Hearing of my dear friend John’s death on March 17th in Miami, my mind began opening package after package of memories. One recollection led to another, like an endless set of Russian dolls.
I think of our life stories as chapters, in 10 year increments.
My story with John started in chapter three of our lives, when we were in our 20s.
We met in 1978, during our first year of communication studies at the University of Windsor. John was from Windsor and introduced me, a Toronto girl, to his gritty city’s many charms…peanut toffee sundaes at Queen’s Grill, Tunnel BBQ cream pie, and glasses of draft beer at seamy joints with jars of pickled eggs on the counter.
Then there were the forays to Detroit to punk club Bookies where John would sneak in a bottle of Southern Comfort hidden in his overcoat and we’d thrill to the booze and drug soaked antics of Destroy All Monsters. Another hot spot was Menjo’s, a gay bar known for its wicked dance floor and “The best fucking sound in the Detroit.” (They sold T-shirts with this slogan.)
Many an evening ended at Lafayette Coney Island, where John would always ask for double onions on his chili dog – mounds and mounds of chopped, raw onions.
Our shopping therapy took place at thrift stores. We would spend hours combing through the racks at Sally Ann and St. Vincent de Paul. John would look for vintage clothing not only for himself but for friends and his sisters. Then, we would take our treasured loot home and put on a fashion show. John always was style conscious. I called him “The Style Council.” His haircuts changed often, eyeglass frames were a statement and his wardrobe, while subtle, contained eclectic elements.
On one Windsor adventure we came across Morris Dry Goods store, a men’s and women’s clothing shop that still stocked items from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It was a treasure trove and John scooped up a pair of pointy, black leather lace-up shoes. They killed his feet, but he managed to wear them out numerous times. Once John asked me what it would be like when we were 50. Would we still be doing this?
One summer, we went with some friends to a cottage on Lake Huron. Sand, sun and lots of chocolate coconut bars were eaten. So much fun. He loved to eat, and I recall him downing about 20 of the sweet little morsels.
After university, John worked as a general reporter at the Windsor Star. He was good at it and his kind, gentle manner, and hilarious sense of humour gained him many friends. Eventually, he wanted a change and came to Toronto, where I was living.
He started freelance writing, which went OK, but he craved the news room and a year later applied for a job as a food writer at the Detroit Free Press. The newspaper asked for a sample article, so he wrote one about blue foods, to coincide with a blue moon that was occurring that month.
Creative, captivating, informative and full of surprises. That was John’s journalistic style. He got the job and moved to Detroit.
Soon after, John met Joel Katz who was a social worker, and they bought a house together in the suburb of Royal Oak. Joel was an avid gardener and the small house came with a sprawling yard that Joel converted into a magical garden, filled with lilies, hydrangea, ornamental grasses, tall pines, wildflowers and architectural pieces that they scooped from Detroit’s many grand, abandoned mansions. Weekends they could be found digging, raking and planting together.
It was great to see John in this happy, loving relationship. Their house was a sanctuary. I called it a fairy tale “hunting lodge” due to the surrounding foliage and warm, inviting interior filled with Mission furniture and patterned rugs.
John loved to entertain. And he loved to cook. Although he was a heavy smoker, his taste buds stayed sensitive and drew him to his calling as a food writer. One assignment was to interview Jane Brody, of the New York Times. He was thrilled and she inspired him to focus on healthy, flavourful recipes. He was intrepid in the kitchen, but also appreciated the simple things. I recall him preparing a pasta dish with carmelized onions and teaching me how to be patient as the onions slowly became golden. It was divine and I still have the recipe.
Joel was HIV-positive when John met him and they both knew their time together might be limited. After seven years, Joel succumbed to complications of AIDS. John was devastated, but not unprepared. His many friends and family gathered round him for support and he gradually reclaimed his life.
As his grief subsided, John began to go out again. One night he met Steve Levin at a bar. John didn’t want to have much to do with Steve at first, but Steve was persistent and eventually they fell in love.
