To Joe Burton and all my Other Late Friends
I just received word that Joe Burton, one of the best friends I ever had, passed away this morning. Joe had been suffering for years from Parkinson’s, so this was not entirely unexpected news. He was seventy two, still young in these times when they tell us seventy is the new fifty. I know he’s out of his misery, and finally at peace. But that doesn’t make it any easier for those of us left behind.
Joe and I were really close in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I never had anyone else, before or since, who I could commiserate about sports, women, and life in general, in the same way I did with him. We had Washington Capitals’ season’s tickets together for three years- he was responsible for turning me on to hockey, and for a while it was my favorite sport. He was the first to support my fledgling theory that all sporting events were fixed, and both of us came to use that word- “fixed,” to describe basically anything that happened that we disagreed with.
In the mid to late ’70s, Joe Burton lived in a townhouse and the group of them gave the greatest parties of all time. It was America 1.0 at its finest- you will never see parties like that again. He and I ate more meals together at Rustler and Hardee’s than I can remember. We went to NBA and Major League Baseball games, and always drank too much. Pretty much everybody did then. America 1.0. We would complain to each other about various women rejecting us, and why so many of them were in what I called “Honey and Derelict” relationships. We built up each other’s self-confidence. Alone among all the friends I’ve had, Joe never criticized me. He was great for my self-esteem. How many can say that about their friends?
We talked so much, so often, that I learned a lot of minutiae about Joe which I’ve strangely retained in my memories. How he hated When a Man Loves a Woman by Percy Sledge and everything by Springsteen except Badlands. How he’d been in two fistfights in his life, and how he’d won the one he thought he would lose, and lost the won he thought he’d win. I knew his entire family. His mom was as uniquely humorous and memorable as mine was. I treasured the annual Christmas tree trimming parties at his sister Mary Frances’ condo. When my mom died, he wrote me a nice note, and recalled how great she made him feel by telling him he was too good-looking not to have a steady girlfriend.
Although we kind of drifted apart over the years, as friends do, we always stayed in contact. He joined the fantasy football league I started in the late’90s, and the yearly draft at my house became the only time we saw each other. He would always tell me how happy he was for me, and rave about my wife and kids. I know he would have liked children himself, but he wasn’t blessed with any. And again, while feeling a bit sad for him, it opened my eyes to how lucky I was, and at least for a while I would not take my own fortune for granted. I think of those drafts a lot now, when my children were young, and friends like Joe were alive and well. It’s funny how quickly we construct new “good old days.”
Joe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s probably twenty years ago. I could see the gradual decline in him over the years, at those fantasy football drafts. His wife died unexpectedly, and Joe eventually entered a senior facility. When I visited him in early 2018, he was still his old self; alert mentally, memory pretty good. He was able to walk unassisted to my car, and his legendary appetite was still strong at Red Lobster. I think of that lunch as basically the last time I saw the real Joe, the friend I remembered. When I visited him again about a year later, the change was shocking. He was confined to a wheelchair and clearly fading mentally, and I had to feed him most of the burger and fries I brought him from Red Robin.
While Joe deserved a much better fate, in one respect he was very fortunate. He had some incredibly loyal friends. His brother Mike did yeoman’s work in taking care of him in his last few years, and that group of former roommates who had once given truly Hall of Fame parties at that old townhouse, visited him regularly. We had two really memorable get togethers with Joe at the senior home in 2019. It was great seeing them again, and Joe’s eyes lit up with that old sparkle when he saw them. I truly think those little reunions slowed down his decline, and probably kept him going a bit longer. As Frank Capra’s Clarence the Angel reminded us, “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” In that regard, Joe Burton was a smashing success.
I met Joe through his brother Mike, when all of us were working for what was then called Fairfax Hospital, but which would morph into the Inova Health System from which I was unceremoniously fired, for helping out a handicapped co-worker, after forty four years. Joe left after five years or so, to join the Post Office, where he stayed until retirement. While working together, he spurred me on to create the concept first of “classics,” which later evolved into “unreals,” or really eccentric characters. When my novel The Unreals was published in 2007, it was an inside joke to Joe and countless others I worked with. Joe used the word “unreal” almost as much as I did. We called each other “Bro,” as a tip of the hat to our incredibly hilarious Black co-worker Harold Washington, who also said “right on” all the time, when both expressions had already been largely discarded by the hip Black community. Now using “Bro” is cool again.
