The Lost Friend
by Mel Livatino
Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself
constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
The Jews say you die twice, the day you leave this earth,
and the day your name is spoken no more.
The greatest charity we can show towards the dead is to do
what they would have wished us to do while they were still alive.
M. Singlin to Blaise Pascal
Jerry Segal as a Young Man
Photo by Jerry Segal
Like all of us north of 70, I think about death, legacy, and immortality a fair amount. About the beyond I have concluded nothing. Where we go is, if you’ll forgive the expression, up in the air. We can only be certain of three things: that we will live on in the genes we pass on to our children, if we have children; that we will live on in those works of ours that stand the test of time, if we have any works that stand time’s unforgiving test; and, most fragile of all, that we will live on in the memories of those who knew us.
I was led to the above musing while remembering my best friend who died thirty years ago. His name was Jerry Segal; he was a philosopher, a photographer, a teacher, and so many other things when he died at forty-seven of Lou Gehrig’s disease on Nov. 17, 1983. He never married and had no children, and in the last six months of his life, he asked a friend to burn thousands of pages of his writing in the fireplace. Sheet after sheet, they spent the night watching the fire consume whatever it was Jerry had to say. Jerry left behind only two things: memories and thousands of photographs, some of them of museum quality.
It isn’t much, but how much do any of us leave? We pass this way, leave our marks, and in time those marks are erased. If we have children, our genes glide down the centuries, but they do so silently-unrecognized and invisible. Very likely, for example, you cannot tell me who your great-great-great grandparents were, and what specifically they bequeathed you. Nor do you likely know where they are buried. Yet they lived only 150 years before your birth, and you carry their genes. The truth is we disappear quite soon and almost utterly.
My friend died on a Thursday. His death was expected. Such is the nature of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The next night we who were his friends gathered at his house to remember him. For several hours we sat in soft lamplight and told stories and recounted Jerry’s wonderful qualities. Then we went our separate ways never to meet again. We had met for years in Jerry’s house two or three times a month to tell stories and celebrate our lives—and we never met again.
The next week Jerry’s remains were transported to a cemetery in Portageville, Missouri, where he had grown up. Neither then nor since have I visited his grave. So far as I know, only three people have: his brother, his fiancée (Barbara Birkhead), and a former girlfriend who loved him dearly named Lynn. Neither has anyone published a memory. Jerry simply ceased to exist and to be celebrated, except in the separate memories each of us carries privately in our heads, and in a few decades even these separate memories will be gone. Not long after his death I promised myself to write a memory of my friend and our friendship. Thirty years later, I’m finally keeping my promise. I’m doing so because Jerry was a remarkable human being, because I never had a better friend, and because I am still touched with sorrow when I think of him, which I do several times every week.
My first sight of Jerry is indelibly etched in my mind. It was the fall of 1968, a few weeks after we had both begun teaching at Wilbur Wright Junior College, he in the Humanities Department, I in the English Department. He was on his way to class wheeling a slide projector cart down the middle of the second-floor corridor. At 6’5″ his frame arched over the cart, and his dark eyes and moustache dominated the hall. My initial impression was negative: Who does this arrogant guy think he is, going so boldly down the center of the hall with those dark eyes boring straight ahead as if he owned the place?
Only when one of my English department friends introduced me to Jerry the following spring semester did I learn how wrong my initial impression had been. Jerry, I quickly came to see, was not the slightest bit arrogant. He was masculine and robust, but he was also thoughtful, funny, gentle, kind, and immensely curious about the world. Most of all, Jerry was the most welcoming person I ever knew.
He had grown up in a Jewish family in the very gentile town of Portageville, Missouri. His family was one of the few Jewish families for a radius of many miles. His father owned and ran the town’s major clothing store, where Jerry worked, reluctantly, during his high school years. During those years he was also a standout player on the basketball team. His mother, I later inferred, over-mothered her son, wanting to keep him to herself. She was not successful. Once Jerry left for college and then graduate school at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University (where he took his Ph.D. in philosophy with a dissertation on John Dewey), he never belonged to her again. As a dutiful though reluctant son, he paid several visits home each year for the rest of his life, not so much to visit his parents as to revisit the scenes of his youth—the neighborhood, the land, the people, and a few quirky relatives and friends. If he belonged to anything, it was not so much to his family as to this locale. Jerry was steeped in P’ville, as he liked to call it, and returned often to shoot photographs and be touched by its down-home magic. For the rest of his life he told stories about this town and its people.
