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to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Monday, November 7, 2022

GOING HOME: Remembering Mike Duran, 1949-2022

I first met Mike on a baseball field. We played together on a New Orleans youth team sponsored by Carrollton Refrigeration, whose name was emblazoned on the backs of our blue-and-white uniforms. We were champions of the 11-year-old league that year. Mike was a star. I was a bench warmer. We became best friends and stayed best friends over the next six decades. And baseball remained our shared passion. In a city that had no professional team, we had to find somebody else to root for. Naturally, we chose the Yankees.
    The next year saw the legendary home run race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle as they chased Babe Ruth’s record. Mike and I followed every game, clipped every newspaper article on the M&M twins and glued them in scrapbooks. It was a great bonding experience, though we were fiercely competitive about who had the best book. We also tri ed to emulate our heroes by playing home run derby using a wiffle bat and, for some reason, a crumpled-up wad of aluminum foil as a ball. We usually played on Burdette Street, in front of Mike’s house, or in the driveway of my Aunt Pat’s house on Vincennes. Mike usually won—but not always. I can still hear the thwack of that yellow plastic bat connecting with the aluminum foil ball. (Years later my Aunt Pat found one of our balls in the gutter of her garage, blocking the downspout.)
    When we were not playing baseball, we roamed the neighborhood on hot summer afternoons looking for interesting things to do. We terrorized birds with our Whammo sling shots and left quite a few dents in the stop signs along Fontainebleau Drive. We spent a lot of time in the air-conditioned oasis of Gravois’ Pharmacy on Carrollton and Walmsley, across from Lafayette School. We would read Superman and Batman comics from their newsstand and sip Barq’s root beers and Chocolate Soldiers. It was also at Gravois’ that we bought our first Duncan yo-yo’s and learned all the cool tricks that would become another object of our friendly competition: Walk-the-Dog, Around-the-World, Loop-the-Loop…
    But the main attraction of Gravois’, besides the AC, was the baseball cards that we would buy by the dozen. We would eagerly tear open the packs, stuff the enclosed chewing gum into our bulging cheeks, and argue over who got the best cards: “I got Yogi Berra, that’s ten times better than your Bobby Richardson!” “Says who? I got Stan Musial and Rocky Colavito!” We both wound up with large collections—and yes, we both got Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris that year—but we stupidly played games with our cards, stand-up, knock-down, closies, that left them creased with rounded edges and made them worthless. Our most prized cards were spared that indignity but, as was often the case, our mothers eventually threw them out. (At least mine did, maybe Mike’s survived.) We were inseparable friends in those days, as close as any brothers, closer than some. I remember something Mike said back then that always stuck in my mind: “Maybe some day our kids will play together.”
    Those years passed quickly. Mike and I went to different high schools, Jesuit for him, Ben Franklin for me. We would occasionally run into each other at dances or a local hamburger joint like College Inn or Bud’s Broiler, but as we advanced into our late teens we sort of drifted apart. And when time came to go off to college, our paths diverged more sharply: Mike, largely at his father’s urging, went to the Naval Academy, while I (at my father’s urging) went to Harvard. I remember a brief phone conversation with him just before we both left town. “Maybe we’ll meet at a football game,” he said. “Yeah, Mike, that would be great,” I replied. Neither of us probably realized at the time that a puny Ivy League team like Harvard would never find itself on the same field with the formidable Navy squad. I didn’t learn until many years later what a miserable time Mike had had at Anapolis, or that he had transferred to UNO and later attended the University of Maine, where he joined a rock band and lived in an unheated cabin while he earned a masters in English. Mike always did things his way.
    After I went off to college, I lived away from New Orleans for the next few decades. During trips home to visit my parents, I would occasionally cross paths with Mike. I remember one time, maybe around 1980, I was waiting in line at a bank when somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to see a tall guy in the uniform of a Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries employee. It was Mike. We hugged each other and I think I went to his place later and had dinner with him and his then wife. We did a lot of reminiscing and had a great time together, but I came away thinking it was strange, and kind of sad, that somebody as brilliant as Mike Duran had wound up as a game warden. The next time I ran into him, somewhere in the CBD, he was wearing an expensive suit and was working for one of the top law firms in the city. He had actually gone back to law school at a relatively mature age and earned two law degrees. That was the Mike I knew: he was a fighter who always managed to land on his feet.
