John F. Kennedy Jr.'s intimates thought of the rip-roaring laughs they wouldn't have again. A college friend remembered Kennedy once lighting a smoke with one of those ubiquitous JFK matchbooks, then deadpanning: "You could always count on the old man for a light." An out-of-town friend recalled phoning Kennedy during a layover at New York's Kennedy Airport. "I'm at JFK," the friend had explained, unconsciously. "You can't be!" Kennedy shot back with mock indignation. "I'm JFK!"
As word traveled yesterday that the bodies of Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, had been found, those who knew them well -- and many more who now feel they knew them -- began facing the finality of their loss in thousands of individual ways.
If Kennedy preferred the irony of his fame to fame itself -- as his close friends said -- the public today was only too ready to embrace him and his wife, in death, as the regular folk they could never be in life. Outside their TriBeCa loft in a once-gritty neighborhood turned hip and pricey, a makeshift memorial of flowers, hand-written messages, pictures of Kennedy and flags continued spreading and rising, as it has since early Saturday when Kennedy's plane was reported missing.
An American flag draped across a barricade was one of many offerings whose message included Kennedy's sister-in-law, almost as famous in death as was her sister in life. "John, Carolyn and Lauren, may God bless you and keep you in his arms," was written inside the white stripes.
"We did not know he lived here," said a 19-year-old German tourist named Yvonne, staring wide-eyed at the display, which she and a friend stumbled upon while touring downtown. "I thought he lived in a big house somewhere else."
New Yorkers knew better. From across the sprawling city, people streamed to TriBeCa to pay respects to Kennedy as that rarest of breeds -- an approachable New Yorker who they said often waved when they sighted him. "He was a Kennedy, but that was just a name," Jennifer Torres of Brooklyn said amid the mums, carnations, roses and wildflowers. "He took the subway, he roller-bladed, he biked all over the city. He was one of us."
Tom Rochford, a New York City police officer drawn to visit the loft on his day off, said he met Kennedy last summer "at 38th and Lex. He was riding his bike and I got his autograph," Rochford said.
A similar outpouring of emotion took place in Boston at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, the nation's official memorial to the slain president. By the time its doors opened at 9 a.m. yesterday, mourners already faced an hour-long wait to sign condolence books.
In downtown Hyannis, near the Kennedy family compound, tourists flocked to the JFK Museum on Main Street in record numbers and surrounded the Kennedy memorial with flowers, while divers near the crash site painstakingly worked to raise the bodies of the three victims. Tourists from as far away as Australia signed their name and address in condolence books, along with messages short on words and long on sympathy: "God bless you all"; "Our prayers are with you."
For John Perry Barlow, a close friend of John and Carolyn Kennedy's taking in the tragedy from his ranch in Wyoming, the discovery of the bodies shattered a pipe dream nursed ever so whimsically since Saturday. "He and I used to joke about how one of the solutions to the problem of being John Kennedy was to stage his disappearance," Barlow, 51, said by telephone. "I would've loved for that to have been true. But he would've known how devastating his disappearance would be, and he loved his friends. He'd never do that to us."
Barlow said that for all the public attention to Kennedy tragedies, few people know how much pain the 38-year-old Kennedy had weathered in private. "He got through it by having a sense of humor, and incredible depth," Barlow said.
The trials that seemed to many the hardest for Kennedy in fact were not, Barlow said. For example, he was not overly preoccupied with his father, the slain ex-president, said the former rancher who took a 17-year-old Kennedy on as a ranch hand 21 summers ago. "He once said he didn't know his father any better than I did," Barlow said. Moreover, Kennedy swore to Barlow that his famous "salute" at his father's funeral was in fact a small boy's attempt to shield his eyes from the bright sun.
"That was one of the few things he said he could remember because so much was made of it," Barlow said. "He said he was just trying to see the coffin."
The salute is an indelible piece of the Kennedy mystique, twinned in most memories with the nickname, John John, which friends say was never the younger Kennedy's real nickname -- just another media creation. But, like the salute, it seems likely to stick. On the Kennedy grave at Arlington National Cemetery, a young child penned a homemade card with the message, "We Miss You John John." The card was decorated with an American flag -- the stars innocently on the wrong side.
Crowds at Kennedy-related sites around Washington were no larger than usual yesterday, but the emotion was palpable. "I came for JFK," said Michael Nugent, a labor researcher at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who came to a noon mass at St. Matthews Roman Catholic Cathedral on Rhode Island Avenue NW, where the slain president's funeral was held. "I was glad they found him."
Clarence Chandler, a groundskeeper at Arlington National Cemetery, sadly watched people file by the Kennedy grave as they do daily. "They feel like I feel," he said. "They feel a loss. It's just grieving, that's all. We all love the Kennedys."
Staff writers Caryle Murphy and Patricia Davis in Washington and special correspondents Pamela Ferdinand in Hyannis, Mass., and Liz Leyden in New York contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Donna Partlow of Athens, Ala., and daughter Alison Balch, 6, leave flowers at President John F. Kennedy's gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery.