12th and Spruce Streets
When Chris Kelley died in 1999 I realized for the first time and for certain that there are no rules.
Dave and I had been sitting in our apartment on Spruce Street in Philadelphia when the call came. We didn’t usually answer the phone when it rang, Dave often referred to the phone as “an open wound inside your home.” The answering machine clicked on and a voice said “This is Donald Baechler, pick up.” Dave picked up.
“Chris had a fall,” Donald said.
“Is it serious?” Dave asked.
“He hurt his arm,” Donald said, “you should probably come up.”
I threw a toothbrush and underwear in my hand bag. We left within the hour.
A whole mess of us were crowded into the waiting room at St. Vincent’s. I didn’t want to look at anyone. Dave and I were Chris Kelley’s home crew. We were the people he knew when he wasn’t balancing 10,000 feet above New York City eliciting gasps and cheers from the gawking crowd. We felt like we were family, me and Dave. We knew the real kid, and we loved him.
Someone was video taping, one of the Surface to Air kids, and I yanked their film and said “stop fucking shooting this.” Chris Kelley’s death was not gonna be an art project, no matter how much he’d turned his life into one. One of the kids had been shooting when Chris fell, too. I used to know his name, but then I’d written a play about it, and now I only remember the character name, which was Xander, because the kid’s name had been Zsomething.
He’d been lens up, from the street calling up to the fire escape, trying to get Chris and Donald to go for lunch at Balthazar. I remembered this kid from the Snowy Goody show at Surface to Air about a week past. I’d thought he was a prick then, and knowing he had the tape and didn’t show up at St. Vincent’s sealed the deal. Who tapes a live action snuff film like that? At least there wasn’t enough internet yet for it to go viral.
Chris lay in his hospital bed not moving. His parents (mom and step-dad), were there. I didn’t see his little brothers, both middle-schoolers. His right shoulder was bare, his newly broken arm in a sling. He wasn’t wearing his perpetually broken glasses, sealed together at the nose with tape and hope. Val was beside herself. She didn’t know how to react. There were expectations we all had for her grief, expectations she had, and she tried to live up to them all. She grabbed a nurses cart and took it for a joy ride before crashing it into the wall outside Chris’ room. I remember Dave getting his arms around her and taking her for a drink. At the time I thought: there go the two people who love Chris the most in the world. Now I’m sure that’s his mom, who still grieves, who was the one in the end to tell us Val had died just one year, three months, and three days later. When she called I picked up on the first ring, and she said “are you sitting down?” We’d moved twice in that time, and we were on Chestnut Street by then. I sat down on an overturned milk crate.
There’d been talk of an engagement, between Chris and Val, just about a week before, at the Snowy Goody show. They’d crashed out on the floor at Surface to Air, Val told me later, and he’d said he wanted to marry her. Not to negate it, but to know Chris is to know he loved very deeply, intimately, and perhaps temporarily. He almost relished the agony of a heart break, and we’d seen it happen before. He’d sink into the melancholy and bumble around writing poetry until it all subsided, then he’d smile one of his secret smiles that meant he knew something you didn’t. To top it off, Val would only turn 20 that summer.
I kissed his shoulder. Sometimes I’m just walking around living my life and I remember suddenly kissing Chris Kelley’s shoulder as he lay brain dead in his hospital room. His mother’s grief was visible. He was her oldest, he was her baby. He’d smashed his head falling from Donald’s fire escape on Crosby Street. Dave and I were just walking past Crosby Street the other day, and both sort of shuddered a little. It’s been more than ten years, but I won’t walk down Crosby Street. Dave said he won’t either, and we were both a little surprised by the other’s reluctance to do it. Both of us have, however, admitted to standing in front of Chris Kelley’s old apartment building, on 1st Ave, and staring up at it. He shared it with Emil, and once married Emil’s girlfriend Cecily in Las Vegas. We only admitted to each other a few weeks ago that whenever we’re near that block we stop and stare up, even though we’ve been doing it for years.
I called my dad from a pay phone in the waiting room at St. Vincent’s. I told him what happened. I told him Chris Kelley’s parents were gonna pull the plug. I have a habit of calling my dad when something feels too overpowering to me. By this point my father was a religious man, and I felt like he knew stuff I didn’t. My dad has a secret smile too.
“How could god let this happen?” I asked my dad.
“God mourns the loss of your friend, too,” my dad said.
I got off the phone in a bit of a daze. If God mourned Chris too, why’d he let it happen? Those things seemed contradictory to me, but I knew if my dad said it he must think it was true, and if he thought it was true, it was worth thinking on. I’ve been thinking on it for years now and what I’ve come up with is this: God weeps for us, with us. God is imperfect, miracles are made in the soul. Jesus’ perfection of love is unattainable, but that’s why we have to try. I don’t know for real that it’s true, and I don’t always feel it, but when I do feel it there’s a buoyancy in my heart and I feel like I really do love human kind, and could forgive anything, even myself, even God.
We had an impromptu wake at Surface to Air on 16th and Fifth. Alfredo was inconsolable. He’d inadvertently talked to a reporter from the Post and we all knew it, we all felt like he’d betrayed us. But he didn’t, Chris Kelley’s death was headline news on Page 6 the next day, and we had a laugh because that’s where he always wanted to be.
Dave and I crashed out at N’s place in Brooklyn that night. N’s boyfriend worked with Wegman, and told him what happened. He related to us that when Wegman heard the news of such a talented curator dying he’d said “oh no not again.” We all felt it, it was a massive loss to the visual art world. Shit would be different if Chris Kelley were alive. I couldn’t comfort Dave, and he couldn’t comfort me. Life was moving too fast, and it was like we were all gonna get picked off one by one. The next day we bought a bunch of expensive shit with money that wasn’t ours and headed back to Philly.
Val joined us, then Arcadia, then Fredo. Arcadia says he wasn’t there, but I remember him being there, so I’m writing it down. Our place was a good landing spot for the New York kids, a pit stop before diving headlong into the home of a grieving family, a family that blamed them and their excess for the cause of that grief in the first place. Dave gave the eulogy. I threw up in the bathroom. Val climbed into the coffin and Chris’ step-dad and Dave and I think Rene Ricard had to pull her out before Chris’ mom saw what was happening. A little over a year later, I saw Chris’ mom again, at Valerie’s funeral. She was sitting on a set of stairs at Val’s mom’s place in Scranton, PA, and she said how she felt bad, because she never really understood her son or the work he was doing or the things he was proud of. I told her that he could have lived to be a hundred and she still wouldn’t have understood it, and she found that comforting. It’s so hard to understand anyone, and I think it’s even harder to understand one’s own child. It’s too easy to see instead your own love looking back at you. She told me she’d gotten calls from the student loan people, and she was glad he’d never paid those bastards a cent. It was like Chris’ last act of defiance. She laughed when she said it. I stuck with Chris’ mom at Val’s funeral, because at Val’s funeral her family blamed us, Dave and I. They asked me for her paintings back, the ones she’d given me. I refused. If she’d wanted her family to have her art she would have given it to them.
After Chris died I couldn’t see the point to anything anymore. I quit my job. Soon after that we lost the apartment, and began our odd bounce until we eventually landed in the tattooed bosom of the Lower East Side.
At the time of Chris Kelley’s death, Dave and I had been married six months.
Nick and the Liberty Bell.
next in the series