My friend Jack died two months ago.
I am surprised by how much I miss him because I saw him, at most, only a couple of dozen times in the more than 30 years that we knew each other. So, what does it even mean, to say that I miss him? I don’t miss his physical presence, although I can conjure up images of him sitting across from me at a restaurant table a few years ago, a view of the Portuguese Atlantic coast behind him, or of a middle-aged Jack sitting in his tiny book-filled apartment in Manhattan, chatting with a much younger me visiting the city, and him, for the first time. Ours was a friendship based mostly on correspondence. His emails – lengthy and entertaining, peppered with acerbic insights into politics and culture, with stories of his past and present, with commiserations and questions and comments on my emails to him – these are what I will miss, what connected us to each other. These last few years, as he grew older and his health problems mounted, I would worry if I didn’t hear from him in a while. Then, out of the blue, another long email from him and, phew, he’s still alive.
It was fitting, I guess, that I learned of his death in an email, with the blunt subject line “Jack Carroll Deceased”, from someone who turned out to be his lawyer. Jack had left in her care a list of people to notify when he died and I was not surprised that he had thought of this. This final example of Jack’s meticulous planning and organization reminded me of the first time we met in person, about 30 years ago, when I visited him in New York City. He took me on a tour of Chinatown after I expressed interest in visiting the neighbourhood. I had read an essay about it in The New Yorker – living in a suburban Montreal bungalow, the magazine was my main gateway to learning about this magical, mythical city. As he guided me about the streets of lower Manhattan, I caught him sneaking a peak at some notes he had made. Three decades later, it happened again. My partner and I visited Jack, now retired in Portugal, and he took us on a carefully planned tour of the Algarve coast.
I first encountered Jack in the nascent online world of the late 1980’s. Twenty-five years old, I was at most three-eighths out of the closet and doing a master’s degree in computer science. (A career in computing was a great place to hide if you were socially anxious and closeted.) Jack, about 50, worked in administration at City University of New York so both of us had access to the Internet (a rarity back then). In those text-only, pre-Web days, we connected when I replied to something he posted to a newsgroup called soc.motss. “Motss” stood for “members of the same sex”, a somewhat ambiguous name for an online forum dedicated to all things queer. He had corrected someone else’s article about the Stonewall riots and when I wrote him, asking to learn more, he obliged. Over the next year or so, he sent installments of a detailed autobiographical history of gay life in New York City from the late '50's – when he narrowly escaped arrest during a police raid of a gay bar – to the sex, drugs and club scene of the '70's to the AIDS epidemic of the '80's, during which so many that he knew died. Working as a volunteer for GMHC and caring for dying friends, he struggled a lot during that time, until he became a serious devotee of Buddhism. I quickly learned that he was a fine writer, with a wicked and salty wit and a breadth and depth of knowledge that he put to good use commenting on all manner of things.
What started as more of a one-sided mentorship eventually grew into a friendship. We wrote to each other about our lives, offering comments, commiserations and, always, always interesting tangents that made our communication sometimes feel more like a naturally flowing conversation than a discrete set of emails. So, I guess when I say I miss Jack, what I mean is it saddens me to think that I won’t ever hear from him again, won’t get a lengthy email about what is going on in his life, with clever and funny asides and fascinating digressions into Japanese literature or Buddhist philosophy.
Knowing Jack expanded my gay universe. I spent the years of the AIDS crisis mostly closeted and on the sidelines, yet here was someone in the thick of it, his world completely torn apart by it. He wrote about gay sex with a frankness that was elucidating and liberating for someone as isolated and closeted as I was back then. I was tantalized by his descriptions of the gay club scene in New York and his tales of Fire Island (the first I ever heard of this gay mecca) and he educated me about the role that music played in gay life. Through all this and more, I came to understand his experience of being gay, especially his resilience in the face of family rejection and the devastation of the AIDS epidemic.
A century ago, EM Forster told us to “only connect” and Matthew Lopez, in his recent play The Inheritance, reinterpreted Forster’s plea as an exploration of how gay men connect across generations. My friendship with Jack was exactly this, a deep connection made across a generation, as well as a geographic span, ironically facilitated by technology that often serves to make our connections more, not less, superficial. Not everyone wants to talk and not everyone is curious enough to pay attention, but Jack had a lot to say and I was a willing listener and so a connection was made. Because of this, parts of Jack are now part of me, the music and poetry he loved, my memories of his memories of his life, his advice and reflections, his thoughtful feedback on my attempts at writing for public consumption. (I wonder what he would have thought of this essay.) As I moved more completely out of the closet, I saw in Jack how to live a life as a queer person and I have a richer view of queer life than I would otherwise have had if I had never known him. Thank you, Jack, for answering that first email of mine.
Jack Carroll’s website dedicated to gay history and culture in New York City: http://web.archive.org/web/20210817231514/https://www.nycnotkansas.com/