Conchita, A Song!

“I love you, Bobby.”

That’s what my friend John always said to me at the end of a phone call, or with a hug when we met in person. He lived in New York, me in Washington, so those visits got rarer and rarer over the past 10 years. But there were still a lot of them.

My dear friend died on Monday at 72-years old — an age when people shrug to hear it. Not old, old exactly, not one foot in the grave, but not defying probability, either. Just the shrug. “Oh, that’s a shame.”  As if there were no heartbreak in the equation. Me, I’m heartbroken.

At 72, he still looked like an altar boy — the world’s tallest altar boy — with short, straight blond hair and a mischievous grin. John was more Irish than a pint of stout, and a proud native Chicagoan. The Cubs. The Cubbies. Wrigley Field. Jesus, he was insufferable. Also reliable.

In 1990, five years into our friendship, I returned from a Mexican vacation with a hat, a buff-colored straw hat with a plain black band. The thing is, it was not soft or pliable. On the contrary, it was lacquered to inflexibility. It would have done the trick on a construction site, and when I made the tragic error of wearing it in his presence, he was off and running. “You bumptious oaf,” he said. “What is that you have on your head?”



No worries about the ridicule. That only continued for the next 34 years. Out of nowhere he would say simply “the hat,” and collapse into hysterics like the devil himself. I will so miss that dude. If something funny happened — ever — he would remember it and cherish it for life. In the early 80s, when he worked as a reporter in Chicago, he was with his pals at a bar (probably the Billy Goat) when another friend walked in. The guy stopped just past the threshold, saw his friends and shouted, “Water for my horses! Food for my men! Conchita, a song!” The outburst just captured John’s imagination and it stayed with him always. He so delighted in playing it back. I loved how much he loved it.

We had a mutual friend, Dennis, who was really smart and charming but in many respects an absolute rube. He once showed up at a formal event wearing a blue jacket with velvet lapels, a pair of dark blue pants in a different shade, brown platform shoes and a bow tie the size of Belize. John took one look at him and what ensued was laughter orgasm. For him, it was like a sunset or a field of daffodils, one of those simple images that remind you how good it is to be alive. Another time the three of us were dining at an East Side sushi restaurant and Dennis wanted sake. But he didn’t order sake. He ordered sangria. I can’t say for certain, but I think it was the greatest moment of John’s life. I am speaking of true joy.

Our friendship wasn’t always so superficial. We shared more heart-to-hearts than hijinks, and bared our souls. And when we parted, “I love you, Bobby.” Men don’t tend to exchange that endearment too often. It is not the default goodbye. Too tender and intimate, “See you later” suffices. Or, “Take it easy, asswipe.” John — as I said, Irish — wore his emotions on his blue-blazer sleeve. He was a 6’ 2” vessel of 120-proof sentiment. A hard-bitten newshound with innards of marshmallow.

And now, altogether before his time, cursed with a terrible disease and terrible treatments, he is gone. The laughter and the insults, thank God, survive him. They were my field of daffodils. I love you, John.

Reprinted with permission from Bob Garfield's Bully Pulpit.

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