If we hadn’t belonged to the same gym, Louis Menchise and I would never have been friends. He was about ten years older than me, a balding guy in a grey USMC t-shirt, huffing away on the recumbent bike or grimacing while lifting free weights. When he first started talking to me, I figured he was trying to pick me up.
But we became buddies. Lou was a disgruntled city worker and aspiring filmmaker who lived in the Bronx with his mother and brother. He had belonged to the Y for over 20 years, cheating death twice in that time, surviving cancer in 1995 and doing a tour of duty in Iraq in 2003 (hence the shirt). Though we often disagreed politically, we found we had more important things in common. We traded tips on the sciatica we both dealt with. And we had both fought depression for decades; in our bleakest moments we congratulated each other for going through the motions and making it to the gym. We ran into each other there two or three times a week for about three years, checking in with each other, seeing each other’s ups and downs.
Most importantly, Lou had a wicked, dark, irreverent sense of humor, cracking jokes, making fun of everything, and finding amusement in the most annoying or ordinary things. For example, mid-workout he usually took a break in the lounge to snack on celery and carrot sticks and sliced bell peppers, which he called his “crudite”, in a hilarious exaggerated French accent. He often saved me the peppers, my favorite.
We shared a similar attitude: Don’t wait to enjoy yourself; this might be all you get, so you might as well laugh through the shit. Lou’s life had a lot of shit, but he made the most of it. He was just 51 when he had a heart attack earlier this month, texting me from the hospital; but before we could connect he had a second, more severe heart attack and went into a coma. I got the news of his death while out of town researching my biography of Richard Hunt, a Muppet performer who lived by this same attitude and brought joy to millions of people. Lou may not have been world-famous but he achieved a comparable mission: in his gloomy, cynical way, he brightened the lives of the people he came into contact with. I miss him already. Going to the gym won’t be half as much fun without him.