david carr photo (left) by Greg Helgeson, courtesy of Brian lambert/david braUer (right), supplied
I met David Carr when he was 23 and I was 21. We were waiting tables at the Anchorage, a better-than-average seafood house in a lower-end Northeast Minneapolis Hilton. Back then, David was a beefy dude who would drink or snort something in the break room and lay the most amazing blarney on customers; an elephant on a tightrope. I used to watch diners’ faces. The pinched ones—put off by the large, sweaty clown there to serve them—might betray a twitch of disapproval, but most were swept up by David’s hammy obsequiousness, his stiletto ribbing, or the delicious unpredictability he emanated. One December 31st, he got me to strip off my uniform and underwear, tie a tablecloth like a diaper, and run through the restaurant as “Baby New Year.” (Chemicals may have been involved.) I called him “the personality tornado.”
Tornadoes move where they want, with little regard for what stands in their way. Over time, I was punctured by debris—a betrayal; bullying sensitive colleagues (even after he was sober); maltreating women, some referenced in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun. I had become the pinched one, unable to enjoy the elephant’s dance. David was generous to me in his book, acknowledging an incident I had actually forgiven him for. But as David’s fame grew, I became as addicted to my wounds as he had been to cocaine. Mine was one part righteousness—memorializing the unreconciled injuries of those left behind—and several parts jealousy, as my career went sideways while his rocketed up.
Someone once told me “pain is a teacher,” and the night I heard of David’s death, my first feeling was pain, honest pain, the grief that comes from a heart unobstructed. He had been the whirlwind who pushed me into Minneapolis’ underbelly, leaving me a real journalist and wiser person. There was also admiration: for taming his dysfunction to save his family; for pounding the keyboard until flamboyant writing turned brilliant.
The second feeling was regret, or maybe shame; that I hadn’t tended a friendship, that my self-hatred had keep two men in their 50s from reconciling the sins of their 20s and 30s. I missed David’s daughters growing up, the home he and his wife, Jill, had made in Montclair, his country place in the Adirondacks. Just before his death,I nearly called him for parenting advice; that wisdom will never be transmitted.
But the final feeling was joy, honest joy, the kind that comes from eyes unobstructed. I had seen the striving David, the selfish David, the scary David. Reading the tributes—from now-famous African-American writers for whom David threw open the doors of Washington City Paper, from hundreds of young journalists David inspired, from hardened New York Times colleagues who packed their newsroom in tribute—I saw just how much of his baggage had fallen away, and how much of my own should, too. Now I felt how David’s soul had lightened, making it easier to ascend.