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.