In 2008, I was on the phone with my friend’s younger brother when the news broke that Tim Russert had died. I didn’t have much of a relationship with my friend’s younger brother and can’t remember why we were on the phone in the first place. Perhaps we were planning a surprise party. Perhaps an intervention. Perhaps both.
“Oh, man,” Jack interrupted himself, “Tim Russert just died.”
“For the rest of my life,” I said, “You’ll be the one who told me that.”
About a week later, Jack’s name appeared on my screen, followed by the words George Carlin. Bernie Mac, I fired back. This is how the game began, innocently enough. This is also, somewhat miraculously, how it continued. For the past 12 years, every time a person of note has died, the two of us have raced to our phones. It is not the basis of our friendship. It is the entire friendship.
Visualize, if you will, what this looks like. More than a decade’s worth of two-word bubbles, staggered vertically like a video game ladder. We do not take joy in the deaths, nor do we fetishize or mourn them. We’re simply transferring names from one list to another. There are exceptions, such as the time we simultaneously texted each other Michael Jackson and argued about it. Or the time Jack wrote Carrie Fisher and I stopped short in the street and told him so. He didn’t know how to respond. The text exchange is not built for pathos, for treating celebrities like people. Perhaps the most chilling was Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’d met Hoffman at a Christmas party, where we shared a cigarette by an open window and he told me about a running joke he had with a friend. Wanting to amuse him, I took out my phone. He scrolled through the texts, using the fingers unoccupied by the cigarette, and laughed. A month later, I woke up to his name.
Twelve years is a long time for a text thread. Do we feel guilty about minimizing humanity for our own creepy amusement? It’s not like we’re selling it. We’re not paparazzi. Ours is a macabre piece of performance art for two. Though I sometimes wonder if we’ve managed to teach ourselves anything about anonymity versus fame. Sure doesn’t seem like it. The game’s counterintuitive mix of laziness and competition mimics the feeling of being on Twitter, which is also not an educational tool. We’ve played with the form (democracy, irony, disco, my youth, your youth) but really it was just the names of recently deceased celebrities. Was.
On March 11, I decided to start from scratch with a tacit set of criteria:
And we’re off to the races. Life outside the exchange is a never-ending procession of heartbreaking realities and depressing scenarios. Jack lives in Los Angeles, I live in Manhattan. We are surrounded. Sirens moan as if trying to make a point and we’re not listening. Okay, they say, maybe a little louder then. Doors that were once closed in caution remain propped open in caution. At minimum, the world has learned it’s possible to be homesick for the exact place in which you’re trapped. But by the time this year is over, none of us will have gotten away with “at minimum.” In the meantime, we’re told it’s helpful to maintain patterns, to develop hobbies. Some people make sourdough starters. Some do jigsaw puzzles. Jack and I do this.