We lost one of the greats this January, and I'm not talking about the late, great Mr. Cub.
No, I'm talking about George Downs, the guy in the above pic. You wouldn't know George from a baseball context, unless you had the pleasure to attend a game or play pick-up softball with him. He was a renowned political scientist, one whose work led to positions at such esteemed schools as the University of Michigan, UC Davis, Princeton and NYU. For over forty years, he was one of my father's best friends, and an unofficial god-uncle to me and my sister. And, as the above photo attests, he had a latent silly streak about a mile wide. It was taken by Fran, my stepmother, a few weeks before he passed; not wanting to sit for something as heavy as a "final photo," but still wanting to indulge Fran (whose own wonderful silliness he immensely enjoyed), George grabbed a nearby Kleenex box and placed it nobly upon his head. The resulting photo perfectly captures the lovely gent I knew.
I first met George around 1972; I was in first grade, and he was a PhD student at the U of M, where my dad taught at the School of Social Work. Irwin, my father, had recently split from my mother and was living at the time with his friend Ted in a large two-bedroom apartment above the Cottage Inn on E. William St. in Ann Arbor. (The above photo, taken in 1976, is from the incredible Ann Arbor District Library photo archives; it also reveals a snippet of the sign for the neighboring Campus Bike and Toy, a shop whose extensive selection of Revell model kits haunted my childhood dreams.)
While it would be understandable for a child to associate their dad's new bachelor pad with the sadness and confusion of his parents' divorce, I have only happy memories of that place above the Cottage Inn. It was there that I watched my first episode of Night Gallery; it was there that I learned to love spaghetti and clam sauce; it was there that I built a model of the USS Constitution with my dad; and it was there that my six-year-old mind was truly blown by the insane Ramayana comic books Ted had brought back from his Peace Corps stint in India. (After I'd read about the battle between the monkey and demon armies of Rama and Ravana, no Marvel superhero comic could ever hope to measure up.)
It was also the place where I heard the Eagles' eponymous first LP for the first time, and many, many times after. Whatever you may think of the Eagles now (hell, whatever I may think of them), there's no denying that their first record perfectly captured the "Hey, maaan, we just wanna be mellow and live life one day at a time" ethos of the post-Kent State early 70s. "Take It Easy," the album's opening track, became a theme song of sorts for my dad, Ted, and their pal George during their groovy bachelor days. I had no idea what "Don't let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy" — which seemed to be their favorite line — actually meant, but it made me laugh every time they sang along with it.
When you're a kid, you tend to latch on to the exaggerated physical characteristics of adults. Ted sported (and still sports, I'm happy to say) the sort of handlebar moustache that would turn Rollie Fingers's face Kelly green with envy, and that was of course the first thing I noticed about him. With George, the first thing I noticed was his height, which was well over six feet tall. But while I could get really freaked out in the presence of really tall people (like the time my grandfather made me shake hands with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), George was so friendly, and so mellow and gentle in his mannerisms, that he didn't spook me at all. Just the opposite, really; he had such a quietly engaging presence that it was impossible not to enjoy being around him. For the next few years, Ted and George were permanent fixtures in my life, "cool uncles" who I saw at the apartment on E. William, or (once my dad moved out of that apartment and into a house with me and my sister) at weekend poker or softball games. From the point of view of an uncoordinated seven-year-old, they and their friends all looked like All Stars on the softball diamond, but George stood out with his towering flies to center, his loping runs around the bases, his powerful throws from third base — and, of course, his theatrical shoulder-clutches and cries of agony that inevitably followed every successful throw.
George and Ted were guys I could talk to about baseball, music or history, or just exchange good-natured shit with; they spoke to me like I was an equal, which I always appreciated greatly. But I also got a buzz just from hearing the witty repartee that would fly between them and my dad. Honestly I learned so much from just listening to these three brilliant men talk. In fact, one of my favorite childhood memories is of hearing the enthusiastic rumble of their voices from down the hall while I was falling asleep. Even if I couldn't always make out what they were saying, I could hear humor, intelligence and warmth in their voices, and it always made me feel comforted and safe. Many years later, when I was sharing a house with my Lava Sutra bandmates, I would often call it a night before the rest of them, just so that I could drift off to the similarly soothing sounds of their conversations...
