Steve Szkotak has had a great run. I write this with great sadness, after hearing from Mandy his wife of nearly 40 years, that he is in hospice care. Like all of us, he’s facing the end, the only difference is that he’s painfully closer, very critical and near death. He’s battled this cancer and fought hard, and through much of his struggle, he has shared it with me, as my email pen-pal.
He’s been tossing me his long, perfectly spelled and typo-free emails for years, and I would bat back long missives of my own whenever I got one of his. We’ve been like regular tennis partners, batting back, sharing tidbits, asking questions, but mostly, pouring out what’s inside us to a trusted confidant.
He’d chastise me for typos and grammar slip-ups, as any good editor would do. I always appreciated that, when my dictation would fail me on the screen.
We’ve been corresponding since, well, I don’t really know, but it’s been many, many years. Steve has worked as an editor and as a reporter at UPI, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, and for longer in Richmond Virginia for the AP.
He’s the only person I know who ever complained to me that my emails were ‘thin gruel,’ with not enough substance. I loved that about him.
We met when he and Mandy got married, back in 1980, and I was overjoyed when he got hired on at the Gazette when I was working there in advertising. We were an interesting pair, fast friends, from two different parts of the building. I don’t know of any my ad pals who hung out with editors, but we had a lot of fun, going to lunch and enjoying Friday cocktails together.
We used to carouse around and I remember a night when we drove up to a bar in Millers Falls to see a great band. We also attended a few of the formal Amherst Chamber of Commerce dinners together. He made it fun, even though it was an evening of pomp and stiffness all around.
I left the paper before he did, and he tried to get out for a long time, finally landing a great gig down in Richmond.
Though Mandy and Steve both missed the Valley, they made a great life and a comfortable living in this vibrant city, and as I said in the beginning, they’ve been very happy and successful.
Steve had the joy of walking his daughter Molly down the aisle at her wedding just a few weeks ago, and he wrote to me about how hard that was for him. “Can’t sugarcoat the state I’m in. With the wedding looming, I’m wondering how much I have in the tank to walk Molly down the aisle, deliver a rousing toast, and make the rounds. It’s daunting.” But he did it, and it was a great day for their family, and as the photo shows, he made it.
After they moved to Richmond, we flew down and got a few rooms at the Tides Inn in Virginia’s Northern Neck. I was early in my travel writing career, and I thought that the restaurant would comp us whatever we wanted, so I loaded up on one of everything on the menu. When the bill came, I had to pony up the $400, with Steve and Mandy pulling out all the money they had in their wallets to try and help me cover it. Lesson learned. But we had great fun later that weekend when I met one of their relatives who had a great big plantation house in the Northern Neck and treated us all to a big family dinner.
In May Steve shared his condition as well as told me something that meant a lot to me. “My dear friend, Max. I remain weak and mentally sluggish. Hope to get back to correspondence. Til then, you must know the resumption of our letters has been a great joy.” Nobody has ever made me feel better as a writer than he did.
I often laughed out loud at his descriptions and his clever repartee that came though in his emails. Here is a dispatch from April after I lamented the state of dress in the airport. “Airports offer a nice slice of Americana, minus the lower classes of society. I’ve often considered a transition to athletic gear as a default fashion statement. The track suit with piping on the slacks, all smooth and wrinkle free, with the latest in shiny new sneaker. Black men of a certain age favor this fashion statement, or lack of statement. It would simplify life to have a closet full of track suits, ready for any occasion.”
I don’t know anyone who I could share lively conversations with on so wide a range of topics. My heart sinks and when I think about losing our connection, I realize that will never have a friend like Steve, and never meet someone who knew me better by virtue of all that I shared with him. Godspeed, good friend. Godspeed.