Saturday, August 12, 2006

Once a Runner

Our first few interactions did not go so well. Bill was a dashing young Wired recruit quickly working his way up to copy chief. He was confident and already knew his way around the office. He'd arrive each morning with a little fanfare, shaking hands and imparting jokes to editors along the row. He often wore a vintage bowling shirt and carried a razor-thin briefcase for effect. I was a lowly intern in charge of fact-checking the more fungible quadrants of the magazine. It didn't enhance our early relationship that I insisted that a place in Ireland called County Clare was really spelled "Claire" -- "You know, like the girl's name." A few days later, thinking that he was out of the office for a moment, I pulled out some dictionaries from Bill's desk to look up a word. There were reference books and galley pages all over his usually immaculate space. Then, behind me, came a stern voice: "Hey, Junior? That's not your playpen."

Years later our rapport improved and I looked forward to visiting the spotless desk with the giant, industrial-sized bolt on it. (I think he liked to call it "a big screw.") Bill had become my mentor in the office and running partner out of it. A few days a week, at around 5 p.m., he invented a terrifying and invigorating ritual. Bill found a break in the fence on the Caltrain track where you could enter the tunnel between 16th Street and run in darkness all the way to 22nd street. It was utterly black except for a tiny point of light at the mouth of the tunnel. It wasn't dangerous; you could easily hug the cement wall if the San Jose was approaching. But the feeling was giddy and disorienting with only the sounds of crushed rock under our shoes. I couldn't help imagining deadly snakes or mutant hobos laying in wait. I made Bill run in front for the reassurance of his silhouette.

The other day, I searched my old email boxes for vintage correspondence from my friend. I wanted to share a few:

Subject: Re: "Rituals of choice:"

outrunning the 6:20 pm Caltrain through the 16th-22nd Street tunnel;
a double shot of Odwalla with an Odwalla chaser

I'd look forward to our runs, but I'd even feel a little thrill during the workday to get an email from Bill, who by now had made it to deputy editor. He crafted even routine electronic notices into small literary events. More examples:

Date: Tue, 17 Oct 2000 13:57:37 -0700
To: From:
Subject: BG, where

Unable to breach my primary care physician's heavily fortified
voicemail system, I am attempting to get my hands on some antibiotics
by way of full frontal assault. Questions? Call California Pacific
Medical Center, Sinus Rebar Removal Unit: +1 (415) ### ####.

Date: Thu, 21 Oct 1999 14:39:30 -0700
Subject: Out of sight

Due to the convergence of circumstances beyond his control, a certain
editor will be squirted out of the office like a watermelon seed this
afternoon and not heard from again until Monday.

In the event that unnaturally large ants overrun your picnic, call #####, where a mechanically reproduced voice will greet you.

Date: Thu, 17 Aug 2000 14:44:32 -0700
To: From:
Subject: Out of the office Friday 18 August

Doing field research for a Best item on protective headgear.

Using my noggin,

Date: Wed, 5 Jul 2000 16:22:58 -0700
Subject: Grist: Cyburban outfitters

Today's rhetorical question: Is anyone Netting the hipoisie, or is the much-ballyhooed bridge to the 21st century simply a direct link between Melrose shops and Michael Musto?

Even the signoffs in each email sparkled:

Down with the SelectScan Plus,

Taking off the VR gloves,

Trying to convert the Wired Phrase Generator to diesel,

Tightening the laces on my scuffed CKs,

Information gladly given, but safety requires avoiding unnecessary conversation,

Feeling your pain,

Staying thirsty,

It's strange: for someone so prolix in everyday speech, Bill had an imperative for absolute economy in writing. He switched between modes at will. It's like a guy who experiments with dangerous pyrotechnics on the weekend then goes to work as fire chief during the week. Bill wanted to make sure the opening paragraph of every short article explained exactly what was going on without messing around. He would constantly ask me to rewrite stories to answer his two pet questions: What is it? What's the sell?

What is it? If it's a story about a new supercomputer, the reader has to be on solid footing from the start. No fancy rhetoric. And the article needs to communicate what Bill called "the sell" right away. What's the writer's take on why the story is interesting or important here and now? Why do we care? As far as Bill was concerned, if you've delivered on those two questions in straightforward prose, you've done 90 percent of the job. Wordplay, jokes, or puns don't belong unless they're tightly connected to the subject of the article and further the reader's understanding. Over and over, I heard those questions whenever I visited the desk with the giant rusty screw. When I left Wired to become a freelance writer, I began to type them on the top of each fresh wordprocessor page as a virtual Goggins standing over me. I still do this. Before starting a story, I type: "What is it?" and "What's the sell?"

Not that I took to Bill's advice right away. If Bill wanted to cut a joke in a story I was editing, I might say something churlish like, "Oh, so you want to take all the fun out of it, huh?" He never took the bait. Instead, I love the way he'd go through an elaborate silent not-me pantomime with his hands held out in front of him. "Oh, no, no my brother." He'd say that, in general, he liked what I was trying to do but there were good reasons why the joke didn't fit this time around. Besides it wasn't what he liked or didn't like, it was what the story wanted. One of the tools he used to explain editorial decisions was to personify the words themselves. I loved how he would explain a story's silent needs and desires. "The lead wants to be about XYZ" or "The headline wants to achieve XYZ" It was a great way to make decisions appear impersonal and to defuse the heat of a disagreement. Bill never conceded an argument, but he was always willing to go through every step of his logic every time. And I was just one among many people imposing on his time. It was probably why he stayed at work later than everyone else.

Bill marked up galleys and proofs with an razor-thin black rollerball. His edits were precise, but had such flair at the same time. He'd usually put brackets around a passage or phrase that "wanted reexamining." Then with a huge arced line to an empty spot on the page, he'd rewrite the section in neat, geometric script.

