In memory of Jack S. Thorpe (1957-2021)

What? I am smiling.

My friend Jack Thorpe died this fall.  He would have been 65 today.  He died back in October, but I only learned of this in the last few weeks.  My contact with him had dwindled along with his health in the last two years, despite the ease of texting.  The last text from him was in May as we bemoaned the worst defensive play in recent memory and Pirates’ history.  After that, no replies.  There’s some irony in a man who took such glee in maligning my laudable Irish ancestry leaving my world with an Irish goodbye.  

Jack never expressed any hope or even patience for the suggestion of an afterlife around me.  The Divine had three faces for him: Elmore James, Roberto Clemente, and Pam Grier. None of them promised a world hereafter, but who needs another world when you’ve shared this one with those three? Sketchy promises about great rewards after years of slog and self-denial would have reminded him of a mortgage, which would have made him think of banks, which would have reminded him of capitalism, and Jack had no interest in eternal life if there was going to be capitalism. I’ve seen my friend for the last time.

Jack was my friend for almost thirty years, stretching back to a time when I was a work-study editing and assembling training manuals for the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center and he ran the building’s copy center.  We worked in the subterranean floors of the Mellon Institute, away from most of the day’s sun in the summer and all of it in the winter.  He had been there so long that I came to believe they had built the place around him.  Jack was 14 years my senior, which seemed like a lifetime as a 20-year old and more like a footnote now.  We shared a fervid sense of loyalty, a bone-deep distrust of authority, and Catalonian politics. We both played more music than we bought for long stretches of our lives. Every email I sent him and every one he sent me for most of those thirty years opened with “Kola!” – a Lakota term for the closest of lifelong friends. Don’t ever fucking call me that if you see me. That’s a name I used with my friend, and I’ve seen my friend for the last time. 

To me, Jack was Pittsburgh.  If he’d been any more Pittsburgh, they’d have built a bridge over him.  In one way or another, I’ve lived almost all my life as an exile wherever I’ve gone, and I envied the sense of place he embodied.  But his roots in this place had no romance to them. He never sentimentalized the wheezing throes of deindustrialization or joined the waves of ersatz Yinzers in knockoff jerseys tailgating on the carcass of a great city. Jack was Pittsburgh, but the Pittsburgh of  Big Bill Haywood and the IWW corps at Dry Slitz Stogies jamming their thumbs in the eyes of the owners and overseers. A surprising number of campus items with Frick’s, Mellon’s, and Carnegie’s names on them were vandalized with Wobbly stickers over the years I worked there and visited.  I’m sure Jack was not involved.  On no subject was this side of Jack more explicit than race, on which he could politely abide neither the venom of thinly-veiled white nationalists nor liberal pieties that led to nothing. His modes of resistance were making community and offering mutual aid, which left no time for posturing. 

For twenty-five years, he made his way to DC, I made my way to Braddock, and he made his way to WashPA. We made our way across the Clemente Bridge to PNC Park in 2011 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Orioles’ inability to overcome a fluke, wind-aided home run from Clemente in game seven of the 1971 World Series. There were more games until there were no more games. The last time I could get him to drag his ass downtown I told him I’d meet him at the gate, but didn’t find him there.  He’d gone to his seat, and blamed it on his “first pitch, last pitch” maxim (to be there for both and everything between). I believed that until we left and I saw him shuffle slowly to the escalator.  He didn’t want me to see him walk up the stairs. I would’ve carried his ass up to the third deck myself, but I wouldn’t be offered the chance.

It became harder to reach Jack the last few years. He retired from CMU, so there was no way to swing by and catch him on the way out of work.  I knew money was tight and his mobility was decreasing, and all of this was worse under COVID. Some things he told me got me worried about his access to food.  I worked out delivery options with a soul food place around the block, so long as he’d be there to open the door.  “Come on, man.  There’s fried fish and mac and cheese, and we’ll be supporting a Black-owned business. That’ll piss off some White people somewhere, and I know you love that.”  There was always a reason it couldn’t happen, though. Not answering the phone, or some other thing planned, or just the wrong day somehow.  Some lies in there, I’m sure.

