I remember first learning about The Beatles. My father had all their records, and he told me about how they were the biggest group in the world. Although they had broken up only a year (six months?) before I was born, because they ‘happened’ before my birth, they were in same category as mythical historic figures like Moses and Teddy Roosevelt. They were super old, too, which made them grownups. Which meant that they would always know what was right for me and that I should do whatever they say, if they ever happened to be in the room.
I was 10 when John Lennon was shot. I’d already been through Elvis’s death, so that was really my first ‘Kennedy’-type experience—the one where you remember exactly where you were when you found out. As with the King, I didn’t really understand why Lennon was so important, so his death didn’t really mean anything special to me. It only imprinted itself in my memory because everybody made such a big deal about it. (Later celebrity deaths would have much more personal impact for me. I remember, for example, that I was on the elliptical trainer at a gay gym in Chelsea when I heard about John F. Kennedy Jr.’s fatal plane crash. I cried all the way through level 3 in my workout while I watched the coverage).
I was still up watching t.v. with the folks when the news of Lennon’s death first broke, but it wasn’t until the following morning that I understood that this was a Really Big Deal. We had a small t.v./radio in our kitchen so that my dad could watch the news as he had his breakfast of coffee and cigarettes. Everyone gathered around to watch the coverage of the massive crowds holding vigil in Central Park. Both of my brothers (who I later came to understand were geeks) made black armbands which they wore to school in memorium.
In the 1980’s, John Lennon was a hot topic. It seemed like there were always articles about him, talk shows devoted to analyzing and reminiscing. I remember a replay of a show (or maybe it was an article I’d read) where the interviewer asked him something to the effect of, how did he feel about people who criticized him for being a vegetarian and doing yoga but still smoking cigarettes? His answer was nothing exceptional, typical Lennon-esque, ‘I don’t see how it’s hypocritical and I also don’t see how it’s anybody’s business’ or something. I think that question only stuck out for me because I was interested in being anorexic, and he was very thin.
My friend Mark, from acting class, was obsessed with John Lennon. He wrote a play about him, which ended up winning Mark some young play-writes’ award, and gave him his foot in the door to the professional acting scene. One day, Mark and I were walking around the city and he suggested that we go to the Marriot Marquis hotel in mid-town. It was a big, circular hotel– you could step into the hall from any floor and see all the way down into the lobby. We rode the glass elevators up to the 29th floor, where we leaned over the railing, feeling cool. At the exact moment that Mark leaned in for a kiss, something flew past us and landed in the lobby. It had been going super-fast and at first we weren’t even sure that we’d seen it. I said “Oh my God, I think that was a person”. Mark said, “No, no, it was luggage. I’m sure it was luggage. It must have been luggage.” In the elevator on the way back down to the lobby, we could see the crowd that had gathered around the middle of the room. Crushed next to a hotel employee, I said ‘that was a person, wasn’t it?’ He nodded. I asked him if the person had survived– the employee looked at me like I was the hugest moron he had ever seen. “What do you think?” he snapped. Shamed, I was like “Well, he could have landed on a couch or something.” He just looked away.
Mark, meanwhile, turned red and began to sweat. “I have to get out of here, come on,” he said, dragging me outside. He began to walk, really fast, and he wouldn’t speak to me. All he said was, “That was crazy. I’ve got to calm down.” He walked a beeline for thirty odd blocks to Strawberry Fields, the part of Central Park that had been turned into a memorial to John Lennon. “This is the only place I can think”, he said as he sat down. I don’t remember what happened after that. I think we just spent what seemed like an eternity there, him not speaking, until eventually I said that I had to go home, and I took the subway back downtown to where I’d left my car (my first car, that I’d only just recently been allowed to take into the city by myself). I remember driving up the Palisades Parkway in the pitch dark, shaking. At one point I actually stopped at a gas station to call my parents and freak out to them over the phone. As with most of my adolescent freak-outs, my dad replied with a cursory “Oh, that’s terrible, Tootsie”, quickly followed by an impatient “just come home, come home already.” (I can’t remember how many times I heard that impatient “just come home, for God’s sake” while I was in high school.)
The next morning, I scoured the Times for news of the death. I finally found a few sentences somewhere in Metro that revealed that the jumper had been the hotel tailor, who was despondent over bills and marital woes. If he hadn’t been going so fast, we could have touched him– that was how close he was to Mark and me as he had fallen. I wished I’d had faster reflexes and had grabbed him. I knew I probably wouldn’t have been strong enough to stop his fall, but maybe I could have just brushed his shirt with my hand, be the last person to touch him while he was alive. I guess that’s how people felt about John.
** Photo: Sara Hearst Art