Shall I give Halloween a rest? I don’t much think so. Why me? In fact, I notice it growing on me day by day, and I’ve been paying more attention to its utility as, if not competition, at least a way to deflate and parody the true nature of the human condition. This is hardly original and I don’t mean it to be; it is just that I never saw that aspect of it as particularly effective until this holiday.
Since 2003 my own personal body count (consisting of close relatives and friends) has gone, if not through the roof, then through the back wall of the crematorium chamber in an unprecedented pileup. This includes one mother, one brother, three close friends, and a colleague, also a close friend. Over all of them leers the young, living face of madness, another close relative, like a scary clown mouth at the entrance to that crematorium.
Yesterday I heard of another. Gerald Durran Bowes, his brother told me by email, died four years ago, in 2004. He assumed I knew. While Gerry should probably not be included in a column about Halloween as if he were some absurd goblin, I wouldn’t expect his objection to being enlisted in making my point. From 1977, the year my son was born, when Gerry and I met as bartenders in McFeeley’s (in the historic Terminal Hotel, 23rd Street, near the Chelsea), and from the time he stayed with me for weeks at my home in Mexico, to the last time I saw him in Manhattan in 1994, we were friends. I had always assumed we would speak, see each other again and soon, very soon. I assumed too much. I allowed myself to lose touch with him and, as his brother pointed out, it was assumed that I had died from either drinking, heart failure, a recurrence of cancer, take your pick. Halloween is taking on the aspect of or merging more gracefully with its Mexican neighbor, the Day of the Dead.
These holidays have already combined nicely along this stretch of the border and so have become more cathartic. That’s my theory anyway. With this news about Gerry, I feel more prepared than ever to commingle with the horror, not some silly mask, but the essence behind the symbol — whichever one I choose (not Batman, for example) — and that would be me.
This leads me back to what started this whole train of thought a few weeks ago. I had turned to my friend Bill as we drove home from a funeral and muttered a quote from Samuel Delany that “The greater part of grief is fear,” provoking an observation on my maudlin turn of mind. That part of grief, the fear, the look of recognition on one’s face while staring at his own skull beneath the skin, is the face you’ll find behind the ultimate fright mask.
Gerry was a couple of years, maybe three years older than me. We drank much (and often too much) together as both bartenders and friends. He drove my wife and me (along with his wife) to the hospital while my wife was in labor with our own little bundle of mortality. Actually, it was his wife who drove (I remember now), hitting every pothole on Second Avenue. We worked together in Brooklyn, at a place called Camperdown Elm, where I met his friend Pete Hamill and worked with Pete’s brother John, another news writer; and their brother Dennis, the novelist, was a regular. I was not worthy. I really wasn’t.
Gerry threw me a one-man bachelor party the night before I got married. We started in the West Village, at a place called Montana Eve’s, and ended up at a party on the Upper West Side, at the apartment of someone we did not know. Gerry spoke Russian. He was a painter, and his huge, thick-daubed canvases hung in stairwells, apartments, shows in Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights and the Village coffee shops. He loved women and he painted them. He married one of his models. He and his brother Rick could recite entire Gilbert and Sullivan works. I was so impressed because I didn’t know it was a nerd thing. Gerry could explain flanking movements in the First Peloponnesian War, and his brother could delineate and describe all the rest.
I once asked Gerry a very important question. I knew he would give me a quick and definitive answer; he and his brother were the most literate guys I knew. “Who is good, Gerry? Who is the best with English?” His answer took no time at all. “Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.” I took that to the bank, and though less so with Waugh, that answer dictated much of what I wrote for the next two years, mostly in horror fiction, about stuff that goes bump in the night.
If we need a way to contrive Gerald Bowes into this column called “T.G.I.F.,” let us say that I’ve been writing more or less about or around Halloween for the past few weeks — and death. Well, Halloween fell on a Friday this year, didn’t it? Well, thank God. And good night, Gerry.