I don’t know what he was dying of. His cousin told me that no one could get him to a doctor, as he trusted the medical industry about as much as any other institution.  There was never a name to put to it, just more pain and less function with each passing month. With that came a thousand tiny exits, stage left. A thousand exchanges avoided, a thousand ways to detach and hide the decay.  As though I wouldn’t know it, as though he had me fooled, as though I haven’t had to fight my way out of bed every day for the last thirty-eight years, too. Every text, every conversation ended too well, as though I should expect each one to be the last. He ended the last long one with, “Give my love to Joc.”  His love?  This, after twenty-some years of calling her “not too shabby”? And if we’re making grand announcements all of a sudden, where does that put the two of us, Kola? I could almost hear his reply – eh, guys don’t say that. What, now you give a shit about the rules?  Man, fuck that lie.  I loved you. You died alone, but you did not die unloved.

I don’t grieve over the finality of this, or the finitude of the time we knew one another, but I grieve the suffering he endured these last few years and that he did so much of it alone.  Jack is gone, and he’ll hear none of this, and you’ll forget these words not long from now, but there is nothing to be done but to say them.  So I thank you if you’ve read this far. In lieu of flowers, Jack might ask that you take a crowbar to the mechanisms of injustice around you, that you sabotage the works of its agents, and that you aid those at the margins in the most indecorous manner available to you.  I will remind myself that great losses can only come to lives that include great things. I have seen my friend for the last time, but I have lived a life that included him. 

19 thoughts on “In memory of Jack S. Thorpe (1957-2021)”

  1. You’ve captured Jack exquisitely. Thank you for remembering him on his birthday. ❤️

  2. It’s a hard day for me today. Thank you for this. You’ve captured the essence of who he was.

    Jack’s sister, Deb

  3. Hi Michael, Anna send me your draft in advance of publishing. I am very thankful for having this connection to people who knew and loved him as well. March 5th was a tough day…..
    Jack would have said: “grind it out, baby”
    Like I told Anna, it’s astonishing what similar- yet different in their nature- experiences we had with him.
    I got the chance to say good bye, but I never wanted
    I still miss him every single day.
    Greetings from Bielefeld, Germany.

    1. Thanks, Johanna. Glad it could do that for you.

      Just out of passing interest, how are connected to Jack? (I know Deb’s his sister, and Anna and Amanda are his nieces, but all the family details are fairly new to me)

      1. I am not a family member. I only got the chance to connect them after his death. I met Jack while I was a Postdoc at CMU in 2009. We made a friendship out of nothing and stayed in touch when I went back to Germany. That’s how it started……
        So I learned in your article that’s where you met him, too?

  4. Roughly, yes. I was an undergraduate rather than a postdoc, but we spent a lot of time deep in the basement of the Mellon Institute, and stayed in touch after that.

  5. Hi, Michael, a friend forwarded me this post and it brought tears to my eyes. I’m Scott Janzen, I first met Jack in 1980 – he was living with Nina in a house on, maybe, Wilkins or Shady, with several other roommates – one was Sara Gordon, who I’m married to, another was Liz Spencer, and I think maybe Paul Smith lived there too.
    Sara and Nina were best friends from high school in Brooklyn and stayed that way in college. The four of us spent a lot of time together. Friday nights would often start out with a case of Dos Equis, watching Love Boat reruns in our apartment on Woodmont, and then we’d go to the cage or a party. For a year or two Jack drove my ’49 Ford truck, when he needed transportation. We spent more hours at the Cage than I can count, went camping, watched the Steelers with the sound off and Myron Cope on the radio. Those were some good years for the Steelers.
    Sara and I got married in 1985 in NYC, and Jack and Nina, though no longer together, were both in our wedding. By that time, Jack was living on Darlington Road in SqHill, with Michael Maloney and some others. We moved to Philadelphia that year too, when I went to grad school – Jack rode out in the u-haul (POS broke down, we called it the yinzhaul) and helped us move in. It was a sad day when I put him on Amtrak back to the burgh.
    We stayed in touch, but not enough. In recent years, I saw him when I came out to Schenley Park or Pittrace for vintage car races, but it’s been at least five years. We had a few texts/calls after that, I caught up to him after he retired, but the last time I tried in 2021 I got no response.
    Sad times – I saw the obit about a month ago and was stunned. You said it all far more eloquently than I can, but you captured Jack as we knew him, even 40 years ago. The man was consistent! Sara and I have inside jokes and phrases that come from our times with Jack that still make us laugh, and some great memories.
    I’m so bummed. Guess I’ll have to make a pilgrimage to Ohiopyle and put a pebble on his grave, channel the voice of Myron Cope, listen to some blues harp and wallow in the memories.