“Odd” is the word that springs to mind when I think of Jerry’s relatives and the stories he told of this town. “Odd” is also the word that most easily opens the door to Jerry’s deeper nature. He liked odd things, unique things, things that didn’t fit, things on the periphery, things peculiar, abandoned, forgotten, disheveled, destroyed, defeated—and he liked the same kind of people, people who had not surrendered to the ways of the masses, people who had resisted joining up, people who had prevailed in being who they were against the media’s and the culture-at-large’s request to be otherwise. This was true not only of Jerry’s family and friends in Portageville but of all the friends he gathered the rest of his life. Each was one-of-a-kind. No one belonged to Ortega’s masses. They and Jerry had made their lives the way artists make vases. Gathering such friends—and he gathered many—was one of the great gifts of Jerry’s life.
A second gift was his extraordinary ability to welcome people. Jerry was a perpetual cup of welcome, a beacon in the dark signaling whatever soul was before him at any given moment to come on in. During the years I knew Jerry, I didn’t yet know how terribly rare his gift was. In the years after his death, I have learned. Not a single soul has ever equaled Jerry in this gift. Every week I miss his gift of welcome more than I have words to say.
He frequently invited friends over on the spur-of-the-moment, to talk, to gossip, to joke, to philosophize, to share the sorrows and joys and oddities of life, to argue (but always politely), to listen to jazz, to show slides of photos he had taken, but most of all, to hear the stories he knew each of us would bring and relish telling, and to tell his own stories. The only people in the public sphere I can think of who resembled Jerry in his abilities of gathering, welcoming, and getting people to tell stories and make life a moveable feast, were George Plimpton and Studs Terkel. Life with George, especially, was a carnival of fun every day, and the same was true of Jerry. Life in his presence seemed always to be going on to the second power. Not frenetic or intense, mind you; just deeper and richer and enormously more fun with him than without him.
The fun became more frequent once he bought his own house. The house wasn’t something Jerry was sure about until he’d lived in it awhile. More than once during the years that he lived in a third-floor walkup on the northwest side of Chicago, not far from where we both taught, he asked me if he should buy a house. Yes, of course, I said. Then one day he asked if he should buy this particular house in the suburb of Skokie. It was near mine, and it was small and charming, and I said yes again. What reason could he have for not buying it? He couldn’t quite say, but I think I now know. Before he owned it, the house represented the mother who had tried to tie him down and rule his life. He had to live in it to see that it wasn’t a restriction, like his mother, but a place to celebrate, like his hometown.
Celebrate is what Jerry did all his life. He celebrated life in all its oddities. But best of all, he celebrated you. This was Jerry’s third great quality. He listened better than anyone I ever knew—not out of politeness but out of real interest. He wanted to know your story, what made you tick, how you came to be who you were. Buried within Jerry’s amazing ability to listen was yet a fourth quality—the ability to discern who you were beneath all the confusion you might bring to the telling of your story. Jerry not only listened closely; he discerned acutely. He saw the you that lay beneath the layers of you’s that you might present. The secret to this quality was yet another quality that made Jerry such a rare friend—he never judged you. You were who you were, and that was good enough for him. He just wanted to know who this you was. Perhaps this is why all Jerry’s friends and family seemed “odd.” Beneath our personas, we’re all odd. The anthropologist Jean Huston was fond of telling this truth to audiences. “Normal,” she liked to say, “is just another word for not knowing somebody.” Jerry wanted to know you, so of course the normal you was banished in favor of the real you. Jerry celebrated that you every time he was with you.
