On the set of "Young Brother Gets Coffee."
(l. to r.) Zack Hagan, Jesse, Andrew Ellis, Me, Manuel Santini, and (on ground) Jack Schurman.
(l. to r.) Zack Hagan, Jesse, Andrew Ellis, Me, Manuel Santini, and (on ground) Jack Schurman.
As anyone knows who frequents this blog or has a working mouse and can check the previous post, over a month has gone by since my last entry. Though I admit that I’m not the most consistent blogger in the world, never in the two years of this blog's existence have I allowed so much time to go by without a post.
There is a reason.
I never thought I’d ever use the past tense to talk about my friend Jesse Thompkins, III. Not just because he was one of the healthiest, most athletically gifted people I knew, and not because he was one of those annoying people who didn’t need to exercise to be ripped, and not because he had superhuman—literally, superhuman—foot speed. But it’s for some other reason that, for a month now, I've been unable to understand. He was just the last person—and I mean the last human being on the face of the earth--who I thought, expected, or could conceive of as being the correct answer to the following question: “Which best friend of yours will be hit by an out of control S.U.V. on August 3, 2008, while standing at a street corner, and minding his business, in the middle of a jog, on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, in the same Brooklyn neighborhood you both called home for the past two years?”
But maybe that’s just another way of saying that I wish he was not the answer to this question. But I still can’t—and almost won’t—believe that he is.
Jesse Thompkins? There's no way.
We were college friends, who became life friends, who became neighbors, drinking buddies, The Wire: Season 4 marathon viewers, and collaborators on a few of his short films. And, up until now, I’ve found it nearly impossible to write anything here.
This is partly because, of the five people I count as actual readers of this blog, Jesse was probably two of them. Here’s a good example: I do this thing on my blog sometimes where I write some stuff after I’ve smoked some weed. I’m very creative, so I call them “High Posts.” There have been a few of them, and they are mostly unreadable.
My last such post is dated June 4, 2008. I remember I was walking home late from work that night and ran into a friend in the neighborhood. He was chilling on his front stoop with another guy when he pulled out a joint and, before you knew it, there I was: high.
I walked home in that pleasant daze that only comes with having smoked a blunt on a deliciously warm summer night in Brooklyn after a long day of work. I don’t know if that feeling only comes because it was a summer night in Brooklyn, but it being a summer night in Brooklyn surely didn’t hurt. I arrived home, plopped down in front of the computer, and blogged my high brains out…
Not an hour later, barely enough time to polish off a bag of UTZ Sour Cream and Onion Potato chips, there was an email in my Inbox from Jesse with the subject line “You.”
The body of the email read, simply: “blazed, son?”
Who knows what Jesse was doing checking my blog at midnight on a Wednesday. I was probably going to wake up the next morning only to forget having written it. But there he was, not only checking it, but emailing me, in what is probably the closest approximation of real-time that one might ever experience while high and on the internet. Naturally, I called him back right after I got the email, and he let me repeat the story of how I had run into so-and-so, smoked, wrote some shit, and posted it. And we laughed.
A few weeks ago, on August 17th, a crisp, beautiful Sunday afternoon, I found myself motoring away from a small island in the center of Lake George. This, for the past three years, has been the sight of an annual summer tradition called Camp Lo.
From the beginning, before I even knew where Lake George was or before I’d ever really hung out with any of Jesse’s high school buddies, who were the ones hosting the trip, Jesse had been an ardent, pro bono evangelizer for the Camp.
And it was because of his enthusiasm that I decided to take my chances and try it out. Needless to say, the first year, and the year after that, were two of the most enjoyable, quotable, and memorable weekends of my life, and no one looked forward to summer and to Camp Lo every year more anxiously than Jesse did. He made clothing, grooming, and career decisions with Camp Lo in mind, and strictly as a disinterested party—you can’t help but have that kind of enthusiasm rub off on you.
I was looking forward to Camp Lo more than I ever had this year. There were going to be more people than ever (over 50), and this year’s trip was also to be a kind of goodbye for Jesse and I. He was going to leave for LA at the end of the month to sell his screenplay, and to be closer to his girlfriend, who lived there but was coming camping (another victim of his proselytizing), and I was going to start a three-year writing program at Syracuse. For a couple days, we would eat grilled meat, go tubing, toss the football, drink a lot of beer, and sit around the campfire laughing about something or other.
I had even imagined the moment on the pier when I would step into the motor boat waving goodbye to Jesse and his girlfriend as the campsite, the island, our summers in Brooklyn living a couple blocks from each other—writers, neighbors, and friends—slowly receded into the distance. I wouldn’t have a reason to get choked up, because he was about to go to Hollywood and make it big with a beautiful girl at his side. I was the one who was disappearing into the cold, dark, uncharted wilderness of upstate New York for a few years to write some shit that people will probably never read.
Instead, it was August 17th, 2008 (the real August 17th). It would be the last day of my life that I was younger than Jesse. He was fifteen days my senior, a fellow Scorpio. And everyday after August 17th, 2008, I would always be older. I would live to see one more day that he hadn’t. I would be 27, and he would still be 26. I would celebrate my 30th birthday, and he would still be 26. I would be 40, 50, 60, and he would still be 26. Like the character we created some lost Brooklyn night, he would still be Young Brother.
It wasn’t until very recently that I was able to wrestle down this sense of guilt and the recurrent questions of Why Jesse? And why not me?
