Last week a man and a woman of his acquaintance were out late in New Orleans, where they lived, and decided to go out on an old pier on the Mississippi that was unlocked. They had been drinking, apparently quite a lot. At some point, as they sat, stood, talked - who knows? - the pier collapsed under them, sending them plunging into the river. She got out. He didn't. It took days for the New Orleans police to take the matter seriously, and it was only yesterday that his body was found, trapped in rubble and debris under the broken pier.
His name was James Dugan and I knew him. Not well, and not lately, not since college. We had, as so many people have and do, reconnected on Facebook, and though our interactions there were few and far between, I looked forward to his posts and pictures. He was still lanky, still had that style that swung from punk to prep, though now he had a shock of grey at the front of his dark hair. Same grin, though. Cocky bastard.
Dugan - and I only ever called him Dugan - was the set designer/builder for the play I directed during my junior year in college. He also played the bellboy, a small part. The play was Neil Simon's Plaza Suite, and Dugan built me a hotel room. It had a door, stage right, leading to an unseen bathroom. We needed a window that would open, and stay open, for a scene where one character crawls out to the ledge in order to get in the bathroom where his daughter has locked herself. He made a window with a counterweight that worked beautifully.
He was also a major pain in the ass. It seemed to me that he was trying very, very hard to be some kind of scary-ass thug type who would cut you as soon as look at you. And all I could think was, "Dude, you're at St. John's College. Nobody who has a jones to learn ancient Greek is a scary-ass thug. Get over it." He and my stage manager hated each other and more than once Dugan threatened to deck him. I used to joke that after, "Castro, that was good, but you need to slow down," the thing I used to say most during rehearsals and prep was, "Goddammit, Dugan." He might be late, or not show at all, and always, always with the attitude, the grin, and a cigarette.
But whatever he did to drive me nuts, he always came through in the end. By the time the play was finally performed for real, he was an integral part of the little temporary family that is always created when a play is put together. On opening night, there was a good foot of snow on the ground, one of the biggest snowstorms I had seen in that area. I was not allowed to hover backstage during the performance, and instead sat in the audience clutching Aaron Finkelstein's arm and praying that no one would fall or forget their lines. It went beautifully, and, best of all, the audience laughed.
At the end, the cast came out to take their bows, and I was pushed up onstage to take mine. Someone handed me flowers. The curtain closed and then, as I was catching my breath and taking it all in, Dugan walked over to me, put an arm around me and led me toward the the set's bathroom door, looking very proud of himself. Behind it, just beyond sight of the audience, was an old toilet, stolen from the trash of some construction work that was being done on the building. The toilet was full of snow, and chilling in the snow was a bottle of champagne.
I don't know for sure if Dugan was the one who did that, but that is how I have always remembered that moment. That the wanna-be scary-ass thug with the cocky grin and the cigarette was the one who knew the best way to celebrate when it was all over. You know how some people kind of sweep through your life briefly, but leave a stamp - like a little symbol or talisman - that you'll remember years and years later, even when other memories and details fade? The champagne chilling in the snow in an old toilet is one of those talismans for me. And it is what I think of now.
So, Dugan, I don't think there's any more snows coming this winter. But I'll be chilling some champagne this weekend and thinking of you. Rest in peace.