Steve, a jeweller, moved from Detroit to Miami where he owned a condo and wanted to set up another business. Their relationship was paramount, so John sold the “hunting lodge” and followed him to Miami.
Life in Miami was hot and glitzy. John got a job as food writer with the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and he and Steve danced the nights away in the city’s steamy clubs. Life was good. They bought a bungalow on a canal in Miami Beach and John gave it his unique decorating touch with modern furniture, thrift store finds, and mirrors and ornate furniture left over from Steve’s jewelry store.
By this time, Steve had closed his shop and was dabbling in a number of online businesses. Eventually he focused on his own furniture sales business and John helped organize living room and bedroom setups in Steve’s warehouse.
It was around this time that they adopted the cats. There were four or five. My favourite was Mr. Silverman, a handsome boy with almost zebra markings and blue eyes. “We’re lesbian cat ladies,” John joked.
Domestic life suited both of them. In 2014 they got married in Toronto. The ceremony was at Hy’s Steakhouse, and the huge afterparty was at an Italian trattoria called Mercatto. I, unfortunately, was volunteering in Vietnam at the time, but my husband (also a Steve) attended and said it was terrific. Many guests had come up from Detroit and love filled the air.
In 2015, John took a buy-out from the Sun-Sentinel. He spent his time helping Steve promote his business through the Internet and focused on friends, his book club, and cooking. Food never ceased to bring him pleasure.
My visits were less frequent as I took on another overseas volunteer position in Ghana, then focused on travel writing. But, we always managed to keep in touch. John was a stickler for birthdays and Christmas. A card from him always marked the occasion.
Four years ago, he told me he had lung cancer. It was a brief and difficult phone call. He needed time to himself and when he could, he said he would respond to my emails.
A year later, after chemo and radiation, he seemed to be on the mend or at least holding steady. I was taking a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale and he suggested I come early for a visit. “I look the same, don’t I?” he asked with a surprised chuckle when he picked me up at the airport. He did.
During that visit, we did what we always did, tire ourselves out at thrift stores. John (and I) had continued that passion unflaggingly. He had his favourite outlets and always looked to see which coloured tags indicated that day’s sales of 50 per cent off.
We ate glorious meals he prepared and went to restaurants he had reviewed. In some ways it felt like nothing had changed. But, that was magical thinking.
John was great about keeping in touch. Better than me. In 2017 he came to Toronto to visit friends and family before heading to the cottage he and Steve had purchased at Ipperwash Beach, on Lake Huron. He came over to my house and we sat out on our back terrace and enjoyed a rotisserie chicken and salad. That’s when he met my French bulldog Lola, who took an immediate shine to him. John loved the fact she had a wardrobe of collars.
The last time I saw John was at my annual Christmas party two years ago. Christmas was special for him. Although he had gotten out of the habit of decorating his home, he always sent a thoughtful and carefully chosen card from the “Levitans,” a combination of Steve’s last name Levin, and Tanasychuk. He joked my version would be “LittlePlunk” since my husband’s last name is Plunkett.
I knew something was wrong when I didn’t receive his annual Christmas card last year. Christmas came and went. Nothing.
I called him on his birthday in February and left a message begging him to let me know what was going on. The next day I received an email saying his circle had gotten smaller and he was focusing on himself right now. He said he knew how to reach me when things changed. I knew his health must have been diminishing and wrote back that my heart was at rest just hearing from him.
March 15th Steve sent me a text saying John’s condition was dire, asking for prayers.
I prayed and prayed.
On the 17th John died.
He was such a light in my life. In everyone’s life, who knew him. Inquisitive, ready to laugh, kind, generous, and thoughtful.
Although that light felt dimmed on the 17th, it has begun to come back as I search through boxes of old photos and letters.
I am so blessed to have had 40 years of friendship with you, John.
Four supportive, solid, uplifting life chapters.
So very blessed, indeed.