George and Ted both moved west by the end of the 70s; my dad moved east, and my sister and I ended up in the midwest. My interactions with George and Ted became understandably fewer and farther between, but they maintained a strong connection with my dad, and it was always a treat on the rare occasions when we'd wind up in the same place. I saw George a couple of times in the late 80s and early 90s when he was at Princeton, but we didn't really reconnect until 2003, when he was at NYU and I saw him at my dad's 65th birthday party. I'd heard that he'd been through a rough battle with cancer, but he was still very much the same George I knew and loved, with a gleam in his eye that seemed to say, "We were both blessed with good brains — let's see how much fun we can have with them!" I spent almost the entire party catching up and shooting the shit with him; from then on, just about every time I came to New York, I tried to make time to have dinner with him and my father. George was a man who relished good food and good bottles as much as good conversation, and our dinners together typically involved plenty of all three.
I took the above pic in the fall of 2008, at a Greek restaurant in the West Village. (That's my dad on the left.) As our dinners together went, this was one of my all-time favorites; actually, I have no memory at all of the food, but I do remember the three of us getting extremely lit and progressively more silly as the night went on. Early in the meal, we noticed a leather-clad Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson taking a table outside, and "The Godfather of Punk" soon became an unwitting and utterly oblivious target of our wine-fueled mirth. At one point during dinner, my father asked me "Where's the loo?" — and, mishearing his question as "Where's Lou?", I gestured to the table out front where Lou was sitting. My father then took a brief step towards the door with a hand on his belt buckle, indicating in subtly comic fashion that he was heading outside to piss in Lou's lap. He didn't, of course, but the very notion of it was enough to have the three of us in tears. The tears of laughter returned about a half hour later, when we began debating whether or not we should send Lou and Laurie dessert; it was George's opinion that we should send them a creme brulée, since there couldn't be anything more outré than sending Lou Reed a creme brulée. And really, how could I argue with such unassailably rhyming logic? Alas, in our inebriated state we failed to notice that they'd already left...
Lou's gone now, of course, and so is George — liver disease got Lou, and cancer got George — and I don't think the West Village will ever be the same for me without either of them. It broke my heart when I learned a few months ago that George's time was drawing near, but I'm thankful that I was able to tell him how much I loved him, and what an important figure he'd been in my life. My heart also breaks for his wife, Ilene, and for Ted and my dad. I can't imagine how awful it must be to lose your partner in life; but I also think about my closest friends, especially the ones I've known for 35 years or more, and I can't imagine the pain of losing them.
But that's not the note I want to finish this on. Rather, let's go out with my favorite story involving George, Ted and my dad, one that I wasn't there for but have heard many times. Sometime back in the 80s, around the time the above pic was taken, the three of them got together for a "dudes weekend" in the Bay Area. At some point, as one does, they decided that a three-man softball game was in order; they went to three sporting goods stores in search of a wooden softball bat, only to be rebuffed at every turn. "We've been to three stores," they complained to the salesperson at the third store, "and not one of them has a wooden softball bat!" The clerk just stared at them quizzically. "How long since you guys played softball?" he asked.
Making due with an aluminum bat, George, Ted and Irwin made a beeline for the park, and spent the afternoon throwing, swinging, running, and generally engaging in the sort of tumultuous merriment that would render them all nearly paralyzed when they woke up the following day. Utterly exhausted by the end of the game, they piled into Ted's convertible, and drove across the East Bay in search of dinner. The sun was setting as the car cruised across the Bay Bridge, and they turned on the radio. Call it poetry, magic, sheer coincidence or all of the above, but there it was — "Take It Easy" by the Eagles.
Rest in peace, George. I hope you found a wonderful banquet with stimulating conversation and an excellent wine list waiting for you in the next life. Say hey to Lou Reed for me, ask him if he'd like a creme brulée, and remind him not to let the sound of his own wheels drive him crazy.