Here’s one small story of such a celebration. In January, 1971, while we were on strike for five weeks and I had no money coming in and a son under two and another newborn son and trouble in my marriage (which several years later failed), I went to Montgomery Ward’s a little after nine one morning to buy a certain stain and varnish to complete finishing three bookcases I had just built. I had bought the first batch here and I needed more of the same. Nothing in my life seemed to be going right (it was actually going much better than I was then able to realize, the lack of such realization being one of the great flaws of my life), and I wanted at least one thing to come out right and be done with. The store, however, was closed the entire day to take inventory. I begged the man on the other side of the glass door to let me buy just this one item. No, he said, he couldn’t do that. In a sudden fit of rage, I kicked at the door, meaning only to expel my frustration. But the glass shattered. Not knowing what else to do, I walked back to my car, which stood virtually alone in the vast parking lot, and drove home. A few minutes later a police officer was at the door of my house.
The next day Jerry found the incident wonderful, teasing out every detail he could. Over the next ten years he told the story again and again to friends, each time telling the story as if I had done something heroic, at least something worth telling, rather than something manically infantile.
Jerry’s acute listening and refusal to judge was, I believe, the result of knowing two things. The first is that good people will judge themselves; he didn’t need to. The second is that his judgment would have no good effect anyhow and could only bring ill feeling to a relationship. But two other qualities trumped even these insights. The first is that Jerry loved when people were authentic. Equally much, he loved story. Jerry almost lived for story. I had presented Jerry with a moment of authentic behavior—never mind that it was selfish and foolish in the extreme (which I would learn for myself and without his help, he knew)—and I had told him a story. So Jerry now had a story he told for the rest of his life with the delight of a child opening a Christmas present.
Jerry’s love of authenticity, story, and Portageville, and his refusal to judge people but instead welcome them came together in blazing focus each time he received a letter from his Portageville friend Bob Bullington. Occasionally Jerry would read them aloud to friends. Here’s one of the last of those letters:
Wed. Sept. 6, 1978
It is getting cloudy here.
Trash pickup today.
Took a photo at city hall of the crew.
Played the piano.
Wrote some letters.
Rode my bike.
Got some coke and stamps.
Got some deodorant.
Mother will teach music today.
Made the beds.
Washed the dishes.
Put them away.
Looked at tv and listened to my radio.
Turned on my fan.
The mail came. I did not get any.
Noah wants Pops to go to Sikeston with him.
Petted a dog on the front porch.
Don’t know what to take a photo of.
Read the paper.
How are you? I am just fine and feel real good.
Took my medicine.
Well, do write. Yours, Bob
Bullington’s life may have been challenged, as we say today, but his words were authentic and direct, so much so that I sometimes read a letter aloud to my creative writing classes and asked them to attempt prose as direct and simple about their own lives. Jerry corresponded with Bullington for years because he cherished such authenticity.
Jerry not only saw people and welcomed them into his life, he also gave them his life. It was never bragging or venting or woe is me-ing. It was anecdote, story, and musing upon questions great and small. On a typical evening he might wonder aloud about something he had just read in Faulkner, whom he loved dearly. A minute later he might be telling you about Bullington murdering some insects. Then he might reflect on something John Dewey had said. After that, he might bring out a denim jacket he had just bought to ask you whether he should wear such an article of clothing. Then he might put an Anita O’Day song on the phonograph and play it for you. What did you think? Did you notice the peculiar flavor of her voice and phrasing? And then he might tell you about the quirks in the life of a mutual friend or someone you didn’t even know but whose life was of interest in that moment. But always he was inviting you to tell your story, to tell what was on your mind too. He’d stop anything he was saying to listen to your story, your thought, your feeling.
One of Jerry’s obsessions was Bogart. He loved Bogie and had seen all of his films that he could. In those days before VCR and DVD players, he could only see them in re-runs at old-movie houses. But he didn’t really have to go to these theaters: he knew the scenes by heart and could quote the lines from memory. And frequently did during our hundreds of talks.