    Not long after that, Mike had to come to New York to take a deposition. I was working for Time magazine then and living in Westchester County, north the city. Mike had brought his little boy Chance along on the trip and they stayed with us a few nights. Chance and my son Julian fulfilled Mike’s childhood prophesy about our kids playing together one day. And of course, we all went to a Yankees game. Sitting in choice seats behind the Yanks’ dugout, I said to Mike, “Well, we finally made it to Yankee Stadium.” I don’t even remember who won the game. The important thing was that we were there together, in the house of Ruth, Mantle, and Maris, passing our passion for the Yanks on to our sons.
    A decade or so went by before I saw Mike again. I was at the Maple Street Bookstore to do a reading from my memoir about growing up in New Orleans. Mike waited in line anonymously to get his copy signed. I didn’t know he was there until it was his turn. I looked up and saw that familiar grin (what a grin he had). I signed the book to “my oldest and best friend.” Then Mike plopped a package down on the table, a thick manuscript wrapped in kraft paper and tied with white twine. “Read it when you have time,” he said.
    It was his own coming-of-age memoir, unpublished, but beautifully written. I figured in the childhood parts, which moved me greatly. He also wrote about his parents, Grace and Richard, Sr., whom I knew as a kid. And of course about baseball. But there were sides of Mike that I didn’t know about, like his passion for hunting and the great outdoors. And references to the pop music of the time, which he knew far better than me. And his love of literature. What mainly impressed me, though, was the quality of the writing.
    Over the years, he shared with me many of his other writings, including two novels and a provocative essay on race. I didn’t like the race essay, though it was skillfully developed and argued. Mike and I did not see eye to eye on politics. We generally avoided the subject and tolerated our differences: I was his liberal friend and he was my right-wing buddy. I’ll admit it was hard for me to swallow the fact that he had voted for Trump (twice), but I’m sure he didn’t appreciate my votes for Hillary and Biden. The one consolation was the thought that our votes cancelled each other out.
    As for his other writings, I offered suggestions and critiques that I think he found helpful. The last one, Stigma, was a novel about priestly pedophilia that he considered so provocative that he signed it anonymously as “Antoine Nusmun” when he got it published. But it was also a semi-autobiographical novel about the redemption and vindication of a Mike-like character. Apart from the sex offense (which he told me did not actually involve him), it was really a novel about the main character’s evolution from an angry, smartass youth—a self-described jerk—into a loving husband and father at peace with himself and the world. At Mike’s request, I gladly provided a word of praise for the back cover. I wish he had signed his own name and taken credit for his work, but he wanted to avoid any controversy over his scathing attack on the Church.
    I note in passing that I was somewhat surprised by his apparent drift away from his strict Catholic roots towards an involvement with the Methodist church, thereby joining me as a Protestant (a status that he never actually acknowledged to me). Stigma contains a partial explanation for this shift: his view that the Catholics, or at least the Jesuits who were his teachers, had given short shrift to the message of faith and redemption preached by Saint Paul. For Mike remained profoundly religious, an intellectual deeply versed in philosophy, for whom the search for the fundamental truths mattered.
    But baseball also mattered. In the later years of our friendship, Mike and I established a ritual: whenever I was in town, we would attend a baseball game together. New Orleans had a Triple-A team then, originally named the Zephyrs for the legendary roller coaster at the long-defunct Pontchartrain Beach amusement park. The Zephyrs had their own ballpark out on Airline Highway. Mike and I would meet at the ticket booth, both wearing our Yankee caps. At his insistence, we always got seats directly behind home plate, so he could see the pitches come in. “Got him on the changeup!” he would say, or “Trouble with the curve ball.” While we watched the game, we would gorge ourselves on hot dogs and beer and, since it was New Orleans, red beans and rice. And we would laugh, and talk, and reminisce, as our faces turned red with sunburn. Those were wonderful moments. But at some point, some idiot decided to change the team’s name to the “Baby Cakes.” It seemed to me that attendance fell off rapidly after that. Who wanted to root for a team with such a pathetic name? I’m not certain, but I think the name change had a lot to do with the team’s demise. At any rate, the franchise folded and that was the end of our ballpark ritual.
