Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Another Year

I put this up about a year ago.  I meant to post it on the 8th but certain things came up.  Anyway, thought I'd post it again:

A Very Old Friend

We're closing in on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but something else happened in 2001 that shook me just as much. It was personal, and it happened exactly ten years ago today. One of my best friends, John Baker, died when he was hit by train. There are still days I can't believe it.

I don't think I've ever met anyone like him, and I'm pretty sure I never will. If you didn't know him, he's not easy to describe. He had sort of a deadpan manner. Not that he had no emotions, it's just that he didn't wear them on his sleeve. (It's why we sometimes played pranks on him in college--to see if we could get a rise out of him. Of course, we played pranks on almost everyone.)

I met him in college at the University of Michigan. In fact, he'd grown up in Ann Arbor. Back then he was a huge football fan. Bo Schembechler made his top three most-admired-people-ever list. His father was a Regent, and one of the fringe benefits of being his friend was it got me some nice football seats in later years.

After graduation, I left the state, but he stayed, working for Chrysler. Once he showed me a complicated equation to prove he was worth his salary--I reminded him not to leave out the overhead. When Daimler bought the company he said they were going to mix the two names together--they'd take the "Daim" from Daimler and the "ler" from Chrysler.

Anyway, even though we lived far apart, we stayed close friends. In fact, when I moved to Los Angeles, we started a voluminous correspondence. Up until the time I got email, we wrote each other on a regular basis--for almost a decade, we'd receive a letter and have one out the next day or so. And these weren't small letters. They tended to be five or six or seven typed, single-spaced pages. Add up everything he wrote and it'd amount to at least a couple novels. In addition, he often enclosed articles, pamphlets and other related material that he thought might be of interest--so much so that he starting using jumbo envelopes. I told him he could send me the other stuff if he liked, but it was his personal letter I cared about.

Right now, in fact, I'm looking at two garbage bags full of those letters. I rarely pull them out, but when I do, his voice comes alive again--it's like he's still out there.

John was a conservative, proudly so. It made him stand out (especially in Ann Arbor). Much of our conversation in later years was about politics. I can't tell you how many letters he wrote where he complained about Bill Clinton's latest outrage--"he just won't stop," as John was fond of saying. But John wasn't a caricature of a conservative. He may have been against a lot of liberal policies, but in person he was always open-minded enough to seriously discuss new ideas, and even, on occasion, change his mind. He also had a libertarian side. He'd been hassled by the police a couple times (not seriously, but any encounter where you don't think you're doing anything wrong can be unsettling) and questioned giving them too much authority. In fact, he generally favored a government with a light touch (which, these days, seems to be neither a conservative nor a liberal trait).

There were times he even made fun of his politics. In one letter he expressed a fairly liberal idea about something and then wrote he'd have to check if he was still conservative--yes, he still thought Norman Rockwell was the greatest artist ever. (He didn't have too much patience with artiness, by the way, but sometimes he'd surprise you. One of his favorite movies was the very artsy The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. But just as often, he hated critics' list films--he said the most boring thing he ever saw was My Left Foot. In this I wouldn't say his taste was conservative so much as middle-class American.) He also said if he was called for jury duty, he'd tell them "I'm a conservative--if it's a criminal case, the defendant is guilty, if it's a civil case, the defendant gets off."

He also must have had quite a metabolism. Like many bachelors, he ate more than his share of fast food, yet stayed thin. The subject of fast food, in fact, was of great interest to him, and he often included the latest in his letters on where he was eating. When he was younger he'd worked at Burger King and that seemed to have been a formative experience. He told me BK was better than McDonald's, but no matter what fast food place we ate at, he was a harsh taskmaster. If the fries weren't hot, he'd send them back. In fact, he was the only person I ever saw demand more fries when he felt the bag had not been sufficiently filled. Then there was bacon. He loved bacon. We ate at buffets in Vegas, and I've seen him devour whole plates. Quite amazing, actually.

Ah yes, Vegas. Of all his family and friends, only I knew the Vegas John. Not long after I moved to Los Angeles, he started visiting. He'd spend some time with his sister in Pasadena, and then we'd drive out to Sin City. We'd do this twice a year--must have done it twenty times. At first we'd be out there a couple nights, but that wasn't enough, so we upped it to three.

We mostly went for blackjack. I'd taught him how to count cards, and I think the student surpassed the teacher. He started with a $2500 bankroll and played at $5 tables (which are tougher to find these days), After several trips, he'd doubled it to $5000. I suggested he double his unit bet to $10, but he didn't have the nerve. Or maybe figured he was doing it for fun, why change things? He was also scrupulous about not commingling his regular money with his "gambling money." Even when he left a tip at the blackjack table he made sure to pull it out of his wallet, and not from his bankroll, so he always knew where he stood.

I believe he only played blackjack in Vegas. It was available in Windsor and later Detroit but I don't think he ever went. He once wrote to me about going to a Casino Night at some local school or church--when he found out dealers won ties he was so disgusted he refused to play.

