It Takes a Lot to Shake Me

Danny Allen - What I'm calling a "ballpoint pen storm." Date unreadable ca.1974

Danny Allen – What I’m calling a “ballpoint pen storm.” Date unreadable ca.1974

After all these many years—nearly four decades to be exact—Danny Allen has visited my thoughts daily—frequently appearing in my dreams. I live with his art, and bearing that thought in mind, I learned more about how to create art from this singular and special, self-taught troubled genius than anything I carried away from any formal education in art school. At times I feel like Dan has never left my side but I’m not so foolish as to fail to recognize this as nothing more than a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

I never had a clear picture of the details of how Danny died because I didn’t want those details lodged in my mind. I’ve since learned that there was a witness on the Driving Park Bridge the day Dan took his life. A sole pedestrian saddled with the frantic responsibility of running to the nearest telephone before the age of cell phones to report what was already a fait au complet. That was an awesome responsibility for a perfect stranger to be left to contend with.

I spoke with a former newspaper reporter who’d worked for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, and is now living in California decades after the fact. He remembered me, and I remembered him after we got talking. The reporter, Thom Akeman was Danny’s and my downstairs neighbor back in 1974, when all of us lived in a dilapidated old Victorian house converted into apartments off East Avenue in Rochester, New York.

Thom knew Danny and me as the eccentric hippie artists who lived in the attic apartment. Thom, as a reporter for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, was  assigned by the paper to cover police reports, and was on a first name basis with all the cops and morgue workers at the county coroners office.  When he heard there was a John Doe who’s next of kin had not yet been notified, but had been identified as living at 105 Merriman Street from papers in his pockets—Thom recognized that as his own building. He had a premonition as to who that person might be.

Thom was kind with me when he gave his account of the details of November 4th, 1974 but he didn’t insult my intelligence by glossing over the brutal reality of what had taken place. Back in 1974, Thom hadn’t realized I was out of town on business when Dan committed suicide. But he took it upon himself to identify Dan’s body. His word was good, because the coroner knew him so well. Thom was braced for such sights, with his job, it came with the territory. His hopes were that his experience could spare both me and Mr. and Mrs. Allen from having to witness what a body of a loved one looks like when a person has fallen over 200 feet onto the  jagged rock formations of a glacial gorge.

I thought I was strong, but I am not. I cried later that night until I was so sick I could barely take in air. I distilled that conversation down to two lines for the book, the essence of which I have not detailed in this post. In writing An Early Work Late in Life, it’s the things I never knew about Dan that have shaken me to the core. I now have a mental picture of Dan’s last moments that will be with me the rest of my life. Like everything Danny did, he executed this terrible act differently than anything that ever crossed my mind—on the rare occasions that I allowed myself to speculate about those awful details. I need to allow it all to sink in. The details I learned will find a place to settle in my mind, and I’ll contend with them. What choice do I have?

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