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A boy named Jesse

10 Nov

A boy named Jesse

Yesterday I went looking for the Man in Black. I was at the Country Music Hall of Fame, anticipating mountains of Cash memorabilia. In the end, I found only a spotless black suit, nothing else. I thought of Jesse Morris, and how I’d have to tell him about it.

Today, while flying home from Nashville, I heard the sad news that Jesse had died. I didn’t know him very well, yet he was one of my favorite people in San Francisco. He’d been busking since his teenage years, tossing in Fear and Black Flag covers along with the Johnny Cash covers that made him famous around here. The first time I heard his voice in the 24th Street BART station, I was convinced that someone was playing a rare Cash record on excellent speakers. Instead, I rounded the corner to find an inked-up, baby-faced punk belting out “Folsom Prison Blues.”

I tossed a few dollars into his guitar case, and over the year or two that followed, we developed a friendly rapport. He was a truly nice guy, funny and opinionated — and talented, too. I bought his CDs and gave them to my brother and the Southern Gentleman; I pitched him as a profile for This American Life. I was often late to work because Jesse and I’d start talking about 999 and Fear, moving on into discussions of love and joy and sadness and living, and before you knew it, 20 minutes had passed. He told me that he was engaged — or at least he’d officially be so when his lady finally accepted his many proposals — and he was clearly in love. We talked about his attempts to stay clean, his ongoing struggle against illness, and how music helped him cope.

We talked about depression, too, which is eventually what led to his death. He and I had commiserated about well-meaning folks who don’t understand despair, who tell others to smile their way out of crushing sadness. We talked about our fear that even when things were good, depression would always be hiding behind a corner, ready to pounce on any contentment we could find. I remember feeling corny, because I touched his arm and felt like a mama bird when I said I believed he deserved happiness.

Embarrassed, he tried to toss my sentiment aside. I remember touching his elbow and making him look at me as I told him: You bring joy to so many people and you don’t even know it. He smiled then, a broad and bright smile. And for the first and last time, I saw a glimpse of the little boy he’d once been.

Cliff

21 Dec

Cliff

Marc gave me the bad news last night, and it didn’t seem real until today. On some level, it still doesn’t. Maybe it’s because Cliff and I hadn’t seen each other in person for years, but the idea of him being gone is hard to accept.

He was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, and he made brilliance look effortless. (The guy won a James Beard award and he wasn’t even a food writer.) I used to read up on oddball news just so I’d have something clever to talk about with him in the work kitchen. He didn’t need to be impressed to like a person, but I wanted to impress him anyway; I looked up to him. He was always telling good stories, pulling out random fascinating facts, and making everyone howl with laughter. He could pull out a wry quip like nobody else, but he beamed with joy when talking about his daughter Gladys, which is what I’ll remember most about him.

Hank wrote a better remembrance than I can, as did the Reader. Some examples of his writing are here. I imagine Cliff, if he heard us talking about him, would crack wise and tell us to cut the sentimental crap. So I will, while missing him.

Baileys to like

13 Jul

Baileys to like

Sometimes for work I get to go to events. Today I was looking forward to interviewing Christopher Bailey, the creative director of Burberry. I like how the English say it: Buhr-burr-y. And I like the classic simplicity of their trenchcoats, though I will probably never own one because A) they’re too expensive for my budget; and B) without fail, if I am wearing something remotely expensive, I will spill food on it.

So anyway, Christopher Bailey. Some fashion designers are just as awful as the stereotypical caricature of a fashion designer; they are mean, snobby, exclusionary. Christopher was the opposite: warm, charming, genuine, looks people in the eye and listens. Smart, thoughtful, humble. I liked him immediately. (more…)

Pink Saturday

26 Jun

Pink Saturday

I used to teach an after-school French class for junior high students. Poor kids; I was 17 and barely able to conjugate irregular passé composé. Anyway, I came up with projects and games and did my best. I’m confident that by the end of the class, all of the students were at least as proficient as a 15-month-old Frenchman.

One of my favorite students was X, a bright 12-year-old hiding behind old-man eyeglasses. He was a little smaller than some of the other boys, and a little smarter, too. Different. Naturally, this meant he was not the most popular boy in school. I liked all of my students, even the rowdy ones who drove me nuts, but there was a light in X’s eyes that made him special. Junior high and maybe high school would be difficult for him, I reasoned, but if he could retain his curiosity and confidence, he’d grow into a good life. Or so I hoped. (more…)

Missing day

20 Jun

Missing day

Today wasn’t as difficult as Dad’s birthday, Christmas, or any number of the days when I missed him horribly. Still, it was the first Father’s Day without him.

I avoided dealing with this reality by watching a Breaking Bad episode and meticulously removing cat hair from my duvet cover. This plan worked brilliantly until it suddenly didn’t, and I burst into tears while putting away some face cream.

Managing the loss gets easier with time, but the pain is just as deep as it was when he died. These days I don’t talk about it too much. I can’t, because the pain is still bigger than I am. If I let myself, I cry so intensely that I lose control of my physical being. My body shudders, my lungs don’t know which way to move, my nose turns into a waterfall of snot. It feels like I could go on for hours like that. The worst part of it is that whenever I’ve felt broken-hearted in the past, my dad comforted me. Now I can’t go to him, because he isn’t here.

So today was not an intensely miserable disaster. But tomorrow could be soaked with tears. That’s the thing — you can’t predict when, or how, the grief will swell. It just keeps coming in different ways. Sometime it feels like a jagged gash, other times like a splinter. It’s always there, though, and I suspect a part of it might never leave.