DID YOU KNOW HIM? Of course not. He was one of us. Our little secret. A gem. We did not share him with the world. He wrote, it is true. He wrote newspaper stories and magazine articles and a book, but the bigger part of him was still our secret. The smile for instance. You could not read that smile. I will tell you about him. I will tell you about Larry Stern.
He was 50 years old. He was short and walked very fast and had bad teeth and you had to see him as women did to realize that he was attractive. This was something women knew right off and men learned after a while and it was one of the reasons for the smile. He was a lover and he was loved in return.
The had been abroad a lot. He had been to the wars - Vietnam, for instance - and to islands in the Caribbean where English bobbies fought to maintain order with police whistles. Wherever he had gone, he made friends and when these friends came to America, they stayed with Larry Stern. They made his house a roost for semi-crazy, semi-nomadic writers. They ate his food and slept in his beds and there never were enough ashtrays. They came often with lovers and always with files and Larry just passed among them, smiling, understanding that they might be silly and that he, of course, was skeptical but they were also committed. He respected them for that.
Women came to live with him. They came with cats and plants and their own friends and sometimes they just sat on the stoop and cried. Larry would pass among them, too, smiling - always smiling - trying to let you know that he, too, thought that by his age he would have had all this under control. He was not oblivious to himself at all. He knew that by rights he had escaped the house in the suburbs for too long. He would be punished for all this.
He talked funny. He was hard to understand. There was an electric buzz about him because he thoguht so fast. He mugged his own sentences, jumping all over them with contradictions and addendums and thoughts that came in from the side streets of his mind. It was one big, mad intersection inside his head and he himself knew it. He laughed even before he said the joke and then thought he had siad it and waited for a laugh. He read a lot, too, and he would ask you what you were reading - what besides the newspaper - and before you could answer he would say what he was reading.
There are funny stories and sad stories and stories about how he took a Mercedes to the front during the Vietnam war.He wrote that one and the war came home - a crazy, meaningless war in which a journalist could take a care to the front and record on the way the death and the dying and the stupidity ofit all. There are stories, too, about his forgetfulness and about how he talked. But there are no stories - none - about cheating or selling out or being lousy to people.Go wherever journalists gather and ask about Larry Stern and they will tell you the stories and about his smile, but not one will have anything bad to say about him.
He was 50 in June. It was hard to tell. He looked 50 some 15 years ago. He jogged and played tennis to keep himself in shape. But he also smoked - he could not quit that. He went to SmokEnders but it was like a drunk at the Salvation Army - just someone in from the rain. He stopped for a day or so and then smoked other people's cigarettes and then, finally, he went back to outright smoking.
There was a party for him when he turned 50. Lots of people came and they were from all over the world. His friends were there and the British journalists he liked so much and the State Department-types who knew the differences between doctrine and reality. He walked among us all, this little man, and wherever he went, he had this smile and this warmth. People liked to be near him, to touch him and if there was ever a man to envy, it was Larry Stern that night.
For him, there were no regrets. More than most men, he lived his life - lived it full and hard, and always he had that smile. I know that smile. It is the smile of the ghetto fool, the smile of a wise man forced to deal with the pompous, a man amused all the time because in his head is a wonderful theater. Stern had that sort of smile and he had that theater, too, and now, in a phone call that comes in the night, he is dead.
Now it is time to cry.