Friday, July 8, 2011

My Breakfasts with George

I knew George Kimball through his work for more than thirty years but I met him only three times. It is perhaps some measure of the man that each was unforgettable.

The first time was in the early 1980s, shortly after I moved to Boston after graduating from Bard College. I wasn’t a writer yet – at least I wasn’t published. But I knew I liked poetry and I knew I liked baseball, so each Opening Day I donned an old baseball uniform, parked myself on the sidewalk beneath Fenway Park’s Green Monster and read baseball poetry for two or three hours to the drunks standing in line for the bleachers. The first year a few newspaper reporters looking for local color stumbled upon me so the second year I sent out press releases. George Kimball called me and asked to meet him late one morning at the Eliot Lounge, the legendary Boston marathon bar. I didn’t know what he looked like. “Just ask for me,’ he said. “They know me there.”

I knew Kimball as a writer, both from the Boston Herald and from a story he’d written in 1971 while working for the Boston Phoenix called “Opening Day at Fenway,” which had been re-printed in the fine baseball literary anthology, Baseball I Gave You all the Best Years of My Life, edited by Richard Grossinger and Kevin Kerrane, a source I mined for baseball poetry. The story is more a sketch of characters, about Fat Howie and three cab drivers from Chelsea, and not a game story at all. I figured Kimball might be a kindred spirit.

I walked into the Eliot Lounge for the first time early the next afternoon, a day or two before opening day. I was the only customer and asked the bartender, who I now know was the legendary Tommy Leonard, if he had seen George Kimball. “Not yet,” he said, ‘But he’ll be around.”

As I nursed a beer a figure suddenly loomed nearby, all shoulders and shadow and spoke: “Hi Glenn, I’m George Kimball.”

He was wearing a ratty Army fatigue jacket, boots and a pair of blue jeans, his hair was uncombed and wild. He squinted at me with his one good eye and his face wore something approaching a beard. In short, he looked the way I was trying look. I knew of only two other one-eyed writers and they were both personal; heroes, the poets Robert Creeley and Jim Harrison. I figured I was in good hands.

I was. We talked for the next hour, half an interview and half just a conversation, and Kimball learned I had attended Bard and studied with the prolific poet Robert Kelly. He not only knew Bard, but he knew Kelly. A lifetime before they had both been part of the post-Beat literary scene in New York. As we talked it rapidly became obvious that Kimball had read everything I had and a whole lot more, that he had already lived the kind of life I had only read about, a life full of writing, and writers.

And now he was a sports writer. I couldn’t believe it. After getting out of school with a degree in writing poetry I was unemployable, a security guard and a library aide, but, rather remarkably, I had actually been interviewed twice for jobs as a sportswriter, once at a county weekly in Ohio, and by the Poughkeepsie Journal. Neither had hired me. Yet here was a living example that perhaps those efforts weren’t in vain. Here was someone who, like me, loved sports and literature and, I could tell, was exactly who he was and no one else. It was good to know there was a place for that. And maybe there was a place for me.

He wrote a nice column on me and I read poetry on Opening Day for another seven or eight years. By the time I stopped I had, improbably, become a sports writer for Boston Magazine, and was just beginning my tour of duty as series editor for The Best American Sport Writing and was working on my first book, while working at the Boston Public Library. In a funny way, none of that might have happened had I not started reading baseball poetry outside Fenway Park and been interviewed by George; people remembered the story, and I remembered his example.

I don’t remember meeting George again but we did speak a few times when he called the library for some research help, where I was the defacto go-to-guy for sports reference questions. And on a visit back to Bard once I had run into Robert Kelly and mentioned that I had met Kimball. He had just responded with a smile that told me the memory of their friendship was still real and treasured and told me “Give my love to Brother George.” The next time we spoke, I did.

I met George for the second time a couple years ago. Out of nowhere he sent me an e-mail that he was going to be passing through close to where I live in northwestern Vermont and he wanted to have lunch. I wasn’t going to be around so I had to pass, but a few weeks later he contacted me again. He was on his way to visit his kids, Teddy and Darcy, both of who lived and worked around the Jay Peak ski hill.

I waited for George at a small diner and when he lumbered out of the car, still smoking a cigarette, and I was both happy and sad to see him. Happy to see that he was the same unkempt, distracted wreck of a guy and sad to see that he was so sick. I had known he was ill but it was still a shock to see the shrunken figure of his face and his clothes hanging so loosely.

He just started talking, like we’d talked a hundred times before, and we ordered breakfast. Actually, George ordered twice, a massive pile of pancakes, extra butter, double butter, double toast, and I got it; he knew he was going to die, but damned if he was going to act like he was dying. This was a not a man who was going to go quietly.

Nominally, he wanted to talk about this boxing collection he and John Schulian were putting together, and wanted to know if I thought my editor at Houghton Mifflin might be interested. I gave him her information, but told him it was unlikely, as the book business was bad and anthologies a hard sell even in good times. But mostly I think he just wanted to talk, and as sick as he was he probably needed to take a break from the long drive, and he gave me a copy of Four Kings, his fine book on Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler, and I gave him a copy of the latest edition of The Best American Sports Writing, and we talked about books and writing and writers until the coffee was cold and the last of the melted butter had congealed on his plate. I didn’t expect to see him again.

A few months later, however, I heard from him once more, this time an invitation to meet for breakfast again at a Bistro in Burlington. I walked in and didn’t see George, so I asked a staff person if they had a table for “Kimball” and then I heard a familiar voice say “Are you here to meet George?”

Beer in hand, it was Bill Lee, the former Red Sox pitcher and his wife. I knew Bill a little and we started talking about George and how sick he was, but before we got too far, in he came, with several friends and his son and daughter and their partners and before I knew it I was swept up in the entourage sitting at huge table with about twelve other people all talking at once.

I hardly talked to George at all, but that didn’t really matter. He hadn’t wanted anything but was just being nice and wanted me in the mix. I spent most of the next two hours and two Bloody Marys talking to Bill Lee, not about baseball and not as a writer, but like a neighbor about the kind of things people our age who live in Vermont talk about; cutting wood, making syrup, crossing the border, aging parents and dying friends.

I didn’t see George after that, but I heard from him once in a while on Facebook, and I was thrilled when At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing was picked up by the Library of America, and some friends who knew him better than I kept telling me how he was doing, which was not well, physically, but fabulously otherwise. For as his former colleague at the Boston Herald wrote in his terrific appreciation for that paper yesterday * , “George didn’t ‘fight’ cancer, as is the meaningless cliché. He did something better. He ignored it.”

That he did, writing and writing and writing, to the last second of the last round. I’m just happy to have witnessed a small part of that, which was much more than a legacy, but a lasting lesson.

So today I think I’ll read “Opening Day at Fenway” and all about Fat Howie and three cab drivers from Chelsea one more time. And then get to work. There's alot of things I still have to say.


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