Letters from JK: November 13, 1987

It’s a late Monday afternoon this past mid-June, Martha’s birthday. Part of the celebration is take-out from our favorite Indian place in Lexington, and I’m just about to leave to pick it up when the mail truck pulls into our cul-de-sac. There’s a surprise for me, an envelope from Judy. I really must head out, but I do take time to open it. Inside is a brief note from her—“I found this and thought you’d want to have it”—and something else that leaves me breathless: a fragment of a letter from James, something he never finished. I glance only at the first couple of lines.

The rest will have to wait until after dinner is retrieved and served. I spend most of the time in the car wondering what I’ve been missing for 35 years.

Judy has been helping James’s children in the wake of his death, searching for important papers and sorting through various boxes at his house. In the course of things she had come across his collection of correspondence from the 80s and beyond, including letters from yours truly; the partial missive was laying nearby. She’s 100% right about my interest.

It’s undated, less than two full pages in length. He is indeed writing from a bar—Lynagh’s is an Irish-style pub on the outskirts of UK’s campus.

As I read through the first time, I’m trying to pin down when it might have been written. The second paragraph begins, “Life in Lexville is pretty great these days. My teaching is a blast, and my classes are actually interesting and not seriously deadly.” That places it in the fall of 1987—he didn’t have an assistantship during the 86-87 year. James’s father had died unexpectedly toward the end of September—the overall happy tone initially makes me wonder if it isn’t from before that. On the other hand, there’s also mention of final projects.

It almost wouldn’t be a James letter without an external stimulus being remarked upon.

In his head, he’s encouraging them to move on to a nearby establishment.

Next, he gives brief updates on various Transy-era folks I know: Suzanne and Amir, who are fellow CS grad students; Warren, who’s back in town pursuing a Master’s in English; and on-and-off-and-currently-on-again girlfriend Stacey (she “continues to expound on the immorality of Artificial Intelligence”).

We’re quickly approaching the end of this gift out of nowhere, and the last sentence has a vital clue to the letter’s date.

A quick internet search reveals the S&C appearance occurred on 11/13/87. By day’s end, I’ve found clips on YouTube. Cher wants no part of a vocal reunion, but of course Dave manages to goad her into it.

After I finish my second passthrough, I text THANK YOU THANK YOU to Judy; we then talk on the phone for a while—James’s memorial service is coming up in less than two weeks and she is helping with the planning. She speculates that he simply forgot about these pages after stuffing them in his bag as he left Lynagh’s (he did write and send another letter about ten days later).

This afternoon, on the 35th anniversary of this newly (re-)discovered small slice of James’s life, I drove to Lexington and retraced his steps on that Friday evening.

Lynagh’s is about halfway between the house he was renting and his home-away-from-home in the Patterson Office Tower at UK. My guess is that he went to the bar directly from POT to kick off his weekend.

Suzanne tells me the office she and James shared was on the 8th floor of Patterson. I was in the building occasionally as an undergraduate but don’t recall visiting him there during our grad school years.

Not unexpectedly, the doors to Patterson are locked on Sundays. Just as I am giving the last door a try, a man who must have an office somewhere within walks up and lets me in by scanning his ID on a reader. I check out floors 7-9, searching in vain for computer science office space. I then recall that UK’s CS department was integrated into the College of Engineering years ago and moved across campus. I feel confident that behind one of the doors I passed by that now houses teaching assistants for the math department was the room where James and Suzanne had their office.

As I walk down Euclid Ave toward Lynagh’s, I try to imagine being 23-year-old James, messenger bag slung over my shoulder, slowly ambling along in the dark on a warmish Friday November evening (Weather Underground claims 11/13/87 was a sunny day in the mid-60s). I’m paying attention to the buildings as I pass; while the trees must be taller than they were then, there’s nothing on this stretch that looks less than forty years old. The only mind trick to employ on my way today, then, is ignoring the temps in the mid-30s.

Lynagh’s is part of University Plaza, a strip mall on the corner of Euclid and Woodland Avenues. I’ve decided to go in and have a drink in memory of the occasion (not a killer beer, though, as I have to drive myself home afterward—most likely I’ll get a watered-down Coke). There’s just one small issue: the place is closed. I find on my phone a Reddit thread—take that as you will—that claims they were closed down several months ago, after insurability issues for (take your pick from several reasons provided, most involving serving to underage patrons) arose. The empty parking lot should have been a clue that something was amiss.

Thus thwarted on this portion of the experience, I carry on down Woodland Ave for several blocks, past a number of lovely homes that must be close to a century old. A right on Central, then the third left onto Old Lafayette Avenue (the “Old” wasn’t there in the day—a number of years ago Lexington re-christened some streets to facilitate emergency service response). 141 is the second house on the left.

It still looks much as I remember it. If I’m recalling correctly, James was renting only the front half of the lower level of the house. The TV was set up in that front room on the right; I’d guess he would watch Letterman there with the lights off.

I hang around on the street for just a few minutes, then begin the walk back to my car, which is parked not far from Lynagh’s. After I climb in, I take the letter from my pocket (yes, I’ve brought it with me) and read it aloud. I’m mourning my friend but am grateful for having learned about that November 13 of years ago. It wasn’t any sort of message to me from the beyond, I know. Nonetheless, it carries an immediacy now it wouldn’t have held had he stuck those two pages in with his next letter way back when.

Now that I’m back home, it’s time to watch a little Letterman. Their performance of the song that became even more famous a few years later for playing at 6:00am on February 2 in Punxsutawney, PA comes near the very end.

