Charles J. (Skip) Dougherty hung himself in his apartment almost a decade ago. He was a good friend. A neighbor. A regular cast member in my student films. And a man who suffered both physically and emotionally.
He was Irish Catholic, in his fifties, a 36 year veteran of the iron workers union and the guy I would call if I needed help with anything. Like that time I got locked out of my apartment on Brandywine Street. Or the time we needed a gun for a film. And he called his brother, a big shot in Philadelphia politics, and got us one. No questions asked. Or the time I needed someone to play a psychiatrist, a priest and finally, in his last performance, a con artist.
I often think about CJ. That’s what everyone used to call him. Especially when life has got me by the balls. And I’m full of self pity. And doubt. And I force myself to think about the things that have great value to me. That make me happy. That help get me through the night.
These are a few of my favorite things:
1. M.’s grey dress. Which she asked me specifically not to mention in any blog. And certainly not to take a picture of. And under no circumstance to do both. But it’s the dress she wore on the day I fell in love with her. Because our’s wasn’t the storybook love at first sight. If such a thing exists. Our’s was love at second sight. At least for me. And that moment that I saw her. Waiting for me on Nachlat Binyamin. In that dress. With her hair flattened. And a shy smile on her face. I knew it. I knew it right then and there.
And we held hands as we walked past the artisans and the craft tables and when we were done she asked me if I wanted to meet her grandmother. And she could have asked me anything at that moment. There wasn’t a bank I wouldn’t have robbed, a bridge I wouldn’t have jumped off of. Anything.
And that dress is old now. It was old when she wore it that day. But it’s even older now. And fraying. And worn down. And faded. But when she wears that dress my heart skips a beat.
2. This IKEA stuffed animal. Nicknamed Booba. D. carries him to bed every night. And we lay in that tiny bed, my love handles pushing against those brittle wooden slats, and we say goodnight to all the people we know and love in this world. In a particular order. With P. first. Followed by my folks, their dog Fiona and then my mother in law. And we continue with all of his friends. Depending on how tired he is the list can get ridiculously long.
And I’ll find myself saying goodnight to Woody and Buzz (from Toy Story), the moon, the towels, an elephant. And finally, just as his eyes get real heavy and sleep threatens to whisk him away, he mumbles a barely coherent “Good Night, Booba”. And then he falls asleep. And there is nothing in the world I cherish more than those few minutes I get to spend with him and Booba every night.
3. Picasso’s Spanish war painting, “Guernica”. Which has a permanent home at the MOMA in NYC. And I love this particular painting not because it’s a heartbreaking rendering of suffering and war, but rather because of a certain act of heroism that my father performed in 1974. A crazed man began spray painting “Lies Kill All” on the painting as a protest of Watergate. And my father was there. And he tackled that crazed man. And wrestled the spray can away from him. Until the police showed up. And arrested the man. The painting was later restored. But my takeaway from this story, told over and over again through the years, is that ordinary people become extraordinary individuals, heroes really, if they have the courage to act.
4. This picture of my brother and I. Taken in Ashkelon. In 1980. Because we’re living a few thousand kilometers apart and we don’t see each other more than once a year. And we both have our families. And our lives. And our problems. But there’s something so innocent about the two kids in that picture. Infinite possibilities. Infinite time to learn and explore. Infinite time to dream. And as we get older and more distant, I find myself longing for that moment in time, when the whole universe was still big enough to hold.
5. The Face of Civilized Man. Which was the last short film I made starring CJ. And it’s not my best. By any means. But it reminds me of him. And it gives me a chance to see him. And hear his voice. Like a ghost. Like the light of a dying star that traverses through time and space and reaches our eyes.
A few weeks before he hung himself he left a long, rambling message on my answering machine. Because back then we had answering machines with small little tapes. And he used up the entire reel of the tape. It was a combination of the pain meds he was on coupled with the deep depression. I erased it angrily. And never called him back. And then one day I found this picture, from a short film we had shot, in my mailbox with the following note inscribed on the back:
“A good memory.”
And I couldn’t bring myself to go to the funeral. Or do anything really except drink. And smoke. For weeks.
And now that it’s been a decade since I’ve seen my old friend, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank him.
Not for one good memory.
But for a lifetime of them.