by John Thompson
A caveat: capturing James in a few words is unthinkable, almost criminal, when considering his own verbose writing style. As his brother of 46 years, I am still unpacking who he was and how much he meant to me, his loved ones, and the rest of his community.
I may be an unreliable narrator; this is how I see my brother with a heavy heart. I do not wish to be limited by the following remembrance, as I expect we will all continue to glean additional insights from the wondrous life James shared with us all.
James was a dynamo. To be in the same room meant hearing his voice, being intrigued (or challenged) by his ideas, and feeling his loud, distinct laugh that he was gifted from his mother. For all the electricity he spun, whether it was helping a kid learn how to ride a bike, reciting a poem, or challenging local political norms, his heart never quit giving a sincere energy. He wanted his passion to be shared, and for the good to be procured. He was continuous without stopping. He was genuine and pure.
James was a community activist, or rather a Marxist Anarchist Christian. He didn’t make mention of being born in California, nor that people mislabeled him as a Democrat. He may have offered spoken and written words with eloquence, but he kept his mission simple: know better, do better.
Voting wasn’t a celebration, but rather a battle in the war. He believed local folk were the bedrock of making real change. Visiting with prisoners to discuss forced labor, educating local council on the homeless, fighting for the sanctity of land use, marching against fascists on his home turf, listening to anyone who needed their voice to be heard, this was James. James was the voice for the voiceless. In that, his spirit shined.
James was a great intellect, a voracious self-learner and artist. Songs, poems, gourmet meals (and some god-awful misfires), public speeches, computer programs, political essays, ink drawings, bike repairs, election campaigns, violin pieces, letters to the editor, strategies on unionizing, landscape paintings, house painting, dissertations — James could really do it all. It could be intimidating to be honest, or maybe even tick you off a touch. He didn’t own many books, but he read more than one could imagine. I did find a copy of James Baldwin on his table. He made use of a Puritan work ethic. Idle hands and all.
James was a runner and a cyclist. Both of these endurance sports carry an aspect of his character. Running was an escape, not from people, but from being alone with his thoughts. In his later years, people would ask him how far he had gone, and he’d reply, “A couple of hours.” He’d break new trails and leave water and snacks for later treks into the wilderness.
Cycling was similar, but carried a communal aspect. This is where James learned camaraderie and the importance of team.
He never boasted about winning, but about how the team functioned together, how the new riders carried the load. He found community. He found a purpose in welcoming novices and organizing effort into success. He liked to win, but as a result of the communion.
James was Gainesville. Some places hold magic for people, and Gainesville held the right ingredients in damn fine people, institutions, a plethora of sun, beaches and lakes, cycling, and community. He fought so hard for every aspect of this town.
When I came to visit my father a few years back, James drove me by a park for kids he had helped build. He beamed. Not with pride, but for the future. Everything in Gainesville mattered to James. And everyone. Whether you agreed with him or not, if you needed support, he had your back. After all, when you share the same roof, best to make the most of the house.
James was many other things: an unapologetic eater of leftovers, a binge watcher of bad TV, an expert on Frank Herbert’s Dune, an endless resource on all facets of coffee, a listener with grand intentions, a suspect dresser with his rad plaid, the most educated on both sides of his family, a proud blue-collar laborer who came from blue-collar roots, the favorite “uncle” to many of his friends’ kids, a dear friend who was always a call away, a partner (who wanted nothing more than to spend his time with Melissa), a first son, and a brother to one. He was more than we will ever know.
James and I would end our calls with a proclamation, “Carry the fire.” It was a line lifted from Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, but it holds so much more gravitas. It is Promethean in its charge to be creative with the gifts that the old titans have provided us. And that is what we must do now—carry the fire within our warm hearts and in our worn hands so that we can light the way for all those around us. With just a little spark and sweat we can fashion the reality that James struggled so desperately against into new palimpsests of grandeur, filled with dignity.
In this new story, James will be the hero.
“The sleep of a laboring man is sweet.” Ecclesiastes 5:12