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.