I pause this week to remember two somber anniversaries. Twenty-five years ago today, my brother Jim passed away from complications of AIDS. And one year ago this coming Sunday, my mom died after a long fight with Alzheimer’s.
As Dave Matthews sang, “I don’t mean to dwell on this dying thing…” Really, I much prefer to focus on life rather than death. Still, the juxtaposition of these milestone anniversaries is striking. I remember both days vividly, and I guess I always will. Much better, though, to remember the time we shared in life, the many things they taught me.
So for my brother and my mother, this week I’ll be raising glasses in their memory. For the rest of us, life goes on. It may go on a strikingly different path, but it does go on.
This week, it’s been all about Story Songs, those songs that adopt their own meanings, sometimes far from what the original artists meant. Previous editions are here and here and here and here. And finally, we come to:
1. Stay Free, by The Clash.
Way back then, in the early early 1980s, we wrote letters. Lots of letters. On actual paper, which went into real envelopes, which that spent several days in transit before they were delivered.
My friend Geoff was back in New York, and I was in St. Louis, and for a couple of years there, it was extremely rare that there wasn’t a piece of paper in my typewriter, representing a letter-in-progress. Mostly to Geoff, and later to Jean, but also to other friends.
Geoff, in particular, soon got bored with sending letters in plain white envelopes, so my mailbox got a lot more colorful, with envelopes made out of pages torn out of rock magazines and folded around the letters inside, with my address scrawled on the outside under a stamp.
Basically, the outsides of our mailings became as much an outlet for creativity as the insides. Geoff, of course, was always much more creative than I was.
So yes, letters also went to other people, one of whom was my brother Jim. In the spring and early summer of 1980, we hung out a lot together, but by July of that year he found the weather and the attitudes of St. Louis to be too stifling, and picked up and moved to Provincetown, Mass., where he had some friends and where, I think, he had lived for a time previously. That summer, I was sorry to see him go, but I always knew it was important for him, and I knew that once he got back to Provincetown, he was happier and, frankly, where he belonged.
He was from St. Louis, but he was at home in P-town.
Sometime in the late winter/early spring of 1981, I sent him a long letter. And on the outside of the envelope, I wrote the following song lyrics:
‘Cause time has passed and things have changed,
I move any way I want to go.
And I’ll never forget the feeling I got
when I heard that you’d got home.
And I’ll never forget the smile on my face
‘Cause I knew where you would be,
And if you’re in the Crown tonight,
Have a drink on me.
But go easy,
They’re the closing lines from the song Stay Free, from The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope album. I thought they pretty well summed up how I felt about Jim at that point. (The “Crown” reference was a bonus; the previous year when we were in town and working at our Dad’s company, we would often have lunch together at Crown Candy Kitchen, a landmark in north St. Louis.)
Anyway, I sent the letter off and didn’t think much more about it, until that summer, when I took the train to the East Coast to visit both Jim, in Provincetown, and Geoff, in New York.
It was my first visit to P-town, and I was able to spend the better part of a week there. Jim had some friends who were Clash fans, and he was actually starting to listen to Sandinista! a little bit; it was beyond his usual range, but his musical tastes were always eclectic.
These friends had taken him to see the Clash movie Rude Boy, and he told me—I can still visualize him telling me this—that when they played that song in the movie, for the first time he recognized the lyric from my envelope. He had thought that I had just written it, so when he saw the lyrics sung out before him in the movie theater, it was a revelation. I think I would have written “—Strummer Jones” at the bottom of the lyric on the envelope, but at the time he received it he probably wouldn’t have known who Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were.
I wish I could remember our conversation more clearly, but for the most part it’s lost to time. I know, however, that he appreciated the sentiment, and the fact that he remembered the lyric over the several months between my letter and his seeing Rude Boy was fantastic.
So anyway, the song has always, for me, sort of encapsulated everything I felt about Jim and Provincetown. And my favorite part is that he got it; he was right there with me on it.
