I called him this summer from Alaska, but he didn't answer. The last time we talked, briefly, was back in October. Brevity from John was uncharacteristic. Our mutual friend Jane once correctly said that if your head was on fire, and you called John to ask for help, you'd first have to listen to 45 minutes of John ranting before you were allowed to speak. He'd always preface rant transitions by saying "just quick like a bunny," and then go off to the races in a way that left no room to get a word in edgewise.
I've been trying to call him since Christmas. I left a couple of messages on his machine, but his machine no longer picked up after February. So last week I went to his building on Devoe Street in Greenpoint. His name was no longer on the mailbox. It was never on the door, because like a lot of gay hippies, John was paranoid about cops.
I buzzed anyway. No answer. I buzzed the super, again nothing. I even walked up and down the block for a while accosting older people. "Do you know my friend John? He's in his mid-60s, kind of tall and skinny like me. He has strawberry blond hair, kind of looks a bit like Peter O'Toole. None of the people I talked to even remembered him, but then maybe I talked to the wrong people.
John loved his apartment. It was full of plants, poems and sketches, his two cats Julietta Massina and the evil one, but otherwise was quite tidy in a monastic way. I remember how happy he was when he turned 63, because it would no longer be legal under NYC law for his landlord to evict him. John would never have given up that apartment, certainly not to go live with his prickly family in Vermont.
I wondered if maybe he were still in there, unwilling to have further contact with the outside world, or if he had been carted away to an assisted living facility. Then again, maybe he finally succumbed to pancreatitus, respiratory failure or the dozens of conditions, some real, some imagined, he suffered from.
I couldn't accept that someone I loved would pass without my knowing about it, but as some will attest, that's a general problem I have. How could I find out? Wendy suggested checking the Times for an obituary. There was none. A more general google search revealed the Achilles' heel of all internet sleuths. John Carroll was the first Catholic Bishop of America in colonial times. There have been many, many people named in his honor, as well as a Catholic University. No matter how many search items I put in or subtracted, there were too many hits to sort through the first hundred or so of each.
I thought of calling my friend Don White. Don was the only other Gallatin faculty member who kept in touch with John. Don is a supremely disciplined, kind man who makes John's monastic solitude seem like the Rat Pack in Vegas. I've known him for 16 years and I have never seen him eat or drink anything. It is said he survives on tap water, a bowl of oatmeal a day, and berries he hand-picks in the summer. He's also a black belt Karate teacher in his spare time.
He also doesn't own an answering machine, has no internet access and evidently spends most of his time in a remote cabin in the Adirondacks. A google search of his name is even more problematic than John's, because it seems every 10th person in America is named Don White. Swing and a miss, strike two.
John had a student assistant named Nadine. I don't remember her last name, and we've never exchanged email. Moreover, Nadine herself suffers from a host of maladies, not the least being chronic fatigue. Even if I could find her, she probably knew nothing. Most of the students I'm still in touch with never had any contact with John, and anyway the ones who did always asked me how John was doing. I doubted that NYU would have been informed of his passing, or if they had been if anyone there now would care. I accepted the idea that I would never know if John were dead or alive, there were simply no more leads to pursue. Checkmate.
We met in 1992. He was the first Gallatin full-timer who spoke to me. In the middle of my first semester, he called me into his office, looking very serious, and said, "Rumor is that you are an outstanding teacher. We won't tolerate that. I am the outstanding teacher here, and if this sort of thing continues, then your people and my people will have to meet in the park and settle this once and for all." I had no idea what this meant at the time.
But all the other full-timers looked at me as if they had just discovered that I was sticking to the bottom of their shoe, so John's declaration was oddly encouraging. He also gave me his old office and got me on a lot of colloquia, which in the penury of my single parent days was very welcome. I went to his Timeline lecture, which remains the most profound example of great teaching I ever saw. For two hours, he did a history of civilization which connected Gilgamesh, Oedipus, Dante, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Freud and much else into an astonishing and original discourse on consciousness, language, tragedy and the human condition.
He started First Friday and put in heroic hours editing its magazine for monthly distribution. He directed a production of Prometheus using the Founders Memorial and the Bobst Library wall as his set. Those who saw it still talk about it. He did a production of Alice in Wonderland in Vermont that was so awesome, Mike Nichols made a documentary about it for PBS. The Librarian of Congress predicted that John would be one of a handful of late 20th century American poets who would still be read a hundred years from now.
Most importantly, he was a beloved teacher in his day, inspiring a generation of students to think bigger, dream bigger.
But I gather that if anyone eulogises John, this is it. I confess that I have mentally rehearsed funereal oratory for certain people under the supremely arrogant assumptions that I'd be asked and that said persons would pre-decease me. What I've written above isn't the rehearsed speech, which was a complex comparison of John as Plato written from my Aristotelian perspective.
But I doubt that anyone who knew John except Liz (whom he gave a master class in acting before she auditioned for the Royal Academy) will ever read this, and if one delivers a eulogy that nobody hears, does it still count?
Those of you who think you'd trade lives with Van Gogh, Mozart, Machiavelli or Confucius, think again. In their lives they were, like John, terribly lonely, misunderstood. They died badly, mostly alone after living lives like Orestes, pursued by the stinging flies of less talented people who had better social skills. John took great joy in life, but it was unrequited love.
And now he is gone, if not dead something worse. What became of his poems and sketches which were good enough for magazines to buy? Where are his cats? The classes he taught, the plays he directed are all lost, as Ray Batty said, like tears in rain.
I hope I'm wrong, and someone reads this who'll say, "John is fine. He just doesn't want to talk with you." That would be nice.