was the case on the day I left home for college. We said our goodbyes, and my father, brother and Rich returned to Matawan. Somewhere along the way back home, my father said, “I feel like I left a part of me there today.” Now the only reason I know this is because Rich made an effort to tell me after the fact. He didn’t tell me that he thought I would’ve liked to hear it; he just told me that the day might’ve been slightly more emotional than I had previously thought.

And I never forgot that. Even when I was a dumbass, unappreciative, non-communicative 18-year-old, Rich knew the value of my relationship with my father, and even though it probably made him a little uncomfortable, he took the time to let me know.

At the time, he was 15 going on 16.

Part Four: The Reason We Never Saw Jawbreaker Live in New Jersey

(I wrote this on November 24, 2007. The reason being, myself and Rich had gone to see a show a few weeks prior to me writing about the below event. On the way back, we got to talking, and I believe Rich mentioned something about the show in question being easier to get home from than the night we never got to see Jawbreaker play.)

I wanna say that this incident happened in 1993. Had there been a complete gig listing of Jawbreaker’s live shows online somewhere, I would know the exact date, but for all intents and purposes here, I’m gonna have to go with a guess-timate. The one reason I’m guessing it was 1993 is due to the fact that I remember what car I was driving, as it plays an integral part to the story. It was a 1980 Datsun Sentra, a four-door beater with a tan paint job that myself and my father bought from a guy named Scamp who lived on Rt. 35 in Middletown, NJ. Why I can remember the name of the man I bought my first car from, but not the exact year this story happened is beyond me. That’s just how my brain works.

So it’s probably the summer of 1993. Myself, my brother Kevin, and two of our friends, Rich Cunningham and Steve Klein, decide we should go see Jawbreaker play at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ that night. We’re in my car. It’s 1993 and we’re traveling north on the New Jersey Turnpike. I’m 20, my brother and Rich are 18, Steve is 17. We make it to the Turnpike exit for the Holland Tunnel, then begin exiting to the left so we can make our way down Washington Street in Hoboken. It’s when I’m on the exit ramp to Hoboken that my oil light starts flashing. I pull into a municipal works parking lot on the side of the road, get out of the car, look under the engine and discover the once full engine of oil slowly emptying out all over the parking lot. It’s about 8 PM, we’re on the side of the road and my car just lost the plug to the oil pan. Luckily, I had turned off the car, so the engine didn’t seize, but the car was now un-driveable. So we make a decision. Hoboken has a train station, we can park the car here overnight, get to the train station and get home, then come back tomorrow and fix the car.

We’re about two miles away, and we start walking. None of us had ever bothered to figure out the NJ Transit train system, so we’re hoping that someone can point us to the train which travels back to Matawan once we get there. For two miles, we trudge over the then sidewalk-less shoulder lane of Observer Highway, ultimately arriving to a bustling train depot in the middle of a heavily populated commuter town. It’s just a train station, but for four kids that spent most of their time simply driving around their little corner of the world on summer nights, it was a different world. Somehow, we discover that there are no direct trains to Matawan. We would instead have to travel via Path Train to New York City, get to Penn Station and take another NJ Transit train home to Matawan.

Along the way, we met a middle-aged man that helped guide us to Penn Station. We didn’t know him one bit, but our ignorance forced us to trust his directions. He did get us to Penn Station, but not without asking for $5. We gave him what we could and made our way downstairs to the train station.

Once aboard the Jersey Coast line of NJ Transit, the four of us wasted our trip home singing the theme from ‘Growing Pains’ and other assorted TV shows from our youth. Upon reaching the Matawan train station, we said our goodbyes to Steve and Rich, and began our six-mile walk home. I don’t know what we talked about or anything. I remember thinking that the night had evolved much differently than I had expected, but I wasn’t the least bit upset about it.

Upon passing Matawan Regional High School, we walked past a car. The window rolled down to reveal a kid named ‘Cowboy Paul.’ He was in the band and practice had run pretty late that night. (He also wore cowboy boots and a trench coat in case you were wondering about the nickname.) He only wanted to wave and say hello, but I quickly explained the story and asked for a ride home. He obliged, and in ten minutes, we were back at out house. My car didn’t make it, but we had without any help aside from Cowboy Paul and a nameless man with knowledge of trains from Manhattan.

The next morning, my brother and I borrowed my dad’s van. We stopped off at an auto parts store in Matawan, bought an oil plug for an ’80 Nissan, four quarts of oil and a 14mm open-faced wrench. Then again, we headed north on the New Jersey Turnpike. When we got to Hoboken, my car still sat silently in the municipal works parking lot, oblivious to the cars, trucks and other assorted vehicles that were coming in and out of the place. I got underneath the car, bolted the new plug into the oil pan, filled the car up with oil and started the car. It ran fine. In ten minutes, we were back on the Turnpike, headed south to Matawan, me in the Datsun, my brother Kevin behind me in my dad’s van.

I never really wondered if we missed out on Jawbreaker that fateful night. Instead of seeing a band we liked, we experienced a world we hadn’t come to know yet. And more importantly, we didn’t have to call our dad to come pick us up in Hoboken. (He definitely would’ve come gotten us in a second had we asked him to, but there were greater forces at play here.) We weren’t kids anymore. We were finally figuring out how to depend on ourselves, taking life as it comes and adapting to the circumstances. Looking back now, I can see it’s just responsibility taking a few of its first adult steps. But when you’re young and clueless to the workings of the world outside of your suburb, it’s a tiny victory in the former world of calling your parents when things go wrong. One I’m still very proud of.

I’m going to add one line onto this that should have been there in the first place: We did a lot of growing up, literally and figuratively, alongside Rich Cunningham. In between lots of laughing.