The first time I was in the presence of a dead person was in the early ’70s. I was an art student at the University of Minnesota and living on the top floor of a rooming house in south Minneapolis.
The first and second floors of the rundown Victorian house were broken up into bedrooms where tenants shared a bathroom and cooked for themselves with hotplates in their rooms. I had the top floor with good light and its own kitchen and bathroom, and although the water pressure was terrible and there were cockroaches, at $95 a month it otherwise fit the bill as an artist’s garret.
Life was a risk living in such a place though. I learned this one evening when smoke filled the hallways and I had to exit from the fire escape in front of the house, wondering if I should first throw my paintings out the window. The fire had been caused by a tenant known as Wayne the Brain, a lowlife burglar who lived on the floor below mine and had fallen asleep while smoking, catching his mattress on fire.
The fire was quickly put out by the fire department and there were no injuries, but months later death came to one of the other tenants. He was a very old man living by himself on the second floor. I returned home one day from art class and as I walked upstairs, I saw his door ajar. Inside he was lying white and lifeless and not yet covered with a sheet, surrounded by the policemen who had been summoned. A man who died alone, of old age. I never knew him even to talk to him, but the experience of seeing him dead stunned me. It was both real and unreal.
The second time I witnessed death was when my father died in a nursing home in Minneapolis in 2001. He had suffered from a dementia-related disease for several years, so I had been losing him for a long time, but holding his hand and hearing his last breath made the loss profound and final — yet still unfathomable.
Unfathomable, too, for all of us now, the mounting Covid death toll. How did the numbers go from 200,000 to almost 900,000? Lives just gone.
I recently read a poem by Billy Collins in which he tells of writing down on the back of a shopping list the names of all his friends who died. Later, at the store with the list, he remembers he had omitted his friend Terry O’Shea, along with forgetting the bananas and the bread.
This poem reminded me of a winter drive I took with my husband on a Sunday afternoon, down Gerard Drive and through the streets of Springs. I have lived in this community since 1981, and as we drove past houses, we started to list all the people we’ve known from the neighborhood who are no longer here — their absence and the finality of their goneness struck a powerful note:
Mercedes Matter, who founded the New York Studio School; Arnold Hoffmann, her printmaker neighbor; Dane Dixon of Fort Pond Boulevard, once Willem de Kooning’s assistant; the photographer Ken Robbins; Vito Sisti, a curator and fixture at Ashawagh Hall; the abstract painter Cile Downs; my former colleague Richard Dunn; the gentle poet Robert Long; the writer Joe LeSueur and his roommate Patsy Southgate, who Frank O’Hara once called “the Grace Kelly of the New York School”; the landscape painter Ralph Carpentier and his wife, Hortense; Mary Rattray, who once had the best dress shop in East Hampton; my art teacher from Pratt, the sculptor Calvin Albert; Susan Whitney, who made a quilt for my baby girl; the house painter Bruce Hoek, who used to bring us fish; Paul from Springs-Fireplace Road, who cut my hair; another Paul, from the pizza parlor, who died way too young; the collector of Charles Balth’s sculptures on Richardson Street who died of AIDS in the ’80s; the writer Silvia Tennenbaum with the purple hair; George Salley from the farmhouse; the Artists Alliance founder and friend to all Eleanor Leaver; Wanda the nurse; Jesse James, the kindest man I’ve ever known; the professor and activist Chuck Hitchcock; the art critic Rose Slivka, and all the other Springs artists I knew over the years — Bruce Rosen, Tim Lee, Dan Christensen, Charles Waller, David Geiser, Hildy Maze, Ellen Frank.
I remember them all.
Jennifer Cross is an artist, art educator, and curator living in Springs.