The title of this post is from Tom Waits’ song “Burma Shave,” which Jack told me to listen to today in honor of our Tom. Give it a listen, and you’ll get a sense of him.
In about three hours from the time that I’m writing this, it will be exactly three years since Tom took his final breath, with so many of us at his bedside. I’ve written about that moment before so forgive me if this is repetitive, but it is one of the defining experiences of my life. It was as beautiful a circumstance as I can imagine for such a painful loss. Tom died as he lived, surrounded by friends and love and music, the sun setting on the Rockies. The night before had been a veritable cocktail party in his room, one which he joined intermittently, making morphine-riddled jokes and musical requests.
We sang the Talking Heads’ “Heaven” to him:
The band in heaven
They play my favorite song
Play it one more time
Play it all night long.
I first met Tom in 1993. We always got along, but the roots of our friendship really deepened when his brother Mike died in 1998 and he came out to visit John and me in San Francisco. It was our final two months in San Francisco and coincided with my two months of severance pay, so we were able to spend a lot of time together. We went horseback riding in Half Moon Bay and wine-tasting in Napa Valley. We laughed a lot.
Losing Mike so suddenly was such an unfathomable blow to Tom that some have theorized that it shaped the rest of his life.
He did have more than his share of tragedy, and while it may have shaped him, it never defined him. Over the twenty-five years that I knew him, I watched him grow increasingly self-aware. He understood himself, and he understood all of us, as I’ve said before, sometimes better than we understood ourselves. He tended to be the center of every social situation he entered, and he loved performing. To the untrained eye (or ear) it might not have been immediately apparent, but he was perhaps the most astute observer of others that I’ve known. He “got” people—and this is why 500+ people packed the Capitol Theater for his memorial in 2019; he had an entirely individual relationship with every one of us. Private jokes, bits, characters, memories, rituals. This was one of the secondary aspects of his passing that was so difficult for me; when he died, so did Smoky and Sweets, our blue collar sitcom characters; and Ringley and Laura, our high society New England couple who corresponded via postcard while waiting out “that blasted war” in the summer of 1944. So did the Motorcyle Mummy from Napa Valley, and the voice of Byron’s Steakhouse and Harry Chong’s Dry Cleaner and Tailor. And so did so many meals and conversations about love, life, and art. The things that matter. Tom held discussions and asked questions, and these are beautiful traits.
The truth is that I could write volumes about Tom and about my friendship with him. And I am one of hundreds who could. I often wonder how he would have weathered this past 18 months. The isolation would have been very tough for him, but he’d have figured it out. And he would have had one hell of a collection of face coverings, would have navigated the world with the sartorial splendor of a well-to-do 19th Century train robber who was doing it merely for the adventure. An appropriate look for him, as one of his great passions and interests was the American railroad and its rich history. As it turns out, he shared that passion with an uncle who died long before he was born.
Never have I felt the presence of a departed loved one as often or as strongly as I do Tom, and many of our friends have experienced the same. He wanted it to be that way, asked me during those final eight months to help him learn how to come back to all of us as “a benevolent ghost.”
Once over the summer our dog started barking in the middle of the night—the hesitant warning bark he emits when someone is at the door. He’d not done this before and hasn’t done this since. B suggested the next morning that he’d seen a ghost. I realized that that night was three years to the day that Tom came to New York and stayed with us; he had his own key and stayed out late seeing friends, got back to our place in the middle of the night.
Tom is no longer with us in the form that we knew him, but our world is infused with his essence and spirit. In the Go Fund Me video he reluctantly made, he recited this poem; it was framed by his bed when he died, and like Tom Waits’ voice, it captures Tom beautifully:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Thank you for reading.