He intuitively understood the visual component of magazine editing. The headline or caption must work with the photo, illustration, or art on the page. This is often lost on word people. Some of Bill's most salient, funny, perfect headlines came from reacting to the photo or layout. He was able to think backwards from what the reader would see when they had a fresh look at a new magazine page.

And he was a wonderful runner. When I moved away from San Francisco, he would update me on his races. We ran the Bay to Breakers together, and in one email he wanted to fill me in on his latest essay up Hayes street:

Date: Mon, 20 May 2002 11:19:21 -0700
Subject: When it runs, it pours

Caught a few wayward drops before leaving the pre-start line tortilla pit, soldiered up the Hill before charging head down into what became a downpour by race's end; stumbled upon a house key in the grass at a sodden, soon to be washed out "Footstock," and after tracking down the lost and found, packed my shivering ass onto the N Judah. (Started alongside a swell intern and her fiance, bumped into Basque buddy Vincent post-run, but slogged the great middleground by my lonesome.) Guess the whole damp affair was a karmic counterweight to the previous day's dry Muslim wedding (though come to think of it, I was mixing some pretty wet Manhattans for the newlyweds at their hotel around 2:30 in the morning).

Trust you're well (or, hell, even top shelf).

Staying thirsty,


I was lucky to have a few more chances to run with Bill last April when I made a visit to the city. Whether consciously or not, the routes he chose always had a blazing fast component and an exploratory, peripatetic one. One day, we traced an 8-mile route over to Pier 39. Following a course toward the Bay Bridge, he picked up the pace to maybe 6:30 for a mile then slowed down and jogged us through the inside of the Embarcadero Plaza food court, pausing at a few delis to explain what foods each counter was best known for. The next day he chose a route through Fort Mason to Crissy Field. I'll always remember a shining moment running over the dirt paths across the field, winding through tourists and cyclists. Bill had notched up the pace so gradually that it wasn't obvious that we were galloping at top speed. It felt transcendent, effortless, and only the fact that he ran beside me stride-for-stride staved off my panic and made it feel like we'd continue on like this for miles.

Bob Parks
Brattleboro, Vermont

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

If I wait here at the cafe long enough he's bound to show up again.

Bill was amazing, funny and whip smart. And ubiquitous. For years I'd run into Bill at the oddest hours in the most random places. Not simply parties thrown by shared aquantainces (although there were plenty of those), but also bus stops, cafes, post offices, got to the point where we'd see each other and just say "of course. You again!"

The last time I saw Bill was in June when he came to my band's show at Bottom of the Hill, solo. I introduced him to my parents. He was so sweet and charming to them, as he was to everybody. Actually I think I ran into him about a week later at Cafe Roma, but I was late to meet a friend for lunch so it was a quickie. Just long enough to hear that he was really happy about some of the new projects he was working on.

I'm confused and unable to process the fact that this will never happen again. It's really, really, really fucking unfair.

- Blake Robin

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Of Hamster Mills, the Gogginator, and Proper Goodbyes

My friendship with Bill had a headquarters: Club One Yerba Buena. It was the only place we could run together. I’d lumber along on what he called "the hamster mill" for a mile or two. He’d start out with a long, upright gait, chatting about local politics or movies or work or baseball while settling in at a pace that few others would ever think of reaching on a treadmill. After 7 or 8 miles, he'd step off and approach the Gogginator.

The Gogginator is an ab crunch apparatus that Bill absolutely abused. (The term would later adopt broader usage, often referring to the final stage of copy editing at Wired -- i.e., passing through the Gogginator -- or even to the man himself.) He’d lay a towel over the padding and just pound the hell out of the machine. Up and down, up and down, up and down, a stack of weights giving way to his perpetual rocking, sweat flying onto the steel bars over dozens and dozens of reps. Bill’s metabolism may have been nearly as fast as his mind. But that’s not why he was in such great shape. In the gym as in the office, he worked harder than anyone else in the room.

Bill and I went through this routine several hundred times in the 5+ years we sat next to each other at Wired. Many of our Club One visits came in the evening. After winding down in the steam room, we'd walk out of the gym together and, before heading our separate ways, we'd inevitably stop for a pregnant moment on the sidewalk. There were no casual goodbyes with Bill, no see-ya-tomorrow punches on the arm or over-the-shoulder waves. He tried to make every parting meaningful. He’d look me straight-on with those bright eyes, ask about my plans for the evening, give me a firm, two-step handshake and a smile before wishing me well. Sometimes, I must say, it was a bit much. After all, I’d see him again in the morning, and at some point not long after that, we'd be back on the treadmills again. But that was how Bill did it. His style was often strange and awkward, but also endearing and funny and maddening and tortured and brilliant and confusing. And meaningful. And that also describes our friendship. I've never known anyone like him. I doubt I ever will again.

Our final goodbye came in late May, on my final day at Wired, as I prepared to leave the country for two months and start a new job. I called Bill at the last minute to tell him about my going-away party and, of course, he dropped everything to come. We spoke about what I considered to be a significant series of events in his life. I told him how happy and proud I was about these latest developments. He likewise congratulated me on my new opportunity, hugged me, and, referring to my departure from Wired, said something that I’ll never forget: You gave them more than they gave you. That’s a hell of a way to go out.

Now I have the kind of opportunity that I never imagined I’d have with Bill Goggins. I have the final word. I sat in the locker room at Club One today, sobbing at the thought of how Bill will never show up there again, wondering whether it's time to cancel my membership, and baffled at how I could ever match his knack for meaningful goodbyes. And then I came up with the obvious answer: Bill's words have always been better than mine; I'll use his.

Bill, you gave this world so much more than we ever gave you. That’s a hell of a way to go out. -- jo'b