My Clash-fan friends won’t believe this—and will probably berate and shun me when they read it—but I’ve never seen Rude Boy. But as I was preparing this post, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, I have finally seen the Stay Free scene. It’s a little raw, compared to the album version, but hey, it’s the Clash. And it’s great. Here:
There was a surprise for me on Facebook this morning: a message from Sinan in Provincetown, asking if I had any digital pictures of my brother Jim.
I met Sinan through Jim, before Jim died of AIDS in 1987.
Today was World AIDS Day, and Sinan wanted to post a remembrance of him in honor of the day. At work, I only had access to a couple, pictures that I had used in a previous blog post. I sent those off to him. A while later, I logged on to FB, and there was one of the pictures as Sinan’s profile picture for the day. Next to the picture was his post, which read simply, “Remembering Jim”
It was jarring, but beautiful and perfect. Before long, several of his friends who knew Jim had posted brief remembrances of him. Sinan posted the other picture, and a few more people weighed in. I’ll tell you, it felt great to see people who …Keep reading
To drive to Provincetown, you take Highway 6 out to near the end of Cape Cod, and then cut over to a beachside road for the final approach. The road takes you over a rise, and then suddenly the town appears laid out in front of you, curving off to the left. It’s a beautiful, postcard-perfect view, whether you’re arriving in the day or at night.
Before last week, I’d made that trip four times. The first three — June of 1981, August of 1985, and April of 1987 — were to see my brother Jim, who was fortunate enough to live in Provincetown. Each time we approached on that road, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I was looking forward to seeing Jim, of course, but also the town itself has always had a kind of mystical attraction for me.
The fourth time I rode down that road into Provincetown was for Jim’s memorial service — he died of AIDS on July 9, 1987 — and as we came over that rise and saw the town, my already deep sadness about his death was suddenly multiplied. As the town grew larger before us, I remembered the elation I’d felt at that point in the previous trips, and this time it was turned upside down. It was the deepest, darkest pit of sadness I’ve ever experienced: a coal mine of grief.
The memorial service went all right. We — my brother Phil, my cousin Bruce and I– had a good visit with Jim’s many friends in Provincetown, and we got through it all somehow. I was of course sad about Jim’s death for many months afterward, but life went on: my wife Jean and I bought a house, we had children, we moved on to new and better jobs, and so forth.
For me, the sadness evolved into a kind of thankfulness: I could see many things in myself that I knew were heavily influenced by Jim, the two most prominent being what I might call a detached, ironic sense of humor, and a deep connection to certain kinds of music. So whenever I came upon something that reminded me of him — which I would say happens at least daily, even now — my memories would not be accompanied by sadness, but instead by joy in that connection with him.
On the whole, I think I have “handled” his death pretty well.
On Friday — 23 years and two months after that fourth trip — I went to Provincetown again. But this time I avoided that beachside road. I took the “fast ferry,” a 90-minute boat ride from downtown Boston to MacMillan Wharf in P-town. I’d ached to get back to Cape Cod and P-town ever since 1987, but had never gotten up the cash … or the nerve. Last weekend, after an improbable business meeting in Boston (I’m involved with the inland-river barge industry; most of our meetings are in places like Paducah, Memphis, Louisville, or, if we’re lucky, New Orleans), I had the opportunity to take a couple of extra days to steal out to the Cape. I was thrilled about the trip ever since I confirmed that I’d be able to go.
But as I sat on the ferry at the dock in Boston, waiting to shove off, I was suddenly, unexpectedly, seized by nerves and intense emotion.
A group of three girls boarded the ferry and were sitting close to me on the upper, outside deck. From what I could hear, they were heading out to the cape for a bachelorette weekend, and they were giddy with excitement; not long after they sat down, they were breaking out a bottle of champagne and making mimosas. I was reminded of the excitement I felt on my early trips to the cape … and the weighty contrast with that last time I’d gone. Before long, I got up and found a seat in a different area of the ferry.