Jerry’s greatest obsession, however, was photography. He owned many cameras and often several lenses for each. Nikon, Rolleiflex, Leica, Hasselblad, Linhof, Olympus, Minox—he owned at least one of each, and others whose names no longer come back to me. One of the bedrooms in his house was a darkroom. He took a camera with him everywhere he went, and he worked in the darkroom several times a week. Almost every time you visited, he would put his work in his state-of-the-art slide projector and show you a series of related photos he had taken either recently or long ago. They were never less than interesting, always perfectly captured, and often they were flat-out beautiful—images you wanted to stay on the screen for a long time so you could see everything in them. He would talk about a particular photo, how he had come to shoot it, what it was about the image that had taken him. Though some of these photos were of gallery quality, he never showed his work publicly or submitted to a gallery. The limited number of photos that accompany this memory are Jerry’s only public showing.
I kept no journal of the hundreds and hundreds of times we spent in each other’s company, and now at a remove of thirty years, I am at a loss to recreate the whole of any given time together. The best I can do is retrieve snapshots of Jerry I have kept in my head and played hundreds of times over these last three decades.
Snapshot One: Jerry shooting our first family Christmas card photo. He took it in his back yard while my sons and I were visiting on a sunny September Sunday afternoon in 1981. Jerry’s ALS symptoms had already begun to manifest, though I hadn’t yet noticed. That card remains my favorite of the thirty picture cards we have made since then—because it was the first, because we were all young in a way we can never be again (I am younger in this picture than two of my sons are now), but most of all because Jerry took it.
Snapshot Two: Jerry and I on a photo shoot in a downtown Chicago railway station. Jerry loved gritty, dark places like this, so I shot a photo of him staring directly at me from behind his tripod, the massive dark iron beams crisscrossing overhead.
Snapshot three: Jerry showing me how to use a darkroom, moving me from developer to stop bath to fixer, the two of us in a dim red light watching the magic of blank paper becoming a black & white image.
And so many more snapshots: playing tennis together, having beers after work in Joe Dano’s seedy Bucket O’ Suds, talking in lots of places with our great mutual friend Greg Chapman . . . . How many other moments have floated to the surface of my memory over the years? Dozens, I expect. They are the flotsam and jetsam of love, the cushions and deckchairs and luggage on the surface of the water after the liner has gone down.
Though Jerry was only four years older than I (born 1936), he dressed like men in the generation before ours. He wore a fedora as men wore fedoras in the 1940s, not like today’s male peacocks trying to make a statement or an impression or to look cool or retro. For Jerry putting on a fedora was simply how a man dressed. In cold weather he also wore a long, dark woolen overcoat. He wasn’t trying to be fashionable—Jerry had no idea how to be fashionable—he was simply trying to stay warm. His shirts and slacks and ties and jackets were mostly nondescript, the colors nearly always muted, gray probably being his favorite. Beneath the clothes, though, Jerry shone, but in a quiet way. The only things that would take a casual observer’s eye were Jerry’s height (6’5″), his penetratingly dark eyes, and the keen interest in the world and you that his face always radiated. And these things were enough: though Jerry never looked flashy, he also never looked boring. In any room, no matter who else was present, one’s eyes always went to him.
Though Jerry’s sparkle wasn’t evident in his clothes, it was in his cars. For as long as I knew him he drove large brightly colored convertibles. The last of these cars was a yellow late 70s Olds. Before that, he drove a white Ford Galaxy 500. They were ragtop boats, and, appropriately, quite as noticeable as ships on the sea.
More important than being noticeable, however, they were an embodiment of Jerry’s perpetual wish to be free. Alone or with friends, he frequently took long journeys in these boats whenever and wherever the spirit moved him. On the road, as at home, he was in quest of two things: stories and images. In order to hold onto—and even help in making up—the stories, he spent an ungodly sum to have a tape recorder, omplete with a microphone that could be handed back and forth from one speaker to another, installed in the car. Such devices are so rare that I have never seen another one built into a car. For the sake of the stories this device made possible, Jerry paid somewhere north of $1,000, which in today’s dollars would be equal to more than $4,000. Jerry was never stingy. He bought the best of whatever he wanted and never complained about the cost.
