Archive for August, 2018

Man of Mystery

Posted: August 9, 2018 in Uncategorized

Back in February 2016, I wrote this but I don’t think I ever posted it because I was afraid that the subject would one day Google himself and find it and be hurt (I mean, how hard would it be when your name is “Jenci?”) Well, I learned last night that Jenci had passed away back in May of Leukemia, so I decided I would post it now, since tomorrow would have been his 62nd birthday. I only edited a few spelling errors, so it would be a clear representation of how I felt then, even though now some of it takes on a slightly different meaning. The section where he talked about euthanizing himself is especially grim, because if he was serious about that, which I think he was, that choice was taken away from him. According to the obituary, however, he died peacefully in his sleep, so that was probably better.  

While re-reading it, I did feel bad about what I wrote about “becoming him,” as if that would have been the worst thing in the world. I’m sure he didn’t look back on his life as wasted. He probably recalled fondly his summers as a raft guide, took solace in the knowledge and wisdom that he passed on to the countless students and young employees that he worked with over the years, and I have no doubt that he was pleased with his record collection. Still, when I read his obituary, the last line gave me pause: that he was survived by his older brother and “beloved dog Andi.” Obviously, his life and legacy amounted to more than that, but it does make one wonder…

Here’s the post:

I recently returned to my pseudo-former part-time job at Harvard Media & Technology Services, because it’s extra cash and because I feel like I owe them for giving me a job right out of college when my only experience with audio-visual technology was pressing the play button on my VCR.  I say “returned” even though I technically have never actually left the job, although I like to take semester-long breaks on occasion.  And yes, I actually started working there in 1998, and in my current incarnation, I have been working there off-and-on since 2006.  Any way you slice it, I’m a veteran.

The reason for my most-recent hiatus was the evening supervisor in the office I was working out of had started to grate on me a little.  Jenci (pronounced “yen-see”), despite being very smart in general and incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to audio-visual equipment, is undoubtedly one of the strangest people I ever met.  However, a funny thing happened the other night upon my triumphant return: I found out Jenci was gone, having moved back to his hometown in Ohio, and the thought struck me that I would probably never see him again.

The quick backstory on Jenci is that he was recruited by Harvard University’s football program as an undergrad in the 80’s because he was both a good high school athlete and also had the grades to excel at their prestigious institution.  Jenci got a work-study job at then-Harvard Audio-Visual Services.  Upon graduating with a degree in one of the sciences (although he was always very mysterious about what it was), he was offered a full-time job at Harvard A/V, and there he stayed until just a couple months ago.  On my first day in 1998, he trained me and several of us newbies on the ins-and-outs of A/V equipment.  I still vividly remember him teaching us about a fictitious numbering system he came up with for measuring audio output, which he affectionately called “Jenci Units.”

In the years I knew Jenci, I found him to be a pretty laid back and even kind fellow.  I heard him on more than one occasion offer student employees money if they needed to buy lunch, or even offer some of his own food (A large man, Jenci and food were never far apart.). He was always helpful when you had any kind of question, be they about life or a basic wireless microphone set-up. And Jenci was a man who loved his dog. So much that he often referred to him as a person: “Cousin Andi.”

Still, elements of the bizarre were always at the forefront of his personality.  I remember the evening not very long ago when Jenci patted me on my bald spot, as if pointing out something that I was not aware of (I always find it amazing that the more obese a man is, the more hair he seems to have on his head.). I remember how he stowed away food all over the office like he was preparing for the coming apocalypse. I recall how he would cut his Post-Its into tiny shards and stick them to his monitor, and inscribe notes on them in very small handwriting, until his monitor became a sort of memory-jogging kaleidoscope. And I remember him telling me, in grave detail, how he would euthanize himself once he got to a point where he could no longer work and, thus, was no longer “useful.”

“I don’t really want to burden anyone, so if I can’t work a job anymore, I’ll just take myself out,” he proclaimed.

“Seriously?” Even though we had been joking around earlier, his tone had changed. He wasn’t sullen, but very matter-of-fact, like he had given this serious thought.

“Yeah, I have no children to worry about me, so when the time comes, I’ll just take care of my affairs and do what’s necessary.”

“So, what? Call Dr. Kevorkian or something?” I asked.

“No. There are certain chemicals that can be used to dull the senses so that I wouldn’t feel anything. All I would need is some of those and a plastic bag, and it would be easy.”

“You really have this all figured out.”

He nodded. “Like I said, I don’t want to be a burden to anyone,”

“There are no bridges nearby?” I muttered.

It was this conversation that lead me to believe that he would be found in a Harvard lecture hall one morning, a plastic bag over his head.

Conversations like this were also why Jenci disturbed me so.  Not for the obviously maudlin How-I-Plan-To-Kill-Myself reason, but because they became all-to frequent occurrences. Well into his fifties by this point, he would talk to the young female students as if they were his companions rather than subordinates, and I think they were definitely a little freaked out by him. Even I found it incredibly awkward when he would invite me to his home to drink his craft beer, knowing of my affinity for it, because it was never in that “Hey, want to come over and have a beer and watch the game” kind of way. It felt more like a Ralph Wiggum “Please be my friend” kind of way.

But the thing that most frightened me about Jenci was the fear that I would one day become him. He was a nice guy, like I said, and always good for a story, but the closer I get to my fortieth birthday, a part of me worries that I may one day become a 50-something man who has been working at a university for far too long and who makes creepy conversation with young female students far too often.  This, combined with his fastidious office behavior and his bizarre eating habits, lead me to take my latest break from Harvard.  I even feared going back this time, because I would have to make small talk with Jenci.

Still, when I learned of his departure, I was a little sad. Something about the finality of it all unnerved me. He seemed like such an institution at that place that I could never envision him leaving. I heard different theories as to what happened, but I wasn’t able to learn the truth. I had hoped that he had simply retired in peace (and changed his mind about the whole suicide thing), but I also heard that he was still working somewhere in Ohio. One theory I heard was that he perhaps unnerved one student too many and was shown the door. Another was that his mother had become ill and he returned to care for her. Not that I would wish that something bad would happen to his mother, but I kind of hope that was the reason. I would hate to think that after the years he had worked at Harvard that they would cast him aside if he wasn’t willing to go.

That’s the interesting thing here; Jenci was not someone I would have ever chosen to hang out with, or would have invited over my house for dinner, and yet, when I think about it, he was actually a mentor to me. Not just because he taught me about Jenci Units, but he also taught me how to deal with ornery professors (always tell them you know what the problem is, even if you have no idea.), which in turn helps me deal with people in general. Also, considering that I actually worked with him off-and-on for 18 years, and he didn’t seem to have many social outlets outside of work and his dog, he probably thought of me as a friend. Of course, it doesn’t take a Harvard degree to see that is probably why I disliked him so, because really, despite the occasional weirdness, there was inherently nothing wrong with him. I simply didn’t want to see him as a friend.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Jenci had nothing to do with technology or friendship. It was that we don’t always get to pick our mentors in this life. While I don’t necessarily look back on him with fondness, or feel inspired by his teachings, I did learn a lot about how to deal with people, and maybe how not to talk to female students. Most importantly, I learned that people come into your life, and it’s all very random.  You don’t necessarily have to drink beer with them, or even like them, but they are there and you can learn valuable lessons from them, like it or not.

I will definitely miss him a little, and despite all my grumbling, if I ever do see him again, I will be sure to thank him for the memories and the mentoring. Maybe I’ll even pat him on the head.

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