Jerome died last week. There was a point in time when I would have called him my best friend or even my brother. I’m older now, though, and I don’t have romantic notions of friendship like I used to. I don’t really believe in such a thing as a best friend but I do believe in such a thing as someone I can’t imagine going through life without, and he was definitely in that category.
Last Tuesday, July 5, he and his mother were supposed to drive from their home in Ontario, to somewhere in Claremont. Just prior to this happening, Jerome told his mother he needed to run a quick errand and that he’d be back shortly. As he was driving in the slow lane of the eastbound 10 freeway, he had to suddenly swerve out of the way of some debris on the road. As he swerved to the left, someone else was merging into that lane and they honked their horn and so he swerved back over to the right and as he did this, he apparently overcompensated, and drove into the back of a tractor trailer that was parked on the shoulder of the freeway. This is the article that ran in the next day’s paper.
Just a bit of fair warning, this isn’t going to be a starry-eyed eulogy, filled with endless anecdotes about what a great guy he was. I really don’t think Jerome would approve of me spending a whole lot of time grieving or waxing nostalgic about our friendship…he fucking hated that shit. To be painfully honest, I think he’d think I was being an idiot to write about him at all. However, this really isn’t about him. Like everything else I write here, this is about me. But if I’m going to disregard his wishes, the least I can do is write about him honestly. I think he’d respect that, even if he thought it was stupid of me.
I first met Jerome back in 1983-84, when I was still a freshman in high school. I was a huge comic book nerd and he owned a comic book shop located in The Packing House in Claremont. The first time I saw Jerome, he was wearing a shitty yellow t-shirt (I think it was a Secret Wars shirt), 501’s, glasses and he was sporting a thick, full beard and long hair that made him look like the hippie he really, really wasn’t. I vaguely remember asking him about some comic book and then wishing there was a chair I could sit in half an hour later, as he still hadn’t finished answering me. I wound up talking about comics with him for over an hour that day (the first of literally thousands of similar conversations) and to this day I still judge comic shops by how willingly and how well they carry on a conversation about comics and related pop-culture.
Over the next few years, I’d go to Jerome’s store as often as possible, spending hours in there, going through the back-issue bins and talking about how fucking great Frank Miller’s Daredevil was. It was because of Jerome that I discovered Nexus, Badger, Matt Wagner’s Grendel, American Flagg!, Love & Rockets, and Tintin. Once I got my driver’s license, I was at his store as much as I could get away with. I’d spend weekends hanging out with Jerome, smoking, eating Juanita’s, watching Gidget and The Munsters on his shitty little TV, and talking, talking, talking about everything. I’d stop by the store on my way home from school and/or work every weekday. It was through Jerome that I met the first of several lifelong friends I’d meet through him, Chris. When Jerome wasn’t at the store, Chris and I would hang out and talk. I remember walking into the store one day to see Jerome, clean-shaven with short hair, and wearing a suit. I couldn’t get over how completely fucking weird it was to see him that way, which is funny because that’s how he spent all but the last two or three years of his life (the short hair and clean-shaven bit that is, he didn’t really do suits). Jerome was the first adult (he was seven years older than me) to treat me as an equal and I will never forget him for that.
Sometime in late 1986, Jerome closed his comic store and I was devastated. There were other comic shops but they were all crap in comparison. However, shortly after graduating high school, in 1987, I ran into him again, while hanging out at Benji’s in Upland one night. I said hello and we wound up talking until five or six in the morning. When you’re young and you hang out in a coffee shop all night and don’t get home until the sun comes up, you’re either going to hate how tired you are the next day and vow to never do that again, or you’re going to accept that you’re going to see a lot less of your family for the next several years and say your goodbyes to the part of the world that requires you to be up and alert prior to noon. I chose that second one and stuck with it for way, way too long. By 1988, he and I were inseparable, spending almost every night of the week in one coffee shop or another, talking into the early hours of the morning.