    But we had another ritual: Thursday lunch at New Orleans Spirits and Seafood out by the lake. Thursdays because that was the day they served rabbit. I don’t know how many times we ate there, but it was always a joy. When the waitress asked if we wanted one or two pieces, one of us would say, “I didn’t drive all the way out here for one piece of rabbit!” Always two. With Barq’s root beer.
    At one of our rabbit feasts, Mike let me listen to some music on his phone. It was one of his own compositions called “Opening Line,” about the quandary of a lone man in a cowboy bar eyeing a sexy lady but hesitating to make a move until she answers the question: “How do you identify?” I thought it was fabulous, typically Mike Duran with it’s no-bullshit takedown of political correctness and transgender culture. But it was also fabulous for another reason: Mike’s voice, deeper than his speaking voice, took on the Western accent and persona of a country singer. It reminded me of Johnny Cash, or maybe even Tom Waits. In any case, this was a real talent that I had been totally unaware of. At my request, he later send me a couple of CDs of tunes he had composed and recorded with his musically talented sons, Chase, Soren, and Mike, Jr. I was blown away by the inventiveness of the lyrics and the musical quality of the performances. As with his novel, I regretted that he had not signed his own name to his music, instead using the pseudonym of “Kirk Castle.” By any name, though, these recordings, like his writings, were important to Mike, something he wanted to stand as a “legacy.”
    Which brings me to the sad part of this story. The idea of legacy goes with mortality, and in his last years, Mike was made painfully aware of his own. I knew he had battled prostate cancer decades earlier and assumed he had beat it. But in one of his emails, he told me it had returned and metastasized. At our last rabbit lunch in March, he was in a lot of pain. The silver hair that protruded from under his cloth cap had turned curly like mine, a result, he told me, of his chemotherapy. He said his doctor had given him up to a year to live. He hoped to make one last trip to Europe if he could, maybe we would meed in Paris. I asked him, “What’s your state of mind, Mike?” Without hesitating, he replied: “I have faith.” We shared a brotherly hug when we parted. I feared it was the last time I would see him.
    But we kept in contact by email. The brilliant opening of the Yankees’ 2022 season gave us a subject of running commentary. I would send him articles from the New York Times (probably not his favorite newspaper) about Yankee victories and the seemingly unassailable lead they had in the AL East. He would send me pictures of Mickey Mantle and other legendary Yanks grabbed off the Internet. Of course we were fascinated by the new home run race: Aaron Judge’s pursuit of Maris’s record. (We never acknowledged the phony records of the steroid junkies in the National League.) We started out saying Judge’s performance didn’t have the magic of the M&M twins in 1961. But as his numbers climbed higher and higher, we both got into it and cheered him on. Meanwhile, our Yanks hit the skids after the All Star game. I conveyed my concern to Mike, and he replied, “Don’t worry, next week we go home.”
    In my last email to Mike, I sent him a feature article about players’ relationships with their gloves. “Do you remember the smell of your first glove?” I wrote. He answered, “I do. And the saddle soap.” Then he gave me the shattering news that he was in hospice care surrounded by his wife and sons. I wrote one or two emails after that, but got no reply. By that time, I suppose he was heavily sedated and headed into that good night.
    My heart lept in early September when I saw a message from Mike in my inbox. Turns out it was his wife Judy informing me that her beloved husband, my beloved friend and brother, had passed away. Though I was expecting the news, my eyes filled with tears and I couldn’t sleep that night. My mind was running and re-running the film of our long friendship. I was privileged to know Mike and be his friend from childhood into old age. He was in many ways a larger-than-life character, one of a kind. It’s hard to imagine a world in which he is no longer present. What consoles me is the knowledge of his own deep faith, and his remark, originally about the Yankees, but now about Mike’s own journey: “Don’t worry, we’re going home.”

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