A Farewell to a Friend: John D. Solomon (1963-2010)

To quote Archie Bunker in the episode “Stretch Cunningham, Goodbye,” “I ain’t never delivered a urology before.”  This is the first time I’ve ever tried, even though this is one that is for cyberspace and the blog world, not delivered to mourners in a house of worship.

My best friend from The Harvard Crimson, John David Solomon, Harvard Class of 1985, died the first of November.  He was 47 years old, six weeks younger than I am.  I learned he had leukemia two years ago, when he mentioned it–almost offhandedly–in his blog, In Case of Emergency, Read Blog.  Even knowing that leukemia is not the automatic death sentence that it used to be, I was quite worried.  Cancer is still cancer.
Yet he seemed to be making progress toward beating the disease.  He posted regularly to his blog, usually answered my emails promptly (the blog was how we reconnected in the last two or three years of his life), sent pictures of himself with his wife and young daughters, and reassured his readers the disease was in remission.  (The only time I ever directly addressed his leukemia, after learning of it, was to extol the virtues of the Arthur G. James Cancer Center on the Ohio State campus, telling him that if he needed treatment there, my door was always open to him.  I overlooked the fact that his native New York had some top-rated cancer facilities of its own!)
I met John the first time I worked the graveyard shift at The Harvard Crimson.  I had worked during the weekend, typesetting Harvard Business School’s weekly newspaper, The Harbus News, so I had yet to experience the high-pressure, crisis-ridden, anxiety-laden atmosphere that thrummed like an electric current in the pre-hours before “Cambridge’s Only Breakfast-Table Daily” rolled off the press and began appearing in the dormitories and the streets of Harvard Square.  I was trying to learn the intricacies of the CRTronic Linotype, and keep up with the endless flow of typewritten copy as it came down from the upstairs newsroom.  Additionally, I was down to (almost literally) my last dime, payday was still almost a week away.  I was learning to swim by immersion in a tank full of starved piranhas.
John was the proofreader that night.  I didn’t know that he was taking particular notice of me or my situation–although he had let me know he was technologically illiterate when it came to my computer.  My fellow typesetter that night knew the machine intimately, and was trying to keep ahead of her own workload, and did not have time to nursemaid me through learning the procedure.
The first gesture of friendship came when Pat Sorrento, the production supervisor and foreman who had been with the paper since the mid-1960s, asked for someone to make a run to Tommy’s Lunch, the diner on Mount Auburn Street by Mather House.  John seemed to pick up on the fact that I was not flush for a meal, and probably also was aware that I had barely eaten.  Without my asking him to, he said, “Go ahead and order something.  Don’t worry about it.”
Extended periods of working together either cement or destroy friendships.  He and I became close after he paid for that first meal from Tommy’s, and talked quite a bit during the slack hours when there was little work, or when I was in The Crimson‘s building to pick up mail or my paycheck.  The true test, however, came during the summer of 1983, when he and another editor were given the responsibility of editing and producing The Confidential Guide to Courses at Harvard-Radcliffe, Harvard’s annual course guide, known informally as The Confi Guide.  The Crimson itself only printed twice a week during the summer, so the Guide consumed most of the time and energy of everyone who was staying to work on the newspaper that summer.
Many a night, I would come to the building at 4 in the afternoon after a sandwich and lemonade at Elsie’s, and not leave for nearly 24 hours.  I had sublet living quarters on the edge of the Tufts campus, but I slept more nights at The Crimson than I ever did in my own bed.  If the paper ran that night, the finished product was barely out of the building (bound for hand delivery or the Cambridge post office for mailing), then it was time for typing Confi copy, usually with the radio or TV for company.  When we all came to a stopping point, John and I would creep up to The Crimson‘s top-floor lounge, The Sanctum, and collapse on couches.
On several other nights, John would creep off to his Oxford St. apartment (his summer HQ) and leave me a batch of copy.  I’d work on it for several hours, and once the Coca-Cola didn’t have any effect, and I was unable to get my fingers, brain, and eyes to work together, I’d slink up to The Sanctum for some much-needed shuteye.  I would leave a note on the bulletin board for John, saying, “Please wake me up at such-and-such a time.”  As soon as I saw a Sanctum couch, it would be like someone taking the switch that powered my body and throwing it to “off.”  And before I knew it, I would be awakened to a hideously nasal rendition of “Reveille,” and behold John standing over me, his hands cupped over his mouth like a bugle.

We even spoke of religious issues.  John was Jewish, but not particularly devout.  I had moved to Boston partly because it was the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association–it was the Unitarian equivalent of Vatican City or Jerusalem.  Except on the Sunday mornings when I was too exhausted to get out of bed, I regularly attended services at one of three U.U. churches.  Yet, during the Days of Awe 5744, he dragged me–one of the few Gentiles at The Crimson–to the Conservative Kol Nidre services.  It was the only time during the year he ever put in an appearance at services, and he seemed surprised when I asked him if he planned to go to the Ne’ila service that would conclude Yom Kippur.  (We didn’t.)

I’m sorry to say that I never saw him again after I left Boston in 1984 to start at Ohio University.  There were intermittent phone calls and letters, but we lost touch altogether until I Googled him and found his blog.  We stayed in touch by emails, and we favorited each other’s blogs, and when I hoped to bring Susie to New York to visit the American Girl store, I planned to reunite with John, whose girls were also American Girl fans.

There is a scene at the end of Stand by Me where the protagonist of the story, now an adult, is sitting at the keyboard of his word processor.  He has just written of the untimely death of his best friend.  He typed:

Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, I know I’ll miss him forever.

And so it is with me.  Although I hadn’t seen John in more than a quarter century, I will miss him forever.

This blog entry falls far short of honoring him properly, but since I once completely took over a story we were supposed to co-write (“Who Shot the President?”, for the special issue marking the 20th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination), it is appropriate.  I can’t deliver this from the bimah of a synagogue, so I want to honor John in the setting where we have both come to feel at home: the blog.

May he rest in peace.

John D. Solomon (1963-2010)