Grown men don’t usually refer to their friends as “best friends”. We have friends, buddies, pals, associates, peers, and even bros – but most of us left the tag “best friends” back in grade school.
I met John in 2006. I was 22 years old and was preparing to move to Chicago from Pittsburgh. He’d just made the same move in reverse. I pulled up beside the Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church basement entrance, the piano outro from “Squirming Coil” blaring. I sat in the car through the end of the solo, and he came to the window.
He asked me, “When’s this from?” That was all I needed to hear to know we’d be buds.
“Clifford Ball,” I replied. (It’s the version of the song I’m listening to as I write this.)
He smiled. “I love this, man. Page’s piano gets me, especially on this.”
I got out of the car, giving him a hug and introducing myself.
“John,” he said. His voice was rough from years of smoking and carried a heavy midwestern accent. “You’re the guy moving to Chicago, right? They told me I needed to meet you. I’m from Chicago!”
I liked getting to twelve-step meetings early. Like, really early. No one else was there from a meeting promising over 60 in attendance except for me, John, and Gary – Gary made the coffee every week.
We rapped about music. We both loved Phish and the Grateful Dead – I pointed out my wall-`o-stickers on the back of my `98 sedan, over 30 of them covering every available inch of space on the hood and bumper. Every show I attended back then was preceded by long stints in the parking lots. I was vending or looking for the perfect stickers or t-shirts to add to my collection of Phish-related accoutrements. John was impressed and expressed it in that genuine way that told me that he loved my collection of stickers as much as I did. He was downright enthusiastic about all of it. We connected. We’d be more than buds.
John was new to recovery as well as to town. I had about 7 years free from chemicals and my active addiction, and I wanted for him to be my new recovery partner-in-crime. I was always looking for other recovering people who liked the same music as I did, since I didn’t really know anyone who was as obsessed as I was who at the same time lived post-trauma as I was living.
We exchanged numbers, and quickly after that first meeting, we got to talking every day. He’d call me when someone pissed him off at work (most days), when he was listening to a killer jam from a ‘77 Dead concert that he wanted me to listen to along with him, when he wanted to hang out and watch a movie, or when the day was one whose name ended in “y”. I called him, too, especially when I was anxious and wanted someone to get my mind off of school in Chicago. I moved back to Pittsburgh after that, and we were constant companions.
We talked for – and this is no exaggeration – hundreds of hours in the latter part of that decade. I gave him rides to meetings, we stayed out late together – often whiling away midnight hours at Eat-n-Park Restaurant. My parents and I ate at the restaurant in Carnegie where he was a server and over which he lived in a crappy (but loved) apartment. We went to the hookah lounge near the University of Pittsburgh regularly. We daydreamed together about what it would be like if Phish came back. He stayed clean for over a year, and I had a new best friend whom I loved very much.
In late 2008, after I’d moved to Utah, Phish announced a return tour. I called John. I abandoned summer responsibilities apart from online teaching, and I went on tour. That year, I saw 38 Phish shows. John couldn’t join me for most of it – he was working nonstop and trying to hold it together recovery-wise.
He had not been as fortunate as me in remaining clean. He’d had a longer road. He’d been to prison and so had a record that made reentry into normal life more challenging. He didn’t have the resources I had. He had multiple decades of trauma, whereas I could count my past abuses in mere years. For most addicts, there’s little chance of survival let alone recovery. At the same time, any one of us at any time can get clean, lose the desire to use drugs, and remain clean, improving our lives and halting the cycle of addiction as we move through our lives. So there’s always hope. And I always have hoped for John. I’ve done what I could along the way.
But I digress.
John and I met for the Phish concert in Burgettstown in 2009, and my two other best friends – yeah, I have more than one – were there with us – Ari and Mark. (This is when I can’t help but to cry.) John, Mark, and I danced our asses off. We lost track of Ari, my dear brother and a beloved friend since early childhood. Ari had his own continuing struggles with addiction, and despite his love for the same band, he wasn’t even with us for the 6-song, 30+-minute encore that blew right through curfew. Ari would be gone to us more completely as of May 2010, when he died in his mid-20s of what must have been his sixth or seventh overdose. When Phish plays “Joy,” I think of him and cry – every time.
John, Mark and I boogied like there was no tomorrow. There was a tomorrow, though, and the next show was a 7-hour drive away. We got in the car together to get a move on to Deer Creek in Indiana and then to two shows at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin. This was a challenging four-day trek, actually, but I’d dare to say that the three of us would have great difficulty finding a time when we were happier, together or apart. We rolled along westward and then northward, rocking out to our favorite Dead and Phish tunes. We got stuck in traffic, peed on the side of the road, and stopped in Chicago to hold up the Bean and to listen to John share his love for favorite places in that hometown.
In Indiana, there were tornadic thunderstorms, and we fled the venue with everyone else as the show halted at setbreak. The sky lit up in terrifying patterns of white flashes, and we hoped against a tornado actually touching down in the parking lot. Set two didn’t begin until after 11pm, and it still rained with fury – but we took to the lawn and danced as we soaked to our bones. The next night, in Alpine Valley, John showed me his “Ya Mar’ Dance”. He waved his arms and shook his hips. I showed him my “Ya Mar’ Dance”. It was his dance, but I added a thrust. Then came the longer song, “Bathtub Gin.” I showed him my “‘Bathtub Gin’ Dance”. It was the same as my “‘Ya Mar’ Dance”. We continued like this all that night and carried the joke into the next evening’s festivities – we’d say, “Hey! Look! It’s my [insert song name] dance!” We’d do the same basic movement as before and laugh our asses off. Sometimes we’d throw in something a bit different, but usually it was something really simple – not the kind of dance you’d usually boast about, and totally boring. The more boring, actually, the harder we laughed.
John hadn’t had enough money for the concert tickets, but I needed him to be there with me, so I spotted him whatever he needed to get there, to eat, and for the Amtrak back home. I bought him a train ticket, and Mark and I dropped him off at Union Station in Chicago, where we played like we were in the movie The Untouchables before turning and driving back to Pittsburgh. I had a flight in a few days to get to Red Rocks in Colorado, but I always spent as much time with family as I could when seeing Phish back east.
Last I saw John was in 2018, when I attended a professional conference in Chicago, where he’d been living for some time. Things had gotten bad, better, worse, and then better again. He’d lived in Wisconsin, Chicago, and Ohio since leaving Pittsburgh – and he was back in Chi Town again. We had lunch. I seem to remember another trip to Chicago when I bought him dinner and we went to a movie downtown together, but I can’t quite put together the when of that visit.
We talked less this past year. Every time we did, we told each other we loved one another. He texted me a week ago, saying that things were bad, and that he wanted to catch up. I had been in the desert with no reception and texted him when I got back into Salt Lake. He replied once more a few days later, but we never connected. I have spent a lot of time wondering over the last few years when things would turn for the worse instead of the better after something awful happened to John. This turns out to be when it went that way. It’s inevitable for addicts. We either stop using drugs or we die.
I looked on the web for an obituary but couldn’t find one, so I wrote this as an offering to his name. John was my best friend for many years, and with his passing I have lost an unquantifiable amount of happiness.
I love you, John. I’m sure I’ll cry at Phish’s music even more frequently now. I will get some happiness when I do my “Moma Dance” Dance, though. Thanks for both.
You’re still my best friend.