Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Loss in October

The fall season, and specifically October, used to be my favorite time of the year, bar none. Part of it related to my birthday coming in October, but there was always a sense of renewal closely linked to this time of the year: new school year, new apartments, a sense of adventure that came with it. Plus the October temperatures have a certain romanticism to me. These days if I drive to my mom's house on a Friday in the late afternoon, it takes me back to the days of have a paper route and "going collecting" (getting my customers to pay for the week's paper) and going on some adventure that night.

But as time goes on, the fall season has become synonymous with loss and tragedy. InPittsburgh, the first alt-weekly paper where I worked on staff, was bought out and shut down at the end of September 2001. My position at Whole Foods was eliminated right around the same time in 2005. (I'm back there again, so things come around, but it was a hard couple of years, mentally, in between.) 

Thanks to good old Facebook memories, I was reminded that, in October 2014, I had a seriously bad asthma attack that led to a trip to emergency room - which I got to by hopping on the bus down the street from my house. That had a happy ending too, in a way, but the night it happened, I was worried that my continual huffs off of old albuterol inhalers might result in a heart attack. Thankfully I was well enough to walk home from the hospital that night, which was a far cry from the trip there, when I could barely walk the block from the bus stop to the ER without stopping to catch my breath.

I'm okay. And this really isn't about me. It's about the people around us. 

Again the memories reminded me that six years ago today, Pittsburgh musician Erin Hutter died mysteriously. I had seen her play numerous times with punks-turned-genuine-country-blues players the Deliberate Strangers and we even played together briefly in the band Boxstep. While we were never extremely close, we were always happy to see each other when we crossed paths, usually at a show or a watering hole (or both). She usually had a story about teaching or some music she had heard. It had been awhile since I had seen her and knowing that she was really gone hit sort of hard. Especially because at the time I was dealing with my dad's stint in the hospital which would drag on until he passed in mid-November. 

But everyone in Pittsburgh with a heart knows that today is the second anniversary of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. It's an atrocity that is still hard to come to terms with. You think that hate at that kind of level is something that went away with World War II but tragically, it isn't. And that's what makes it so horrible. So horrible that I feel like me sitting here typing about it doesn't do anyone any good. It feels self-serving.

Then I think about how Squirrel Hill is near where I grew up. Even though our house was over a mile away from Tree of Life, I feel a community connection. Until I started typing, I forgot that my personal doctor's partner - Jerry Rabinowitz - was one of the people killed that day. When I finally saw my doctor a few months later and offered my condolences, he stopped me before I got it all out, thanking me and brushing it off. It made me realize that it's probably on his mind constantly. Everywhere he looks, he sees remnants of his colleague. That kind of feeling could send you into a tailspin and want to retreat from society, yet here he is still practicing and seeing patients. Maybe that also helps him through.

The day before the shooting, I had a band practice for a show with a pickup band that was playing REM songs at a night of tributes called "Smothered and Covered." Our singer, Justin, had just flown into town and was practicing with the three of us for the first time. (We had been working up the set for about a month.) Because of my work schedule, we could only practice in the late morning/early afternoon before I had to take off for work. Thankfully, the guys obliged and they rocked, first thing after waking up.

Between songs, our drummer Joe left the room to take a call. When he came back he told us that Jesse Flati, half the local band the Lopez with his wife Steph, had suffered a heart attack and died. He was only 40. Joe was close to Jesse's friends and asked us to keep it under our hats because it had happened so recently. Naturally, we agreed.

Jesse and I played on a bill together several years earlier, but we had just spoken for an interview a few months before he died. (The conversation worked into an article in the first issue of Pittsburgh Current.) I knew Steph a little better than I knew Jesse but he was the kind of guy that you warmed up to right away. There were several things he said in describing music that have stuck with me since that conversation. 

It was hard enough going to the Smothered and Covered show the next night knowing the sad news about Jesse, but feelings were magnified 1000% after Tree of Life. What do you do? It was hard for me because that night was the first time I was to go on stage since the previous February. I had no band though I was trying desperately to get one together. I wanted to play but wondered if I should be doing something else.

One thing that helped came when Benefits played a set as the Cure. Mike Baltzer, who organized the show and put me together with the REM guys was all done up like Robert Smith with the delivery to match. He introduced a song by saying words to the effect of, "Find the person close to you [maybe he said on your right side or left ide] and give them a hug. Whether you know them or not." Then they played "Close To Me." I hugged a dude in a baseball cap that I didn't know and my friend Greg (who had also played in Boxstep with me and Erin Hutter). It might have been more of a bro-hug and yeah, me and the guy I didn't know were a little awkward but it helped. Because it brought us all together. 

I think us REM guys played after them, but I can't say for sure. Which is funny because I usually remember this stuff. We did have a good set. Although I do recall that part of "It's The End of The World As We Know It" got a little botched up. 

But there were more important things to remember that night. Like being close to people, complete strangers even, and knowing that sometimes music and those hugs can help in times of need and make you realize that there is still some brightness to October. 

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