This is a picture of me and Mike Mitchell from a St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl in Chicago 11 years ago. It looks like every other single picture I have of us: Not smiling.
It’s not because of some alpha-male macho bullshit: At the time, Mitchy went out of his way to avoid smiling in pictures. He wasn’t one of those kids who had braces as a child and as an adult that was, um, obvious.
During the late 90s prior to camera phones, it was disposable cameras that found themselves in every house party and bar. They didn’t get uploaded to Facebook or put on the Internet, but it seemed everywhere we went people were taking pictures.
Mitch was at least half a foot taller than me (I’m 5”10 without a recent haircut) handsome and - thanks to daily gym trips that sometimes spanned four hours - filled out physically. It was tough to catch him in the act of smiling. When you made him laugh, which was one of my favorite things to do in our apartment, he’d cover his mouth or turn away while doing so.
It was an open secret that he didn’t smile on purpose, so whenever we were in pictures together I didn’t smile either, out of solidarity. Look at that picture again: We were having an awesome time. Trust me. We always had an awesome time.
My fraternity brother and former roommate passed away over the weekend at the age of 38. Liver cancer is the reason according to the emails going around, but it’s the first I heard of it. Mitchell would never let you know if something was wrong.
Case in point: One day he left our apartment to go to the gym. He didn’t come back that night, which wasn’t odd - he was really good at meeting people (people = women) and sometimes a workout turned into a spontaneous date. He didn’t come back the following day either. Or the following day.
It turns out that Mitchy had a date with the emergency room to remove a rupturing appendix. He had been in pain for several days and kept it to himself. He was in agony and went to the gym to try and exercise the pain away. He rolled back into the apartment several days later and showed me his new scar. Chicks dig scars. He was proud of it, but didn’t really talk about how painful the whole ordeal was.
He was one of the most unintentionally hilarious roommates you can possibly imagine. I’d come home from work and hear The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street blasting from his room with the door closed along with thundering banging noises, and I knew exactly what was going on in there: No - it’s not what you’re thinking. He was alone. And lip-syncing into a hair brush while dancing in the mirror.
This was happening once while we had a friend over and he didn’t believe me. I cracked the door and let him peek, and there was Mitch Jagger box-stepping like a goddamn champ to Sweet Black Angel with full body theatrics. I shut the cracked door and we looked at each other and simulatenously said the same thing: Mitchell is awesome.
He was a classic chick magnet. When we’d go out in Chicago all we had to do was stand near him and wait for girls to approach, then start talking to the ones he couldn’t handle. He learned early on that was the right way to go about things after discovering that when he approached women he wasn’t quite as successful.
One night at Kelsey’s on Lincoln Ave we were hanging out when he saw a girl he was interested in talking to. She was eating popcorn out of one of those little paper bowls - alone - and he made his move. He walked right up to her and said, “uhhhh…can I have some popcorn?” (Probably not the line that I would have used, but I had to work harder than he did).
She glared at him like he had said something outragous, and pointed across the bar to the popcorn machine with an exaggerated motion. “Go get some of your ow-wn!” she sneered, with excessive rudeness. Mitchy looked over at us, as we were well within earshot, and smiled - for only a split-second.
He then dunked his giant mitt of a hand into her popcorn and grabbed 95% of what was there and shoved it into his face, with only about half of it going into his mouth. The rest fell down on his shoulders, down the front of his chest and onto the floor. “Thanks,” he said, flatly, “you can get more over there.” He then mimicked her exaggerated motion and pointed at the popcorn machine.
The only people laughing harder than we were in the bar were some other girls who had witnessed the whole exchange, and they immediately approached him. And that night, Mitchy became self-aware. Once he got his teeth fixed, he was damn near Adonis. He even began to smile in public.
I’m still in the phase where I’m having a hard time believing that he’s gone. Though we live in separate states he was always good for a random text, email or voicemail. He always asked about things, my wife, kids, whatever - not just because you’re supposed to but because he actually wanted to know.
I hope his family fully realizes how much he loved them. I hope his friends realize how much he loved them, despite what that hulking exterior often showed non-verbally. Mitchy was one of the most loyal, caring friends I’ve ever had, even though we could not have been more different than each other. I know he never wanted to show pain or weakness, and he probably wouldn’t handle sympathy all that well either.
The unselfish part of me is glad that he is no longer suffering, even though he was so good at it for much of his life, with some of his other health problems he didn’t like to talk about (that are impossible to hide from a roommate in a tiny Chicago apartment). The selfish part of me wishes he was still suffering, because he’d still be around, in pain but content. Side Three of Exile: I Just Want to See His Face.
Mitchy will always be lip-syncing in my memories, he’ll always be happy on the inside and he’ll always be exactly like I am right now: Not smiling.