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Guestwords: What I Lost With Joe

Wed, 02/14/2024 - 17:51

I was driving to the city on Route 27, something I do almost weekly. As I passed the sign for the Westhampton Beach exit, I realized I had no reason to get off and probably never would again. My best friend was dead.

I met Joe Nissen when I was desperate for an art director to work over a Presidents weekend. The headhunter told me she could send someone good, but he wasn’t young. (Maybe she said “old” because you could then.)

Joe showed up at Geer DuBois at 9 sharp. He was about my size — 5 feet 6 and trim — wearing Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses, a navy blue cashmere sweater over a white turtleneck, and crisp blue jeans. (I’d find out that was his uniform.) His hair was full, curly, and shiny white. A Jewish-Waspy cross between Philip Roth and Paul Newman.

Joe was 62, I was 32. Our paths to this Saturday morning turned out to be strangely similar, which may be why sitting there, creating orange juice ads, felt like we had been doing it forever.

We were best friends for the next 35 years, half of my life and a third of his. We were connected as outsiders in a world where we didn’t feel like we quite belonged. We loved making ads, but not the ad world, which took itself far too seriously for what it contributed to the real world. Joe’s two kids went to Middlebury College, not particularly popular with New York City Jews. So did I. Both of us were a little stubborn in the face of new things that seemed dumb, like paddleball.

Our lives continued on similar paths. I lived in the city and had a weekend house in Water Mill. I became the chief creative officer of McCann Erickson. My two kids went to private school and tried summer camp but didn’t like it. Thirty years earlier, Joe had started his own agency with its moments of fame. His two kids grew up like mine — city, private school, Westhampton, no summer camp.

Joe’s career ended several years after I brought him to McCann, when he was forced to retire. Joe and I had become best friends, but without his job our relationship turned into something else: Joe became a father.

(And I needed one. Mine didn’t grow things, he killed them. If he were a gardener, his plants would all be dead.)

I was still working in the city when Joe, along with his wife, Lee, moved mostly to Westhampton Beach. Joe and I started a new ritual: We’d meet most Thursdays for dinner when I got off the Jitney. We started at Bobby Van’s in Bridgehampton but kept moving around because, true to our nature, something always annoyed us. Until it didn’t.

The Palm in East Hampton was small and dark, with a few cramped booths like church pews wedged in under a low tin ceiling. When you entered, you felt hugged. 

At first, Joe and I met practically every week. We’d be the first ones in at 5, when they opened, and most nights every seat was filled by 5:30. The other Joe, the bartender, knew our drinks and enough about our lives. He always asked Joe about his golf. (Joe and I both loved tennis, but he had switched to golf because of a bad shoulder. He shot his age at 79.) They were both good golfers and, like most people who play golf, they liked talking about it.

By this time, Joe was in his mid-80s, and he drove an hour to East Hampton just for our dinners. But for Joe and me, Thursdays were like Saturday nights for a teenager, even though we never said it.

For several years, our dinners were automatic. We’d text in the morning to confirm, meet for dinner, share a steak, talk to other bar people about politics or grandchildren or real estate prices, then Joe would drive me home to Water Mill, sometimes come in for a cigar, sometimes not.

Then it changed. Slowly. Joe would text some Thursday mornings saying he’d had a bad night and wouldn’t make it. My three-hour ride on the Jitney was awful enough, but knowing I wasn’t meeting Joe at the Palm made it endless.

The texts became more frequent. Joe had always defied the physics of aging. When we hugged, his body felt hard and permanent; his wardrobe from decades ago was still intact; when I called most nights, his brain was supple and active. Joe had been playing golf and resisting his mysterious illnesses. Then Covid arrived. Between caring for Lee and avoiding the virus, he was trapped. Unbothered by his ancient, stained sweatpants, tuned out even to Trump news, it was undeniable and incurable: Joe had gotten old, which, for a man who was ageless, was his way of dying.

I started to visit him at home more often. I brought food from Goldberg’s and Round Swamp, and sometimes visitors: my daughter, Olivia, and her daughter, Charlotte; my wife, Ilene, and always our new puppy, Lila.

Joe loved my family. We’d sit on the covered porch outside their bedroom, which, even on the hottest days, had a breeze no one could explain. I thought about the surprising ways, over more than three decades, Joe’s life and mine wrapped around each other’s, often with his austere, white house at the center.

In his large backyard, when Olivia was 5, she looked up at the open sky and told Joe the moon was beautiful, but that it was okay if it visited someone else’s house. Their pool wasn’t heated, which made the warmth of the hot tub extra rewarding. Our son, Josh, learned to swim in that small, safe place.

Joe and Lee got sick together and died together. Their lives ended 48 hours apart in the austere, white bedroom off the inexplicably breezy covered porch. Sitting there, I once asked Joe what made good art. The sureness of the artist’s hand is what he said.

I haven’t been back to the Palm since Joe died. It’s just a bar without the surest man I knew.

Jonathan Cranin lives in Water Mill.

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