Our paths had been almost identical. We both grew up in the South and moved to the big city. We both went to Columbia. We both loved movies and had an embarrassingly vast knowledge of 90s hip-hop. And for a little over a year, spanning two of the most memorable summers I will probably ever see as long as I live, we lived a few blocks from each other in one of the most vibrant neighborhoods of the most vibrant place this world has ever known: Fort Greene, Brooklyn; Brooklyn, New York.
And it is unspeakably strange now to be the Young Brother who must continue: the one who is both lucky enough to stay up late into the evening writing this, but also the one who is saddled with what will be a lifelong weight of memory, loss, and empty thoughts of what might have been.
I have always had the bad habit of looking at the present through the eyes of an older version of myself. And in these daydreams, Jesse has always been there. I imagined us, two old dudes at a bar in Fort Greene. Jesse the distinguished auteur, his cell phone ringing ceaselessly with calls from production studios wanting him to direct their next superhero thriller. (Lord knows, he would have gone Hollywood in a heartbeat.) And me, the writer-friend. These are the pleasant thoughts, the happy daydreams that, embarrassing as they are, keep you going when you’re in the position we were in. And maybe, at that bar of the future, we are doing a toast to those years as young writers in Brooklyn when nobody knew our names, when we loaned each other 20 bucks periodically for laundry and went to rooftop parties where the kegs ran out in under an hour.
Then maybe we shake hands at this bar of the future. He goes his way, back to the wife and kids. And I go mine.
But now I see that that pleasant, sustaining daydream of mutual success, of kinship through art, struggle, and life, that brotherhood lasting into our old years, was always a dream. I am alone at the bar. Maybe I turn to one of the young kids, some other self-styled 20 year old artist, and I say, the way Jesse always had: “What’s happening, captain?” And maybe this young brother gives me a pitying little head nod.
Thinking about that phrase (“What’s happening, captain?”), I’m suddenly remembering the various times I ran into Jesse on the street. It wasn’t uncustomary for us to run into each other, living as we did only a few blocks apart. But when we did, I was always happy, surprised, and wore the shock on my face. I would throw up my hands as if to say: Jesse! What are you doing here?!
And Jesse, who would spot me at the same time, would stare at me like a stranger. And for a split second, I wouldn’t be sure if he’d recognized me. And then, real slow and deliberate-like, with a little fake-serious pout, he would nod his head. As though he had seen me coming or somehow knew he’d run into me.
I remember one such time, I saw him coming out of the dollar store on Myrtle with something big and boxy and cumbersome in a plastic bag.
Jesse! What a coincidence! I thought, smiling. He gave me the slow nod. What’s in the bag, I wanted to know. And very quickly, he dropped the fake-serious “pleased to meet you” act, and started to gush about what was inside.
He took it out just a little bit to show me what couldn’t be anything other than one of those miniature basketball hoops you hang over your bedroom door. I was confused and a bit disappointed. What was he doing spending money, a dollar even, on something as stupid as a miniature basketball hoop?
“Do you know how fun a miniature basketball hoop is?” Jesse asked me.
“Whatever,” I said with a wave of my hand. (I was always waving off his ideas.)
All the while, I was thinking, What are you doing buying stupid kids’ toys when you should be busy working on your opus, your life’s work, your script?! He probably had a feeling that that was part of the reason behind my disappointment at his new purchase.
Not long after that, I was over at Jesse’s house. Who knows what we were doing or talking about? Maybe we were getting ready to go to a party in the neighborhood. Maybe we were discussing the next possible “Young Brother” short. Whatever it was, I noticed a miniature basketball hoop hanging over a doorway in his apartment. Then I noticed the little bright orange ball. [Mik: I literally just realized that I'm holding the ball in the picture up there.] Which is when some nerve or synapse long-buried in my brain, some instinct ingrained in my male nature, fired and said: Must. Play. With. Ball.
Before I knew it I was going nuts on the miniature hoop. Doing crazy spin dunks and no look shots. Wow, I remember thinking. Who would have ever thought that a miniature basketball hoop could be so much…
I looked over at Jesse. He was watching me, nodding with a sly smile and raised eyebrows: “See,” he said. “I told you.”
And to understand the way he said “I told you” is to understand a huge part of Jesse. He didn’t say it in an I-told-you-so way. He said it like a kid who was happy to reveal to another kid (this kid) a great secret of life: that one doesn’t always need to take oneself so seriously all the time, that it is good to have fun.
And being Jesse’s friend, if it was anything, was great fun. He was one of the only people I know who wrote his own jokes. Most of them weren’t very good jokes, which Jesse was aware of (and which made them somehow even funnier). He would make this face right after he dropped a new punch-line. It was a face both embarrassed and proud, like he’d farted and didn’t care if you smelled it. It was a Jesse face.
This period in my life was full of chapters and chapters of history we accumulated, walking, talking, boozing, partying, laughing, and working together. And thinking about it now, nestled as I am in this strange new town around these strange new people, my time with Jesse takes on a taint of unreality, of folklore, of myth. We couldn’t have been that happy. We couldn’t have drank that much. We couldn’t have cared about our art that strongly. Broke and often unemployed and eating more pizza than we cared to admit, we couldn’t have had that much fun….
But, my dear 3 other readers, it’s all true. We were that happy. It really was that great.
And, to you, Jesse: I’m not sure if you they get wireless up where you are now, but I hope you keep checking in on me from time to time. I want you and everyone who reads this to know that I am grateful our paths crossed in this life.
Nowadays, in this strange post-Jesse world, in which it feels like anything can happen, in which everyday seems somehow more sacred, surprising, and real than the one that came before it, I look down at my forearm and remember, now and forever, what a wise young brother taught me about life and about art and about friendship.
And I give great thanks.