My plans for this trip included meeting up with Sinan, who was Jim’s partner for some of the time he lived there. I had first met him during that trip in 1985, and then, although he and Jim had mostly broken up by then, he was helping to care for Jim after Jim got sick in late 1986. Sinan and I kept in touch for a while after the memorial service, but, with time, our letters tailed off, and for maybe 20 years we hadn’t communicated. But this spring, through the magic of Facebook’s friend-finder feature, I was able to reconnect with him, and not long after that, this trip to Boston came up. We made plans to get together for dinner. Early last week I sent him a message with a final confirmation that I’d be able to come out to P-town, and he suggested a restaurant: the Mayflower, which he said was one of Jim’s favorites.
A day or so later, he posted something on his Facebook wall that sent me reeling. It was one of those silly Facebook “like” things, where someone comes up with a pithy little statement, and other people can “like” it, and it shows up on their wall too. This one, though, wasn’t silly. It said: “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal; love leaves a memory no one can steal.” True words, those, but they stung whenever I let myself think about them — were my efforts to reconnect with Sinan dredging up painful memories for him? Was this meeting going to be as hard for him as it was turning out to be for me?
Halfway through the ferry ride, the seas got rougher. By then I was sitting inside, and I actually wrote an early draft of this blog post. The writing turned out to be somewhat cathartic. My nerves had calmed down a bit as we got closer to the cape, and when I first noticed that we were alongside land, which I guess would have been the sandy, remote beaches near Race Point, the needle on my emotional meter was wavering toward Excitement, rather than Grief. As the iconic Pilgrim Monument came into view, the needle was trending a little further on the positive side, but also bouncing back into Grief every once in a while. I had to consciously push aside the sad feelings that were welling up, and replace them with positive memories. It was a battle I would end up having to wage several times during my time in P-town.
The ferry landed and I walked down MacMillan Wharf and up into town, dragging a huge suitcase overloaded with business clothes I’d no longer be wearing on this trip. I found the inn where I’d made a reservation for the night: Dexter’s, on Conwell.
By a strange and happy coincidence, Dexter’s turned out to be right across the street from where Jim lived the last few years of his life. I suspected this when I went out for a run shortly after checking in, and Sinan later confirmed it at dinner. The layout of the property he lived on has changed a bit, but I still recognized the block and the surrounding area. I had hoped to find Jim’s old place while I was there, but when I reserved at Dexter’s, it was just the result of an Internet search for low prices: I had no idea it was on the same street.
I ran out to Herring Cove, which was one of Jim’s favorite beaches. I took the shortcut over the sandy flats to the dunes that back up the beach, having to take off my shoes several times to wade through the pools and streams of water that covered parts of the path. The payoff, though, was magnificent: the beach was beautiful, with the sun just starting to come down over a turbulent surf. Being on a run, I didn’t have my camera with me (this was one of the few times on the whole trip), which was a pity because I could have gotten some great shots. There was hardly anyone on the beach — it was also very windy — which made it even nicer for me.
Sinan and I met up at 7 at the Mayflower. We had a wonderful dinner and talked for a couple of hours about Jim and about our families and lives and work. By this time, the positive emotion of happy remembrance had all but won out over the resurrected grief. Sinan, by the way, had not posted that Facebook “like” in response to my impending visit, but had simply “liked” something that a friend of his had “liked.” Not that that detracts from the truth of those words, though.
Sinan has been in a committed relationship since before Jim died. I must have met his partner in 1987, if not 1985, but I don’t remember him. Every time I went there, I met a lot of Jim’s friends, and I was never sure who was a lover and who was a friend. That’s part of what I never fully understood or knew about Jim, the level of commitment in his relationship with his lovers. Those commitments always seemed to be more fluid than in my world, and for Jim, apparently, they were even more fluid than most in his community. That, no doubt, led to the sequence of medical events that resulted in my fourth visit to Provincetown. And of course, Jim’s insatiable appetite for partying probably played a huge role as well. I have no doubt the story would have turned out differently if he had stuck with Sinan, who was certainly a calming influence on both fronts.
