This will be a day none here at National Review and NRI soon forget. This is the day Alex died.
Long ago and far away: The previous mailroom guy having been let go (he permanently borrowed a VCR), NR was in the hunt for a capable, experienced person in a very unglamorous but busy and, for NR — where endless material was sent out the door daily — essential operations person. Alex Batey had chosen not to leave with Mobil when it split New York for Virginia — he had a house after all, left to him by his late parents. He also had ample experience in Mobil’s massive mailroom.
So I hired him. And for a quarter of a century, Big Al (fact: he wasn’t big) was the most punctual and reliable of NR workers. A loner of sorts (never married, no kids, a strange mix of shy and nosy), a creature of definite habits, smart (a head filled with facts useful and sometimes not), he fit right in with the NR cast of quirk-enhanced characters.
Lunch was at noon, on the dot, and it always looked unappetizing (sorry Al: by the looks of it, cooking wasn’t your gig), he always took vacations around federal holidays (often to Canada — we busted his chops about his faux secret family in Montreal), and he never played sick (nope, Al never got the flu like others do the morning after a Giants night game). He came in early, got his coffee, made his rounds (every morning, he came by to say hello), was gone at 5 (had that bus to catch), attended all office parties (but never touched the booze), and on any given day did all sorts of grimy, sweat-inducing tasks that would have had anyone else kvetching.
But Al never did. Maybe that’s because there was plenty of permissive downtime at NR, which he could and did fill by reading travel guides to any country (I can see him at his cluttered mailroom desk hiking through Fodor’s Guide to San Marino or Frommer’s Guide to Sierra Leone), by wandering the office offering commentary (sometime head-scratching, often quite sharp, always preceded by a chortle) and usually unsolicited advice (“You shouldn’t use Equal.” “Really Al? I don’t remember asking your opinion.”), or, more and more as the years wore on, giving rapt attention to his PC screen, watching YouTube videos of bygone wrestling matches featuring Bruno Sammartino and Chief Jay Strongbow and other ancient heroes (Al knew everything about professional wrestling — he was an encyclopedia and was determined to share his wrestling newsletters with his colleagues).
Yep, Alex loved to share his passions. The beautiful model trains and buses he saved for were delivered to NR, and after opening them with care he showed them off, tossing in a gratis lecture on why this 1932 Whatchamacallit Steam Engine was more accurate than his 1947 HolySmokes Diesel. His home basement was turned over to this hobby, wall to wall, and he took countless pictures and videos of his beloved layouts.
Al fit into one category: Al. The son of a New York City police officer; Al had a social awkwardness offset by a relentless itch to engage; he was exceptionally bright, decidedly uncool, and acted no different talking to Bill Buckley than he did to the NR receptionist (although I doubt he tried to interest Bill in Japanese anime). He defied physics: You could see Al a block off, bouncing down Lexington Avenue, somehow his body moving in every direction at once. He could take a joke, and he could give in return (the chortle followed these). His politics were as elusive as his trip to . . . Sierra Leone. Still, he was one of us. Unfittable, Alex Batey fit in here.
This week, something was up. Something was wrong. His gastro system — it was on the fritz, and he was . . . unnerved. Al went to the walk-in medical clinic located next door to NR. Little good that did: The next two days, he called in sick. And he was. Very. Russ Jenkins, his boss and friend and guardian angel, told him — get yourself to an emergency room. And: Don’t Come In.
Al being Al, today, he came in. For the last time. A little after 10:00 a.m., trying to deliver the new issue of NR, he became disoriented and started to collapse. Aaron and Mila caught him, sat him in a chair, Alexandra called 911, Galina got his records. As for Al — he couldn’t breathe or talk. The EMTs arrived, gave him oxygen and an IV, and took him to the nearby hospital. Lindsay Craig followed to make sure someone was there to have his back. The doctor told her: Big Al was in grave condition. By mid-afternoon, he was dead — a massive infection had swamped his lungs and stomach, overwhelming his system.
Why in God’s name did he come in to the offices of National Review this day? To me it is obvious. Alone in the world except for a loving sister, who lived far away, Alex Batey knew that he had arrived at the hour that will arrive for all of us. But he didn’t want to die alone. And he didn’t.
Over its 62 years, National Review has had three editors: Bill Buckley, John O’Sullivan, and Rich Lowry. Al Batey was privileged: He could call all of them friends. But they too were privileged to say the same of Alex Batey. So am I, and so are shocked colleagues, some who have wept at the news of his passing.
Rest in peace, Big Al. We’re praying Jesus is your tag-team partner.