Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Remembering Warren

[Warren's] been fighting off a brain tumor for two years; I've visited him in Brooklyn the last two Septembers, and the one two years ago, I caught a ride into Manhattan with the car service that was taking him to Sloan-Kettering to get his radiation mask fitted.

There is a lot of high-tech to marvel over, to distract from other things. In the radiation treatments, they shot "weak" gamma beams into his head from 16 different angles so that they would cross at the point of the tumor, doing minimum damage to other brain tissue, while intensifying at the tumor. The tumor was called, he said, an "astroblastoma," a star-like thing, actually more like an octopus with tentacles. It was on top of a more benign tumor that had been giving him seizures and preventing him from driving for about seven years prior to that. But that one was a slow-growing tumor, and had actually become an integral part of his brain structure.

At the time, two years ago, if you can't guess what I'm saying, the tumor was inoperable, but some of the treatments, in radiation and chemotherapy, were cutting edge. He heard more than twice, about particular circumstances, "If you would have showed up five years earlier with this, we'd have to tell you there was nothing we could do." Well, this January, even the "inoperable" label was removed, and he had an operation. And more chemo.

And he called me, maybe in May, to say he was "better." I was standing in front of the cashier at Staples, and I told her sorry, I did really have to take this call -- and when I was done I told her through tears that it was a friend of mine who has had a brain tumor, and he just told me he was getting better. (People with brain tumors have a lot of trouble with communication; you have to make it as easy as you can.)

Well, enough about that. People get caught up in the minutia of illness.

Warren Stewart was one of, if not the, most cheerful, gracious, kind, generous, understanding, brilliant, and funny people I have ever known. I still remember back in the early days him showing up at a party I threw in a PA farmhouse, wearing a fez. In my family, it would be said: I threw parties where men wearing "fezez" might show up.

The first time I met him was at a "Bad English" concert he invited us to, in a small venue just off the U. Penn campus.

No, the first time I met him, maybe, was in New Orleans, at the Jazz and Heritage Festival. David Owen arranged for two blocks of tickets to New Orleans, one from Philadelphia and one from Boston, and we all stayed at the Charles Hotel in the Garden District. We had a big banquet dinner one night at Tujac's, the famous restaurant on Decatur Street, and Warren selected the wine.

He was half Scottish and half Catholic-Arab, was 10 lbs at birth, and grew up in the famous housing tract "Levittown, PA," where his mother lives today.

He was a linguist and statistician and French-trained chef. I met him through my ex; they worked at Kurzweil AI, here in Waltham, developing speech recognition software.

When he lived in MA, his neighbors called him the "Southern Bon-Vivant," a term I love, although where we're from is not technically "Southern." Heo told a story of this woman raving in the back yard, with a broom, while he was hosting a barbeque. The quintessential Yankee Rose, I guess. Man, could he throw a party. His "target kill ratio" for bottles of wine:person was 1:1. Then there was the scotch whiska.

He was a person of such abundance; he was always offering me the most amazing treasures, Russian boots or tiny pelts of Persian lambs, sheets of crocodile-embossed leather. When I thought my kitchen was empty, he made a delicious chocolate mousse from what he found there.
I remember all his assorted coffee machines he had in the kitchen on 11th St., and the microwave with no glass, just the mesh, which was "a Faraday Cage; the glass does nothing at all," he would say ...

Then there was the friendship he offered me. No one has ever commented on my good qualities as much as Warren. Talking to him, every time, improved my self-worth. He made me feel special. It was safe to dream aloud with him. And it was fun, and funny.

And then there were all the things he understood about people . . . it was wildly comforting to find someone who knew what I was talking about, and he always did.

I sent him some videos of Big Cats recently. He claims he used to have an in with the big-cat keepers at the Philadelphia Zoo, and used to be allowed to pet the tigers. Is what he said. Well, they were different times ...


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