Jack Safrik—who was his best friend and whom Jerry nearly always called Safire, with hard emphasis on the first syllable—probably took more journeys with Jerry than any other male friend, largely, I expect, because he told the biggest, funniest, and most preposterous stories, complete with explosions of gestures. Jack, too, was a photographer and philosopher, finally getting his Ph.D. late in life (long after Jerry had died), as a gesture of pity, so he liked to say, from the granting department, but the stories were never about philosophy or philosophers. They were the wild tales of a made-up character named Cletis Safire who seems slightly retarded and speaks like someone with a cleft palate. In these stories Jerry interviews Safire about his very peculiar life, and Safire unrolls his adventures.
On a road trip to Louisiana in the late 70s, Jerry recorded a few of those adventures. In the first of these stories Cletis tells of working for an icehouse cutting ice from a river. His job was to go under the ice and push and pull the south end of the saw. Once he floated downriver under the ice and came up spitting dead fish from his mouth. “They had to administer artificial inspiration.” In another story he unwittingly worked on a boat bringing little tins (of coffee, he thinks) hidden in the boat’s gas tank from an island onto the main coast— until one day a boat full of men in dark blue shirts show up and begin shooting (boom . . . splat, boom . . . splat, boom . . . splat, boom . . . and the boat is suddenly filling with water).
Jerry Segal with Cigar; Jack Safrik in Glasses
Photo by Jerry Segal
In a third story Cletis tells of working in a burlesque house as a rope puller (for the curtain). He becomes fond of a certain girl, but she meets a sad end. “Oh, what was that,” Jerry asks. “She died.” “That is a sad end,” Jerry says. “How did she die?” “Monkey wrench in the face,” Cletis says. And so follow more questions and explanations. When Jerry and Safire arrive in Morgan City, LA, Jerry asks if Cletis notices that this small town has fifty bars. “Yes,” Cletis responds, “that means everybody has a job.” When Jerry doesn’t follow the logic, Cletis tells Jerry, “For a man who calls himself doctor, you sure don’t seem to have much sense. Everyone knows you can’t have bars without people having jobs to pay for their drinks.” After a pause he drops his voice and adds, “That would be the ad verecundiam.”
My words cannot convey the wild ribaldry and outrageous humor with which these stories explode, nor their teetering-on-the-edge suspense, for it is clear that neither audience nor teller knows where these stories are going. Each story is a roller coaster on uncharted rails. They also have to be heard in the twisted voice of a teller with his tongue stuffed into the side of his mouth and with the off-kilter pacing in which they were told, just as the full craziness of a Sid Caesar or Red Skelton routine cannot be transcribed with its life still intact in mere words on a page.
On another tape Jerry tells his girlfriend, Anita “Suzy” DeSouza, and me the true story of “a woman who in 1925 walked all the way from northern Arkansas to my great uncle’s store in Portageville, Missouri. She walked right up to my uncle’s wife and said, ‘Lady, let me see your horns. They told me there was a Jew lady down here with horns. And I’d like to see ’em.'” In return I tell him the true story of doing a tango with a woman right down the middle of the Rue de Rosiers in the Jewish quarter of Paris, traffic passing us on both sides, people waving at us from cars, café patrons toasting us with glasses held high. I intone a tango, throw my arms around an imaginary partner, bend my knees into a crouch, and begin tangoing through Jerry’s living room.
The tapes were rubber-banded together and buried in a box in a closet in my basement. I hadn’t exactly forgotten them, but I hadn’t remembered them either, until I began writing this memory. So I am listening to my friend’s voice for the first time in thirty years. It is exactly as I remembered it, a rich resonant baritone that could have secured him a job as a radio announcer.
I spend a day and a half listening to all five tapes. On one of them Jerry inquires into Jack’s upcoming yearlong trip around the world. Jack is taking along his girlfriend Sharon, and Jerry wants to know what will happen if Sharon wants to alter the itinerary or just quit. The trip is pretty “athletic,” Jack says, because they are going to some difficult and dangerous places (he mentions Tanganyika and Rhodesia and countries in South America) and he doesn’t know how much longer he will be able to make such a trip. Since this might be the last time he can do this trip, he will make no alterations; he will go on without Sharon. It is clear that these are two guys with immense curiosity and a lust to live their lives, not just coast through it accumulating possessions and families and rising up a corporate or academic ladder. Experiencing the world, not acquiring things, is what they both want. Jerry’s question, which he asks several times from different angles, also makes clear his intense interest in how much room to give a woman in his own life. The question was always on Jerry’s mind. He had a profound need for women, and a profound need for freedom, desires not usually mutually compatible.