Things started to change back in 2000, when I got my first real job. Jerome would want to hang out still but he’d want to hang out till two or three in the morning and my job required not only my presence but that I be awake, so there was just no way that was going to happen. However, we were now living together and we still got to see a lot of each other. But then, in 2003, in an uncharacteristically smart move, I asked my wife to marry me. Suddenly I was engaged and almost overnight our friendship changed. Annette moved in with me for a few months in the summer of 2003 and Jerome instantly moved out. He didn’t start renting somewhere else, he just started sleeping on the floor of his mother’s house, which was just next door. Both Annette and I felt completely awkward about the situation and I asked him to please move back in because we felt like we’d kicked him out of his own house. He wouldn’t hear of it. We moved into our first place in August and soon after, he took up residence in his house again. I saw him maybe three times during the course of my engagement. My bachelor party was clearly something he wasn’t interested in and, while he showed up, he wound up acting like such a dick that he pretty much ruined things for a few of the people there and managed to only dampen the mood for the rest of us. He was the best man at my wedding and he participated to the best of his ability, but was one of the first people to leave. Over the next five years, I don’t think I saw him more than twice and only spoke to him on the phone once. After a while he stopped returning my calls entirely and, after a while, I stopped calling.
This next part I’m going to be intentionally vague about, out of respect for his family. Out of the blue, in November, 2009, I got a call from him. He wanted to hang out and he wouldn’t stop talking about what a shitty friend he’d been. I told him he wasn’t a shitty friend and he said he was but could we meet anyway. Of course I said yes and I met up with him an hour later at a nearby Starbucks. When I got there, I damn near didn’t recognize him. His hair was long and messy, he was emaciated, his face expressionless, and he was staring vacantly into space. When I got right up next to his table, he looked at me and recognized me and said, “Hey guy.” I asked him how he was doing and he said, “I’m sorry, I’m just thinking about something, give me just a minute,” and his eyes left me and he went back to staring vacantly at nothing.
So I sat down and we just enjoyed the quiet for about twenty minutes and then he looked at me and said, “So what’s going on?” I asked what was going on with him and he gave me several different partial answers to that question and he kept repeating that he’d been a shitty friend to me and that he was so sorry. I kept telling him he wasn’t a shitty friend but he refused to listen to any argument to the contrary. After a few hours of erratic conversation followed by several periods of extended silence, I told him that he really needed some help. I told him that he needed help and very likely medication and to not get bent out of shape at me saying that since I’d been in therapy myself for about seven years at that point. He told me he didn’t want a doctor and he didn’t want medication and that he was fine. I told him that obviously wasn’t the case and if he wasn’t going to listen to what I had to say why’d he even bother calling me and he snapped back at me, “Because I really needed to be with a friend,” which instantly shamed me for reasons I’ll get into shortly. We spoke for a bit and then agreed to meet in a few days. We wound up settling into a regular weekly habit of meeting in Claremont and talking about everything for a few hours. For the first few weeks of that, he was very down on himself and kept calling himself a shitty friend and saying he was a bad person but that he was trying to improve. Slowly, however, he started to come out of that negativity and, over the course of about a year, started to be more and more recognizable as his old self (with all the good and bad that that implies), but there was always a hint – and sometimes a little more than a hint – that there was still a fair amount of darkness in the back of his mind.
Jerome was a weird guy. He was capable of severe cruelty and on more than one occasion, he said things that left me with no choice but to get up and walk away, usually telling him he was an asshole. There must have been twenty or thirty times I quietly wondered to myself why I didn’t just push him through a wall. And counting the number of times I wished he’d just shut the fuck up is a job no human is capable of. I don’t know how many times he’d be droning on about Orwell’s 1984, or the Chinese economy, or whatever the hell, and I’d declare it was time for me to leave and he’d say, “Just let me finish this thought,” and he’d continue droning on as we got the check, paid the check, left the tip, had one last cigarette, had another last cigarette, walked to the car, stood at the car, opened the door to the car, sat down in the car with the door open, sat in the car with the door closed and the window down, sat in the car with the door closed, the window down, and the motor running, and finally, he’d wrap it up as you were slowly backing out of your parking space.
