My Friend Tony
One of my college housemates, Anthony Innes Stephenson, passed away last week.
I met Tony my freshman year at Wesleyan. One of our first encounters was a game of one-on-one basketball. It was a classic male bonding/testing-each-other-out moment. It still pains me to admit this, but he absolutely smoked me -- I may not have scored a single basket. Tony possessed a quick first step and an accurate jumper that I was always late in trying to block. (Once I figured out that Tony was one of the rare right-handed players who preferred to shoot going to his left, I was at least able to keep up with him a bit.)
Over the years, I played countless hours of basketball with and against Tony. If you buy the argument that sports reveals character (and I do), what Tony's game said about him was this: he was a gentle soul. Unlike so many other playground warriors, Tony was not driven to dominate or impose his will on a game, although he most certainly had the talent to do so. He was a graceful and gracious athlete who I think appreciated the game more for its aesthetic qualities than for some of the other reasons that people typically gravitate towards sports (exercise, teamwork, competition, etc).
The other arena where Tony's personal qualities revealed themselves was his writing. Man, he was a good writer. At his best, he was a bit like Woody Allen: neurotic, self-deprecating, caustic, funny as hell. Digging back through his letters and emails, I can't help but smile at his capacity for mockery. Although he took aim at everyone and everything in sight (including, it must be said, himself), Tony's jibes never felt mean-spirited to me. He didn't seek to hurt or humiliate, just to expose pretensions and communicate insights through humor. I can't speak for others, but I certainly learned things by seeing myself reflected through Tony's prose.
In the years since we graduated from college, I have seen Tony infrequently -- he rarely traveled outside of his beloved San Francisco. I saw him last six months ago. His hair may have been grey but he had the same boyish grin and mischievous perspective on the world. We had dinner in Chinatown and talked for a couple of hours about the usual stuff: basketball, family, politics, mutual friends and acquaintances. When I left, I made a mental note to myself that I wanted to correspond with him more frequently, that I needed more of Tony's (authorial) voice in my life. I am sad that I won't get this chance.