I’m feeling pretty broken-hearted now. So I felt the urge to write this, in the hope it would be cathartic. Nothing makes us feel older, or more mortal, than the deaths of those we were once close to. The expression, “you look like you just lost your best friend” has a special resonance to me at this moment. As I wander about in the year of our lord 2021, it all seems even more surreal when I look back at a period that really doesn’t seem that long ago. The 1970s and 1980s might have happened in a different dimension, or a different universe, when I compare it to present reality. Sometimes I think all our memories are artificially constructed, and that the past can’t even be proven to have existed. Those days don’t seem real at all to me in these mad times, and Joe Burton was at the center of them.
As I deal with this devastating news, I consider how many of my close friends have departed this vale of tears. Mark Costello, my longest and closest childhood chum, passed away from AIDS at only forty seven. I only found out years later from our mutual friend Richard Reyes. They say he caught it from his wife. I probably don’t want to know any more details. Mark and I were so obsessed with Bram Stoker’s Dracula that we started writing our own vampire novel, about Count Loren Deadman. He was a unique, very funny character, and had a huge impact on me.
John Harmon dropped dead five years ago while eating breakfast at a local Centreville place. We talked daily on the phone, and he insisted on treating me to a spicy burger at The Greene Turtle regularly over the years. A former college football player, John was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. Conversation with him was like an interactive stand up act. He had a lot of Bill Murray’s style, blended into a Norm MacDonald routine. I was crushed by his sudden death, made all the more poignant because his regular “busting my chops” line to me was “Oh, I’m Don Jeffries! You don’t care whether I live or die!” I’ve dreamed about him several times since his death. I’m sure I’ll be dreaming about Joe Burton.
One of my closest teenage friends, Dave Campbell, died from cancer in May, 2020. So, I’ve lost my best childhood friend, one of my best teenage friends, and two of my best adult friends. I’m sure others have died as well, that I simply don’t know about. One of the few things I recall from my public school education is an English teacher’s comment about the transient nature of friendships, as she told us that we wouldn’t know any of our current friends five years later. So many friends have drifted in and out of my life, and I just don’t know how the fates might have treated them. I’m cynical, but I believe that more people live unhappy lives than happy ones. “Lives of quiet desperation,” as Thoreau said.
Jim Carroll recorded the achingly stark song People Who Died in 1980, in which he sang about all the dead people he’d known. He died himself in 2009, at just sixty. I’m thinking of that song today, as I mourn my dear friend. I often mull over all the co-workers who are gone, and again the number must surely be greater, since I lost contact with most of them over the years. The sad fact is we don’t see our old friends from school, or the workplace, once we stop attending school together, or being employed at the same place. Like my old teacher said, you can divide lifetime friendships into those five year cycles.
Everyone has a story. Maybe it’s the writer in me that makes me keenly interested in hearing those stories. I discovered that I’m sadly adept at delivering eulogies when I was asked to deliver one for the “Classic” legend Danny Liu, back in the early 1990s. Warren Zevon once warned Jackson Browne not to write a song eulogizing him, as he was wont to do. Maybe someone ought to warn me, because I feel compelled to do that at times like this. Joe was a kind and gentle man, the type this world has too few of. He probably lived with the regrets most of us live with. He seldom got the breaks, but that can be said about most people.
Joe Burton, like almost every other human being, won’t be remembered beyond the empty spot he leaves in the hearts of those who knew and loved him. But those of us who did know and love him will never forget him. I can still hear him saying, “How can anyone believe that’s real, Bro?” Well, I can’t believe this is real- that you are really gone. That I’ll never see you or talk to you again. I’ve always hated goodbyes, and I will never become accustomed to those I know dying. As Edna St. Vince Millay wrote:
“Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”