When Jerome said, “Just let me finish this thought,” the next hour and a half of your life was forfeit…most of the time. There was actually a trick to getting away from him when he said that but most people never figured it out. I spent several years living with him and I eventually realized that there really isn’t any reason to ever be victimized by sociopaths. See, if I were to tell most people to fuck off, I’d be concerned with what they might think of me afterward. But with sociopaths, you really don’t have to worry about it since, most of the time, they aren’t giving you more than two seconds worth of thought. Strictly speaking, Jerome wasn’t a sociopath but there was definitely a sociopathic streak in there somewhere. There was a night when he and I were in the living room, having a conversation, and I had to get to bed since I had an important meeting early the next morning. He said, “Let me just finish this thought.”
And I responded with, “Fuck off, I have to get some sleep.”
A normal person would have had a negative reaction, but Jerome just shrugged his shoulders and said, “We’ll talk more tomorrow then.” That exact same dynamic probably happened a hundred different times while we lived together, and every single time I felt bad about being rude to him, but sometimes you just gotta get some sleep.
So. Having said all that, Jerome was capable of amazing kindness and generosity. Back in the mid 90’s, I was a fucking mess. I’d been doing my best to keep it a secret, but internally I was a neurotic maelstrom of self-loathing, pain, and anger and I was well on my way to having a complete breakdown. When that breakdown hit, I was living with Jerome and I found myself unemployed. I’ve written about this before, so without going into great detail, Jerome let me live in his house while I got my shit together and he let me live there for either incredibly cheap or for free, depending on my financial circumstance. I can’t think of a single other person who’d have let me do that while I took my sweet time figuring shit out. It is because of Jerome’s charity and generosity that I found myself in the position to ask the right woman to marry me when she finally came along. Years after I was out of that breakdown I expressed my gratitude to him and told him I’d never be able to repay him. He just told me he always knew it would be worth the wait to see me turn into the person he knew was in there and that seeing it happen was payment enough. And that sentence is the reason that, years later, when he snapped at me that he just wanted to be with a friend, I felt such shame. He’d done that. For me. And all those years later, I’d grown impatient with him after only two hours of conversation. It was then and there that I decided that if he needed me to shut the fuck up and be a friend, that I’d shut the fuck up and be a friend.
I’ve already written a lot and I haven’t even scratched the surface here, but I have one more story to tell and I have to tell it because it’s my favorite memory of him.
Back during The Breakdown Years, most of my friends and I were all hanging out at Nick’s Cafe in the Claremont Village. There was a girl who was working there at the time who we all pretty much loved to death. This is maybe 1998, so my memory is a bit fuzzy when it comes to the details, but her father-in-law (or father-in-law to be) was on his way home, when he got hit by a truck and died. As I recall, he was still young enough that his family really wasn’t prepared to deal with the cost of a funeral and – I’m just guessing at the numbers here – they needed approximately $1100. Bella was sitting with Jerome and I (and maybe others as well, I can’t remember) and was telling us this. Jerome asked her how much had been raised so far and she said something like $150 had been collected. Jerome then said he’d be right back and he got up and walked out of the cafe. We all sat there talking and at some point, he came back and found Bella and gave her an envelope with the difference (approximately $950) in it. When he gave Bella the envelope he told her the only condition was that his name not be mentioned. He wanted no credit for this – none. When I heard this, I told him he’d just done a genuinely great thing. His response was a dismissive, “Yeah, well, the guy needs to be buried and if I’m in a position to help get it done, then let’s get it fucking done.” If it had been someone else, he might not have helped and it’s not like he was at all close with the girl who lost her father-in-law, but he liked her well enough and he thought she was cool, so he decided to help.
And that was Jerome.