Of Picnics Past

Autumn arrives today. We’ll soon feel summer receding.

But before today’s bracing briskness here in the Berkshires turns into outright chilliness, I thought I would pay tribute to a nice summer tradition that Eddie and I promulgated for several years during the 1980s.

We were living in New York City back then — in the borough of Queens, to be specific; and in the neighborhood of Jackson Heights, to be even more specific.

Some background: it has often been observed that the population density and fast pace of life in New York City combine to encourage two seemingly contradictory trends. Unless you live the life of a hermit, you can expect meet more and more interesting people with each passing day, some of whom you’ll view as newly minted friends. HOWEVER, with each passing day you’re also likely to find less and less time available for spending relaxed time with the ever-widening circle of friends you’ve been accumulating.

At some point (I don’t remember the exact year), Eddie and I found ourselves frustrated enough by this paradox to contrive a scheme for thwarting it. We decided to try to get as many of our friends as possible together in one place roomier than our own home at least once every summer. It could be formatted as a picnic; that way we wouldn’t incur the cost of providing refreshments for the large number of friends we’d like to assemble, as would be expected had we tried to squeeze all of them into our small Jackson Heights apartment.

But where to locate our projected super-picnic? How about Central Park in Manhattan? With a little scouting, Eddie and I zeroed in on a particularly felicitous meadow. Selecting that as our gathering place would have the added benefit of allowing all comers to bask in the great outdoors instead of trying to squeeze between each other in our home’s smallish rooms.

We picked a date, named our yearly event the "Annual Quasi-Spontaneous Central Park Picnic," and set about inviting people. Below is an adapted version of the invitation I drew and mailed out for the fifth iteration of our tradition. (I’ve rearranged and added color to its elements to make it look better on the web.)

We had apparently hit on a good idea, because our picnics proved popular. Attendance grew every summer. Everyone seemed to have a good time. It would have been nice had we been able to keep the tradition going indefinitely, but that proved impossible, since over time the postage required to send out invitations to our ever-swelling list of potential picnickers became more than we could afford. Remember, back then there was no email.

Still, it was great while it lasted.

Remembering Who Was There

My original impulse when I decided to talk about our picnics and display this invitation on my blog was to rummage through our family scrapbooks for the snapshots we took during our years of Central Park parties. We certainly have no shortage of such photographs, and I thought that all sorts of warm and fuzzy feelings would be generated (at least among those who used to come to these picnics) by seeing the images of so many younger versions of our longtime friends lolling about on the summer grass together.

Once I began sifting through the old photographs, though, I chickened out. I saw that going hog-wild scanning the snapshots for my blog would have a down side.

It’s not that there weren’t plenty of warm, fuzzy feelings to be had. Those snapshots include the youthful faces of many friends with whom we’re still in contact, present day companions on this planet who have shared with Eddie and me the richness of passing decades along with the accumulation of gray hairs and wrinkles that go with time’s passage.

But my pleasure in re-visiting those days was darkened by being reminded of the cloud that hovered over all of us during the 1980s and 1990s. Among the faces in our picnic photos were way too many that never had an opportunity to gather the gray hairs and wrinkles that go with the long arc of life experience. I’m talking about those of our friends whose lives were claimed by the AIDS epidemic while they were still in their twenties. Or thirties. Some were even lucky enough to make it into their forties or fifties before a random opportunistic infection knocked the legs out from under them. But forty or fifty is still too young to be snatched away.

Seeing them and missing them still makes me angry. And anger wasn’t the feeling I wanted to communicate by sharing with you something as pleasant as our Central Park Picnics of yore.

So I’ll just let the happy vibe of my light-hearted invitation speak for itself.

With One Exception

Having said all that, I don’t want to let the moment pass without paying tribute to three particular friends who were among our picnics’ regular attendees back in the day. They’re shown in the three photographs below; they are (from left to right) John Tebbel, Arthur Tebbel, and Martha Thomases.

(Martha, as I’ve often mentioned, is the person who first suggested that I consider writing and drawing a graphic novel for DC Comics. That led to Stuck Rubber Baby; and as you probably know, many good things have flowed from that. Since leaving her post at DC Martha has been most visible to the world as a columnist at ComicMix and Michael Davis World. But right now it’s not Martha I want to write about; it’s her husband John.)

As you know if you clicked on his link above, John died in April. That pisses me off. Losing my friends continues to have that effect on me, even when AIDS isn’t involved, as is the case with John. But at the risk of introducing a dark cloud into my talk of summer picnics, I can’t resist taking note of John’s passing several months ago because he looks so damned sunny in the picnic snapshot of him that I’m showing you.

That image brings back memories of all the good conversations (and occasional friendly arguments) I had with John while he was alive. They force me to surrender to warm and fuzzy feelings about him even though he would definitely look askance at having such maudlin terms applied to any remembrance of him.

Too bad, John; if you’re put off by warm and fuzzy, you shouldn’t have spent so much time becoming an expert on Disney animation.

The pleasures of knowing the three-member Tebbel-Thomases family have been enhancing the Sedarbaum-Cruse family’s quality of life for almost all of the thirty-three years that Eddie and I have spent together. Happily, Arthur and Martha are still within reach (although "Arthur" has become "Art" in adulthood). That helps us deal with John’s physical presence being gone.

Looking at the wry expression on John’s youthful face in the snapshot above generates in me a mixture of pleasure and yearning that mirrors the bittersweetness of life itself. I want all the good parts of being alive to keep on going and going. I don’t want to let go of any of them.
But just as AIDS ripped one valued friend after another out of our lives during the worst of the gay-centric phase of the epidemic, getting older is bringing a fresh wave of losses caused by more conventional ailments, like the cancer that leapt out of nowhere to snag John this spring. That’s the way things go; there’s no getting around it.

It still makes me mad, though, and I’m bad at composing eulogies because my verbal capacities freeze up when I’m pissed. So I’m relieved that I can hand over my virtual microphone to The Beat‘s Heidi Macdonald, who wrote some eloquent words about our mutual friend in her April 18 post.

Also, that tyke named Arthur in the picnic photos above has grown up, moved to Los Angeles, and become comedy screenwriter-improvisational performer-humor columnist Art Tebbel. And it’s in the last of those roles that Art wrote the following down-to-earth tribute to his dad (who as you can see from the photo on the right below, never stopped being able to do wry).

Above: Art and John Tebbel.
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About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
This entry was posted in A Tip o' the Hat, Family & Friends, Yesterday & Today. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Of Picnics Past

  1. Martha Thomases says:

    Thank you, sweetie. Miss you, too.