Postscript: Buried in my own bin of letters from friends is one I started in June 1988 to college friend Kathy Jo. I think it may be time to pass that along.

Letters From JK: Late August, 1985

Those attending the service held in late June for my college roommate James had the opportunity to share memories of our too-soon departed dear friend. I elected not to focus on the times we spent together on campus in my remarks; instead, I used the two dozen or so letters he’d sent me between 1983 and 1989 as a jumping-off point for telling folks what he had meant to me. The period of most frequent exchange was the two years following our graduation from Transy in 1986, but we also had written each other over various college breaks.

These letters are treasures, alternately funny and serious, joyful and sarcastic, thoughtful and aggravated. Much like James himself.

During the summer of 1985, James and I lived on opposite ends of the fourth floor of Clay Hall. Mark H moved in with me, since we both had what was essentially a paid internship at IBM, while James was programming for TU’s Computing Services for the second summer in a row. By early- to mid-August, we had both decamped from Lexington on a short break before our senior year began.

There were two exchanges of letters over the last ten days of that August. In honor of what would have been James’s 58th birthday, here are highlights from those pieces of mail. The first is dated 8/21; the second is undated but likely written on 8/28. Some of you checking this out knew James and may hear his voice in your head as you read the excerpts below. Even if he’s a complete stranger to you, though, I hope I can offer a bit of insight into what my friend was like, at least around the time he was turning 21. (I also hope he wouldn’t be upset with me for doing this.)

Item: James is working on an online bulletin board system (BBS).
In recent months, a student a couple of years behind us has gotten a BBS up and running on Transy’s mainframe. Known as IS/TU (Information System/Transylvania University, I believe), it has message boards and a chat function, and can be reached from off-campus by dial-up. James apparently has had the chance to look a little under IS/TU’s hood while working for Computing Services over the summer and has spied an opportunity to make improvements. Much of August has been spent sketching out his own BBS, for the moment called ‘SNOT! (get it?). He goes on at length, particularly about how little unusable space ‘SNOT! will create by using dynamic message length instead of fixed length. He’s hoping he can finish the coding by December and that it will replace IS/TU because of its awesomeness.

I have to show up on campus a few days earlier than most other returning students (not long after Labor Day) to help with new student move-in and orientation, so he plans to move in at the same time I do in order to hang out in the computer lab all weekend and get working on it.

Alas, real life and schoolwork interceded; as far as I know, ‘SNOT! never got much off the ground.

(Side note: That fall, IS/TU became quite popular with a segment of the Transy student body. A couple of fellow CS majors discovered that it could be quite easily hacked and proceeded to do so. James and I were on the fringe of this action; my single contribution to the project was writing a program that would capture the number of logins for each account and then apply a sort routine to create a list of the top 10 most frequent users—yes, while completely skeevy, I recognize this was resonant with other interests in my life.)

Item: He’s already thinking about post-collegiate nostalgic get-togethers.
One Saturday in July, a number of the folks in our circle who were around for the summer took a day trip to Mammoth Cave National Park. We had a grand time, inspiring the following last-minute addition to the first letter.

There have been a few confabs across the years but unsurprisingly, life took us all in various directions, making an annual gathering difficult if not impossible.

But guess what came up in conversation at dinner after the memorial service? Expression of the desire to meet up regularly at occasions other than funerals.

Item: He’s enthusiastic about recent LP purchases.
In the week between the two letters, he travels the thirty miles between home to Lexington to run some errands. While there he drops by Camelot Music (remember those?) in Fayette Mall and picks up “two cheap albums.” The first is One Hit Wonders!, a compilation filled with tunes from 15-20 years ago. He notes it includes (among others) “The Rapper,” “Psychotic Reaction,” “Ride Captain Ride,” and “Smile a Little Smile for Me.” Several of the songs he lists are preceded by “!!! ->” to indicate particular ardor.

As for the second, well, I’ll let him tell you.

Over the years, it’s become increasingly common for me to think of this passage when John, Cass, Michelle, and Denny cross my mind/come on the radio.

Item: He’s having an existential crisis.
The most serious segment in these letters begins, “In other depressing news and something which will make you fear that I’ll come running at you with a knife in the middle of the night, I’ve been really ‘messed up’ lately.” He goes on to detail one reason why he stays up so late, particularly when he’s at home.

This apparently has been going on for about a year-and-a-half, and to his credit, he indicates he’s considering counseling.

In typical James fashion, he ends by trying to lighten the mood: “Why do I suddenly feel like I’m in a 501 Jeans commercial.”

Item: He’s making plans for a late October show at WTLX.
By coincidence, James’s then-girlfriend, my ex-gf (with whom James has remained very good friends after our breakup), and Jon Anderson of Yes all share a birthday, and James is settling on what he wants to play during his 10pm-midnight shift on the Thursday of that week.

My ex was well-known to hold strongly feminist views; right or wrong, James liked to tease/prod/provoke his friends from time to time. I do have doubts that the show came together as laid out here (except for the Yes portion).

Near the end of the second letter, out of nowhere, comes a paragraph full of kindness:

I was hesitant to include this; however, I believe it says more about James than it does me. I’ve remarked to people recently that James and I perhaps weren’t best friends in college, but rather the right level of friend to be roommates. Nevertheless, there was a period of roughly three years, maybe beginning right around this time, where we opened up to one another about our highs and lows, particularly in letters. I’m incredibly grateful for that, and for having held on to evidence of it.

Even though the end of October is eight weeks out, here are a love song from the past and something featuring Jon Anderson’s voice. I’ll skip the sexist stuff.