Monday, March 5, 2012

Marty Powers, In Memoriam

I first met my friend sixty years ago. He must have had the same expression on his face as I, which said, What the hell am I doing here?

We were in our second year at Brooklyn College of Pharmacy. I suppose we read each other’s lost look. It was enough to forge a friendship which has survived the calendar, the miles and most of all, the lack of shared interests.

A majority of the 150 in our class splintered off into frat groups which supplied old tests and lecture notes along with the usual social scene. Marty and I were our own fraternity, along with Herb C. and Jack F. both of whom went on to the top of their profession as president of a major drug company and chain store executive, respectively.

The four of us met in the basement of Marty’s duplex. We pounded information into our vacant heads until the wee hours of the morning. To stay awake Marty played Gilbert & Sullivan music. Whenever I hear, Trial By Jury or The Gondoliers I see us in that room Marty had carpentered. On a few occasions we rode the subway all night to stay up, visualizing structural formulas or memorizing botanical origins of crude drugs which would be obsolete by the time we graduated.

Beyond our penal servitude in pharmacy school there was very little we shared in terms of political passion, literature or sports. I was steeped in left-wing values. His father worked on Wall St. I was (even then) rather contemptuous of religion and middle-class conventions. He was an apolitical person who embraced the givens of the day. He loved Broadway musicals and could recite Kipling’s, Gunga Din . I was going to hootenannies and reading the Beat Poets. If he was pop-culture, I was counter-culture or, at least, I talked the talk.

He is now critically ill and very much on my mind.

Though neither of us has changed significantly, neither did our affection for each other. Marty was an early model for me of how one might be in this world. He helped me enter into a version of adulthood. I recognized in him a way of being, direct, present and with a generosity of spirit. He was a man without guile, emotionally honest, neither modest nor self-aggrandizing. He accepted society as it is and preserved his integrity within its agreed-upon margins.

As an iconoclast I stood outside the circle. Marty gave me a portal in. I haven’t any idea what I supplied to him. I doubt if he thought in these terms. Maybe he saw qualities in me which I had disowned. Ours was a bond which set aside external issues for a more human interchange, a quality for which I barely have a vocabulary.

Since those early days he prospered as a businessman peripheral to pharmacy. Upon graduation in 1954 I married and moved to Los Angeles. He remained in New York City. With a continent separating us our relationship continued by correspondence between Marty’s wife, Rene, and me. There were decades between visits but we kept it alive. When Peggy came into my life Rene and Marty were most gracious. Peggy immediately felt as I did toward Marty. In recent years we got together when they flew out here to see their daughter Amy and family.

The old divisions remained but we managed to find resonance in a common chord, beyond the usual notes in the choir; a dance devised between old friends who heard the same music but different words.
In the end it is less important what we think than how we think. Marty
cared too much about people to offend anyone. He thought as one who ministers to the people he loved.

The look on his face I first encountered, of, What am I doing here, was not one I ever saw again. The Marty I came to know was a man comfortable in his own skin. He was aligned with life and enhanced it. Peggy and I felt the gift of his affection and fully returned it. You’re a better man than I am, Marty Powers, Gunga Din.

It is now Thursday and I have just received word that my dear friend, Marty, has died. We are all poorer for it.

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