Thursday, October 31, 2013

I Remember Arnie

I met Arnie Raiff in ... 2003. We were both taking Carey Friedman's Experimental Theater class and it was my first semester at Columbia College Chicago. I had decided to go back to school because I was restless and aimless and wanted to write a lot. Arnie was teaching there, and taking classes that interested him. I was already intimidated, taking an experimental theater class before I'd taken any normal theater classes, but now I was taking it alongside a teacher and a bunch of grad students. But I was kind of dumb, so I didn't let it bother me too much.

But I felt comfortable around Arnie from the first time I saw him. He had a scraggly beard and a scratchy voice. He wore newsboy caps and baggy sweaters. He didn't look like a writing teacher auditing a class. He looked like a guy, a Chicago guy, and he was eager to ask questions when he didn't quite get something yet, and he was quick to get excited when he got it. We didn't talk much, one on one. I didn't talk to anyone much, one on one, that semester. Maybe that whole year. I was nervous about being back in school and being found out for a fraud and a terrible writer. I remember having something I wrote read aloud in class one day, and hearing Arnie laugh at one of the right places. I don't even remember what I wrote. I just remember that he laughed.

That summer Arnie taught a writing workshop I took. The focus was creative nonfiction. I read "Shooting an Elephant" for the first time in his class, and it was one of the first stories I taught to students of my own later. He talked about unions and looked at me with a little bit of disbelief when I said that my dad was in a union, but couldn't quite articulate what he did at work every day. I investigated imaginary friends as my final project for that class, not conscious that it was because, even after nearly two years in Chicago and one year back in school, I still felt so separate from a lot of real humans.

But that meant there were figures like Arnie that loomed large. Writers who had gone through the process. Arnie was still exploring his work and his craft, still struggling with making himself understood, but also eager to help others find their voices. I didn't have an intense personal connection with him. Except for the one that came from being fellow travelers who were in the same place for a little while. We walked and read and wrote together, for a little while.

This morning, I woke up in a city far from Chicago and scrolled through Facebook to help jumpstart my brain. To see what the world was up to while I was asleep. I read that Arnie Raiff died peacefully at home on October 29, ending his long battle with cancer.

I haven't seen Arnie in person since 2006, when I left Chicago for California, the first time. But I have thought about him -- this is no joke -- on a regular basis ever since, trying to explain the Chicago-centric pop culture references from Spider-Man 2. "'He's Back,'" Arnie said, pretending to hold up a newspaper. "That's Michael Jordan!" I don't know why that pops into my head as often as it does. I would imagine Arnie didn't think too much about Spider-Man 2 after that summer. But that's how I see him, as the focus of that semi-circle in a little room on South Michigan Avenue, holding court and talking about stories. Write on, brother.