But we can’t change history; we can only deal with it. After dinner, Sinan and I parted with a hug and a promise to stay in touch — it’s a lot easier, now, with Facebook — and I explored nighttime Provincetown a little more before returning to Dexter’s to do some writing and go to sleep.
Saturday morning I did some more photo-walking around town, and then was one of the first customers at Edwige when it opened for breakfast. That was another favorite place of Jim’s. I had just enough time to enjoy my Lobster Benedict before I had to check out of Dexter’s and queue up for the 10:30 ferry back to Boston.
My visit to Provincetown was as much about “place” as about “person.” Yes, I wanted to reconnect as much as I could with Jim, and clarify my memories of him. Sinan was a huge help in that regard. But I also wanted to reconnect with the town itself. If you have ever been there, perhaps you understand the almost magical attraction it has. It’s hard to explain, and to try would probably require another equally long essay. But I can say I feel it is the town where Jim finally found peace and happiness in his life, and for that fact alone, I will always love it. It was, and continues to be, probably my favorite place on earth.
There were several additional places I had hoped to visit while in Provincetown. I had wanted to go for a run in the Province Lands, the wild area of dunes and beech forests immediately behind the (over)populated area of town. Also, there is an enormous sand dune beyond the east end of P-town, from which you can see the whole town and both Cape Cod Bay on the “outside”* of the cape and Provincetown Harbor on the inside. Jim took me to that dune several times, and his ashes were scattered there in 1987.
Unfortunately, with only 18 hours between ferry rides, I couldn’t fit everything in that I wanted to. Those two items will have to wait until my next visit — which hopefully will be sooner than 23 years from now.
• Sometime around the middle of the month, I saw the Doobie Brothers in concert, with my old Mizzou roommate Bob. This was at the Checkerdome, like the earlier Who concert was, and again we had floor seats. From what I remember, it was a great show.
Interestingly, it now appears I’ll be seeing the Doobie Brothers again in a few days — almost exactly 30 years after that Checkerdome show. It’s an interesting question as to whether rock bands should even EXIST for 30 years.
• A day or so after the concert, both I and my brother Jim took trips that would help define the rest of our lives. In his case, he moved away from St. Louis for what turned out to be the last time. Until then he had lived in several places, including Boston and Provincetown. He wasn’t entirely comfortable in St. Louis, I know, and finally he packed up and moved back to P-Town. We were able to spend a lot of time together that spring — we were both helping out in my dad’s business — but those times were coming to an end.
• And I got in a car with my parents and drove to Naperville, Ill., the home of North Central College. After leaving Missouri University in December ’79, I was looking for a smaller school where I could, perhaps, be more be more visible than at a mega-sized university. I swam, that spring, with an AAU team in Clayton, Mo., just to keep in shape; they practiced at Clayton High School, and on the bulletin board of the pool were tacked several college brochures. One of them was NCC. Comparing my times with the school and conference records shown in the brochure, I thought it was someplace I could be reasonably competitive. One thing led to another. I talked on the phone with the coach a time or two, applied and was accepted. That mid-July trip was for the orientation and registration. I met with Dr. Van der Muellen in the economics department. (He thought it a little odd that I said that in addition to an econ major, I might also pursue a sociology minor. He did end up being my favorite econ professor at NCC, though.) I spent the night in one of the dorms — me and mostly a bunch of incoming freshmen. And on the second day, I finally saw the pool. Through the magic of wide-angle photography, it looked much bigger and nicer in the brochure photo than in real life. And I met the coach, who was just as nice in person as on the phone. On the whole, it looked like a school I could like.
• Also that month, I turned 21. But perhaps the less written about the destruction of that day, the better.