Perhaps it’s my frequent visits to an array of medical specialists, whose number (eight thus far) has so increased that I worry I’ll forget which body part is about to be examined, or worse! Or maybe it’s my upcoming 50th year Fordham College reunion where I’ll earn, by not dying, the title of “golden ram.” Whatever the reason, the fact is that I can’t stop thinking of my mother’s favorite expression, which I’ve selected as my tombstone epithet, “It Could be Worse.”
If you are an avid reader of this column, you must know by now that inane aphorisms are one of my pet peeves. In my hall of fame of annoying sayings, joining my mom’s contribution, are two classics: “everything happens for a reason” and “age is just a number.”
As for that last one, I only assume that the people touting this expression either are made of steel or failed their high school math class. As for me, the weight of my particular number has become increasingly heavier in light of the news I recently received about one of my closest college friends.
I met Kevin Shelton while standing in line at Fordham’s Rose Hill gymnasium signing up for my classes in the fall of 1966. Back then he had long blond hair, wire-rim glasses, a thin build and a unique contagious laugh. He told me he was going to be an English major which made sense because from that day forward I never saw him without a book in his hands.
Kevin grew up in Queens and predictably was a Jets and Mets fan. He had a very dry sense of humor and, when faced with a particularly somber bit of news, would often respond with a famous quote from one of his favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut. This saying, “So it goes,” pointed out somewhat fatalistically the absurdity of life.
Over our college years and beyond, I got to know Kevin quite well. We went to Mets games, Mohamed Ali fights, and yes even a Rolling Stones concert. He was an amazing, creative, and zany character.
He was a commuter during his college years but later married and got an apartment in the Bronx. After his marriage broke up, he moved alone to a small apartment on 102 and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. He was with me at a bar called “Mother’s,” watching a new band called “Elephant’s Memory,” when we both witnessed an inebriated John Lennon being removed after he tried to kiss every woman in the establishment.
Kevin had a cadre of friends from Queens with whom he never was without. Each had some type of nickname like “Rabbit” or “Uncle Wally,” which somehow seemed to fit their personality. To this day, I cannot remember what their actual names were. He was a big fan of Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin. When Norman Mailer toyed with the idea of running for mayor in tandem with Breslin vying for City Council president he was on board. Kevin thought their main platform initiative, which was that the city should become the 51st state, had merit.
Besides being an extremely literate and brilliant person, Kevin was fun and creative. He once presented me with a chess set, which he had meticulously created with each piece resembling the faces of our friends. He would throw lasagna competition parties, which ultimately ended in a game of charades. When I taught a course as a senior at Fordham (the Philosophy of Education) he took it and once again impressed me with his brilliance and insights.
As happens so often, given the vagaries of our lives, eventually our paths diverged. I lost all contact with my good friend. I knew he worked for the city in the housing authority, a job he had left for a bit to pursue his dream of being an English teacher. But when that failed, he returned to his city job, which fortunately later in life provided a much-needed pension.
Then in 2006, I met up with Kevin again. At the time, I was running in a primary for the Democratic nomination for Congress to challenge Congresswoman Sue Kelly. My campaign sold tickets to an off-Broadway play about the life of Robert Kennedy. I was delighted that not only did he show up but he was a strong supporter of my efforts. Although it was great to see him, he was hardly recognizable. He was vastly overweight, walked with the hesitant gate of a seriously ill person and had lost his signature golden locks. The Kennedy play was held in a theatre that was extremely small and Kevin’s persistent coughing echoed so profoundly that some of the other guests complained.
After the play, we had time to talk. Kevin told me his mom had passed and he had moved back into his parent’s house in Queens. As we often do with old friends, we talked about attending a Fordham basketball game at the Rose Hill campus. After trading emails over a period of a month or two, we lost contact once again. Then, around two years ago, a judge I appear in front of in the Bronx Supreme Court called me to the bench. He told me that he had befriended Kevin at a watering hole in Queens and that he had mentioned my name to him. I don’t know how often they met but it was frequent enough for the Bronx Jurist to speak glowingly about this “brilliant, funny and insightful person.”
About two months ago I was informed that Kevin had passed. I reached out to one of his nicknamed friends from years passed and was informed that he had suffered from esophageal cancer for a year and a half and just couldn’t overcome it. He had requested no service be held and donated his body to science.
Kevin’s passing was particularly stinging for me because I had proved to be such a poor steward of our friendship. I know, however, that were Kevin able to talk to me today, he would dismiss such thoughts with a shrug of his shoulders, followed by his distinctive chuckle and a prophetic, “So it goes.”