I cannot listen to these two young friends talking about such a question without thinking of my own life. I lost a wife and family because I too wanted to experience life intensely. Now, nearing the end of my life, I can see that it wasn’t worth it. The love of a wife and children is greater than witnessing the pyramids and back roads of Egypt or floating down dark stretches of the Amazon. But as I listen to Jerry and Jack, I can only think how the heart yearns for opposite things and how all life is a matter of decision, literally a killing away of one thing in favor of another. If we’re very lucky, we can have anything we want, but we can never have everything. Decide is cognate with suicide. It means, literally, to kill away.
Jerry Segal and Bill Earle Going at Life
Photo by Jerry Segal
On another tape Jerry is talking with Bullington about Bullington’s sex life, of which there appears to be almost none. Though it is a pleasure to hear Jerry’s voice, I am not in the least interested in the topic. Nor am I interested in Jerry’s dear friend and dissertation advisor Bill Earle on the subject of the French salon. Bill was a generation older than Jerry and claims to have experienced the last of the Paris salons as a youngish gay man in the late 40s before salons were wiped out by an altogether different way of life. He was smart, thoughtful, reflective, and immensely well educated. He could also be quite funny, and he spoke in an appealingly low rich voice. I remember him fondly, but on this tape Bill’s speech is slow and full of stutters. In a somewhat alcoholic state (a state he was too often in), he says nothing of substance, only drags out the word salon in a way that grates each time I hear it.
Something dark, I now realize, has come into my listening to these tapes. I did not like the casual talk of sex and I did not like the alcoholism, but I was unconscious of my discomfort at first, probably because those things didn’t bother me then but they do now. The darkness becomes profoundly clear only when I hear myself on the tapes. On one tape Jerry is interviewing me as I pretend to be an ex-Nazi living in America. On another he interviews me as I pretend to be the recently deceased Mayor Daley come back to life and wanting his old job back. Unlike Jack’s impressions of Cletis Safire, mine are dull and tedious. I shudder as I listen. I shudder even more when I hear myself in ordinary conversation with Jerry. I am superficial, immature, inarticulate, and occasionally pretend to knowledge I didn’t actually have. Listening to myself is like eating ashes.
The next morning lying in bed remembering my words, I feel leaden. The realization comes over me that I was a young man full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. In search of my friend, I have accidentally discovered the young man I used to be. It was not a pleasure.
The darkness continues when I come upon a ten-minute monologue Jerry made in 1979 while driving north on I-57 to Chicago after a visit to Portageville. He is raging into the recorder at the mother he has just left for using the future imperative with him. It is the only time I ever heard Jerry rage. You will do thus and so, she repeatedly orders him during his visit. She is consumed with guilt. She is unable to enjoy life. She is obsessed with shoes. She is permanently nervous about everything. She wants to control his life, take away all pleasure—and he won’t have it, won’t have it at all. “Can’t take the old lady! Can’t take the old lady!” he roars into the recorder. “Intolerable!”
Jerry’s ten-minute rage into the recorder is the only time I looked directly into Jerry’s psyche to see why he so feared buying a house and why he kept slipping from one highly attractive and interesting woman to another. He was always terrified they would attempt to control him as his mother had.
One more segment is different from everything else. Jerry is driving a woman somewhere in Portageville. It is the only time in these tapes—and the only time in my entire memory—when I can hear in Jerry’s voice a decided lack of interest in the person he is speaking with. The woman is drearily dull, and Jerry’s speech is clipped and flat. He is courteous, but clearly he would like this ride to be over with as soon as possible. And then out of the blue the woman utters the most poignant sentence in all these tapes. “The years go by, don’t they, darlin'” she says. “How old are you?”
So it is 1977 and Jerry has only four years left before the onset of Lou Gehrig’s disease, and six years before he is dead.
