People die all the time. They die too young, they die before they do the thing they dreamed of, they die before they say the thing or marry the person or build the home or whatever it was they had burned to do.
Death, says the poet, stands there plain as a wardrobe, and it is no different whined at or withstood.
But 2016 saw the deaths of so many iconic, mold-breaking celebrities, seemingly one after another, that it has occasioned something like a tectonic international distress.
These weren’t just stars, but the kind of superstars that people invest some of themselves and their dreams in. That’s why the loss often felt so deep and so weirdly personal.
You were losing a link to a part of yourself, no matter how small it was, no matter how seemingly unimportant in the scheme of things. Some commentators snarked that people were making all these deaths about themselves, when the truth is all deaths are always about others and ourselves.
I haven’t told many people this, but I used to see David Bowie all the time. He lived about a block from the Dean and DeLuca shop on Prince Street in Manhattan, and he would stop by there frequently. I’d be in the vicinity often because my partner works in a building across the street, so I’d often be milling about early in the morning when the man who sold the world and changed rock and roll forever would pass by me in search of a coffee to go.
He didn’t really look Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane or any one of his fabulous ground breaking personas. Stars rarely do.
As a matter of fact he mostly looked like a sort of tweedy English gentlemen (if it was winter) or a man expertly rocking a dad core look in the shorts and t-shirt humidity of high summer.
The one thing he always looked like to me was a man who was at peace and at home. I think that’s why most people didn’t seem to notice him. Fellow New Yorkers tend to give each other space.
But each time I saw him I would feel a hot jet in my chest, as if I’d unexpectedly stepped on a roller coaster or been catapulted into the air. That’s David Bowie ordering a croissant, I would say to myself.
Oh my God. Then I would stop myself from having any thought of invading his space.
One time we passed each other on a deserted Crosby Street behind Bloomingdale’s. It was winter and he had a black hat on. He gave me a nod and a very friendly smile as if we were passing each other on some quaint English village street and not downtown Manhattan, and I stood there momentarily reeling.
As a teenager I had spent years listening to his music and pouring over his album covers. He had showed a million others and me that the only right way to be a man is to express what is in your head and heart.
How do you thank someone for a gift like that? The answer is you can’t, and if you meet them on a quiet street you probably shouldn’t.
So instead I’d give a brief smile that said I know who you are and I think enough of you to not interrupt your day. Then I’d watch him walk down the street, reed thin under all that winter gear, his height and stature reminding me a little bit of my own father. I’d be momentarily dazzled until the demands of my own life would reassert themselves.
Some people worship celebrity, but I have always seen the wires that support the angels. Even an artist as important to me personally as Bowie was, his presence made plain, a man subject to the stresses and strains I knew myself.
You could see it in his face and I did. He looked kind to me, and decent, and in full possession of himself, needing nothing from any of us. The miracle was that his career had happened, and that it had changed him and that he had changed us and that was enough for me.
So I never spoke to him, then or ever, because I couldn’t and there was no need. The only thing that survives of us is love, he reminded me. And it’s enough and it always will be.