Our schedules were sometimes a bit off. I was a late sleeper in LA, he was an early riser in Detroit. There were times when I'd be coming in from a night of gambling and he'd just be waking up. But we usually managed to meet in the middle. We must have stayed at about half the places on the Strip--whichever offered us the best deal. We went to Vegas so often there were times we acted like a married couple: during meals, I'd read The New York Times and John would read the Wall Street Journal--no need to communicate.

Not that we never talked. We talked quite a bit. About gambling, sports, friends, women, whatever. (Which reminds me, one woman John thought very sexy--Soledad O'Brien.) Maybe the vacation John enjoyed the most was in late 1994. It was just a few days after the Republicans had taken Congress, and he was walking on air. He bought every newspaper he could, hoping to read more about how shocked the Democrats were. (Which reminds me of how he regularly watched political shows--The McLaughlin Group, Capital Gang, Crossfire--this was in the days before Fox News dominated cable. He once told me he'd watch these shows and hit the mute button when the liberals spoke. I think he was joking, but who knows?)

In one of our earliest trips, we took an excursion to Hoover Dam. I still have the pictures. In later trips, we mostly tried to get in as many hours playing as possible. We considered team play, but figured that would probably take a few others and we didn't know who we could get. We'd also occasionally take a break and see movies out there, such as Apollo 13 and Titanic. He liked both. We also saw some classic Vegas shows--Rodney Dangerfield, Redd Foxx, Allen & Rossi. He repeated jokes from their acts. For instance, "my wife and I have sex almost every day of the week--almost Monday, almost Tuesday, almost Wednesday...."

In general, John memorized and repeated certain jokes and it was funny to hear them in his deadpan style. The irony is he was often much funnier when he wasn't trying to be funny (which is maybe the best kind of funny). Indeed, he recognized this quality. His letters were full of stories about big laughs he got at work when he was merely commenting on something in a straightforward manner.

John was a fairly consistent character, but it's not like he never changed. In later years, for instance, football wasn't so all-consuming--perhaps it was replaced by a greater interest in politics. And I'm reminded of the letter where he said prepare to be shocked. What could it be? Did he get married? Was he convicted of insider trading? Turns out he'd become a Catholic. Not being a Christian myself, his conversion from Protestant to Catholic perhaps didn't seem as big a deal to me. I wrote him "you mean you weren't already a Catholic?"

Words fascinated him. One practice he had was trying to put as many negatives in a sentence as possible. ("Nevertheless, it's no longer not the case that you aren't..." and so on.) He also enjoyed mixed metaphors, and would send me examples he created. He particularly liked the phrase "can of worms," and tried to mix that with as many other metaphors as he could. He also liked this contest for the most boring headline where the winner was, I think, "Cement Supply Seen As Adequate." Runner -up was something like "No Change Seen In Belgian Midterm Election."

Another love was flying. He became a pilot. He once flew out with some friends to meet me in Dayton, where there was a rare theatre that showed actual Cinerama. When he visited out here, he usually spent some time at the airfield before the Vegas trip. In fact, he always planned to fly us out to Vegas. (It never worked out which is just as well--I consider flying an unpleasant necessity.) His email name was AirReggae. Oh yes, he also liked Bob Marley. He said he chose AirReggae because he didn't figure too many people would combine those loves.

He liked many kinds of music--was a big fan of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, for instance--but he favored rock. He was especially expert on 70s music. Any top forty hit from that decade he could recognize in just a few notes. Though his favorite song, he once told me, was Elvis Presley's "(Marie's The Name Of) His Latest Flame."

After I got email, we started communicating on a regular basis, and a few other friends joined in. In what was a precursor to a blog, there'd be five or six of us discussing philosophical and political issues. I still have most of those emails. I often disagreed with John, and if you just read the duels between us, you'd think we're sworn enemies.

It was fun to look over the emails we shot back and forth during the wild 2000 election. In fact, I never miss John more than when some big political event happens. He's missed the last ten years, and I can just imagine how he'd have reacted to Barack Obama, or Sarah Palin, or the Tea Party. Or can I? I don't know what he'd have said, but I bet he'd have loved it, the good and the bad.

True friends fill niches you weren't aware of. After you get to know them, it's hard to imagine how things were without them. John was a true friend, and I still miss him.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Still nice to read.

3:25 AM, April 10, 2012  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I suspect that if John had still been with us, from mid-2011 until today he would have been a fan of at least two of the not-Romneys in the GOP. But I can't begin to guess what he would have thought of Sarah Palin.

2:11 PM, April 11, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Whatever his feelings for today's Republicans, they would have been drowned out by his opposition to the Democrats. Back in the 90s he'd talk about politicians like Bush or Gingrich but that was nothing compared to the time he spent complaining about Clinton.

2:51 PM, April 11, 2012  
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