Jerry’s diagnosis came in the last week of December, 1981. That autumn he noticed he was slightly slurring his words and that one foot dragged when he walked. So he checked into Billings Hospital at the University of Chicago for five days of testing. Having ruled everything else out, the doctors declared the only thing left was ALS—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease—but they couldn’t be certain. Where his mother had failed to take the pleasure from Jerry’s life, the disease found complete success. Jerry’s mind would remain utterly alert, but his body would fail him completely over the next twenty-three months. Speech, mobility, grasping and holding, swallowing—every physical thing he had known and cherished all his life—would leave him.
A year before the end he was still trying to teach, but his speech had become incomprehensible. The school finally asked him to take a leave of absence. The absence would be forever. His weight dropped from 220 pounds to 140 before they drilled a hole in his stomach and fed him through a tube. By then all he could do was lie in a bed and make sounds that tried to be words but weren’t. Six months before he died he considered that was asking too much of his friends to endure, so his fiancée wrote a note to each of us saying he wanted no more visitors. After that, the only people who saw him were his nurse, his doctor, the cleaning lady, and his fiancée.
Anita DeSouza in the Late 70’s
Photo by Jerry Segal
The only exception to this rule was his former girlfriend, Anita DeSouza, who was paying a rare visit from New Zealand, where she now lived. When she arrived unannounced at his door, the nurse told her Jerry would see no visitors. “Oh, that’s all right,” she said. “I’ll just stand on the window sill [of his living room] and look in.” And so she got herself up on the sill and looked in until the nurse returned to say she could come in. A nurse herself, and obviously a woman of grit, Anita was prepared for what she would see and how to deal with it. The visit lasted an hour. She doesn’t remember what they “spoke” of, nor is she haunted by the visit. Instead, she says, it was a great blessing for both of them. I have thought of her visit a hundred times over these last three decades, and each time I have wished I too had stood on that window sill—stood on it every day of those last six months.
I also regret that I wasn’t Jerry’s best friend—Jack Safrik clearly was—but Jerry was my best friend. “Best friend” may sound like a phrase one ought to leave behind along with youth. We grow up, develop lots of friendships (if we’re lucky), take on wives and husbands, raise families, build careers, make lives—and the concept of a best friend falls away from many of us. But it has never fallen away from me. Jerry remains the most welcoming person I ever knew. But he remains more than that, and that more is something I have not been able to grasp adequately in this memory. I knew when I started I wouldn’t be able to. Over the years, people have asked me what was so special about Jerry, but I have never been able to tell them. My only consolation is that no less an essayist than Montaigne wasn’t able to tell why Etienne de la Boetie was his best friend either. Boetie died at thirty-two after the two had known each other for only six years. Theirs became one of the greatest and best-known friendships in all of literature. Yet when people asked what was so special, all this greatest of essayists could say was, “Because he was he, and I was I.”
When I began writing this memory of my friend, I was thinking only of the good times we had over the fourteen years I knew him. But lying awake in the dark of an early morning near the end of my writing, I realized in a quite palpable way that darkness is always lying just out of sight in our lives ready to spring upon us or to open its gaping maw before our feet. It takes only one misstep on our part or one slight push by fate (one disordered and patiently waiting chromosome) for any of us to be devoured. My friend’s photographs suggest that despite his lust for life and his great ability to welcome people, he knew this darkness all his adult life. In his last two years of life, however, that knowledge was no longer intermittent, it was with him every waking hour of every day.
The last thing Jerry ever sent me—or, more accurately, had his fiancée send me—was a photograph taken at night of “Robert’s Motel.” It arrived six months before the end together with Jerry’s note that he wanted no more visitors. Down the center of the photograph a road disappears into a bluish red night mist. On the left a dark line of trees vanishes into nothingness. Overhead a few small street lamps give almost no light. On the right telephone poles and wires fade into oblivion. A neon sign on the right blazes “Robert’s Motel” through the shroud of night.
The Vacancy sign is lit. That vacancy would be more profound than my friend could have foreseen, and it has remained unfilled these thirty years. A thousand times my night clerk has looked out the window of my life searching the darkness, but no one has ever claimed the empty room my friend left behind—and no one ever will.