    Scott Janzen

  6. Scott – Thanks for dropping in. Glad you could revisit all that with him through this little thing. There seems to be no end of group houses, apartments, jam sessions, and roving caravans of misfit dreamers in which Jack was the social glue at some point. Sorry to bring the news, hoping you enjoy the memories.

    1. Any way to add photos to this? I have a few we would probably all enjoy. Yeah, this one shook me. I’m the same age as Jack, and I always thought there would be more good times together . . .

      1. I think you can drop them in the comments here, though I’m not positive. As you can see, this isn’t a terrible high-traffic website.
        EDIT: Nope, I take that back. WordPress says, “What do you think this is, 4chan?!?! NO PICS IN COMMENTS!!!

        If you have something to add here, I suppose you could send me pics to add to the bottom of the main body. Or you could post them to imgur (or some comparable site) and I could link them here.

  7. Thank you for this, Michael. I’m pretty sure I met you once, briefly, introduced by Jack in the MI basement. I worked for PSC, happily retired since 2013. I jammed often on Saturday mornings with Jack & a couple other friends. I’m especially glad to learn from you more than I knew before, though had guessed more or less, about the last few years — when Jack, basically, dropped out of communicating with me. Thanks again. I posted a photo with a few sentences I wrote on the PG obit page:

    1. I have the vaguest sliver of a memory of a recollection that might include your name. My last day at PSC would have been some time around the end of June 1994. Would that have made an overlap possible?

  8. I worked at PSC from late 1987 to 2013. I don’t know if we crossed paths in PSC space — I was in an office, often with the door closed. To visit Jack downstairs was one of the best ways I had to take a break. I think I met you in his Post Office space, but could be wrong.

    1. Wait, wait, wait. Did you work on the 4th floor in that outer ring of offices on the Bellefield Ave. side? Next door neighbor in that cluster of offices was a woman, maybe named Vivian? And went camping (or something outdoorsy) with Jack on a regular basis? If so, I’m piecing this together.

      Jack was still in the old copier room when I left. I think they converted that and moved him down to the post office not long thereafter.

      1. Yep, my office was next to Vivian’s. Jack & I road-tripped — once to Florida. He was a really good road-trip partner, not least because he was a good driver & would takeover when I was road-weary. Several times — maybe 4 or 5 — we road-tripped to a friend’s cabin-in-the-woods in Kentucky, Daniel Boone National Forest — usually in July. We swam in Cave Run Lake & jammed on the screened-in porch. That’s likely the outdoorsy thing.

  9. My harmonica playing buddy, we would share the playing space when he could come join us, a number of times over the years, he was quite good, with a polka/Polish, Western Pa. ‘millhunkie style’, those were his words. He played softly and had the ultimate gear, including all the keys as well as the a special microphone, and he would fix his harps, he had the repair tools. Was quite good with the steel guitar he would play too. He was always welcome to join us, but said it was hard because we played Saturdays and he had to get up so early for work every day. We missed his presence once we lost touch. A warm soul. Thanks for your piece Michael. Doug Schiller

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