August 13, 2009

Andy Kessler 1961-2009

It’s weird when you read an obituary for someone you actually knew. The New York Times managed to cover most of the bases, but it still felt like I was reading about a complete stranger.
I first met Andy at Westside Comics back in the fall of 1980 when I was only 12. He had a good seven or eight years on me, but he never passed up a chance to check out somebody’s “black book,” the sketchbook that all New York City boys who wrote graffiti (or aspired to “get up” beyond their own city block and onto actual trains) carried with them everywhere. Andy was a fucking harsh critic.
I wasn’t ever sure if Andy actually worked there or not, since I’d seen him fetch his skateboard from behind the counter more than once. Westside Comics was a “Mos Eisley port” of sorts for kids who had ambitions beyond vandalism. It was a very clean comics shop that had some very “dirty” comics in it, so the kids came from all over and from every walk of life. It was the place I went to for Vaughn Bode reprints, “adult” comic books like Heavy Metal, Epic, 2000AD, Cerebus, and magazines like Warrior and Cinefex. It became a “writers bench north” for a short while, until the store’s owner, a skinny bearded guy with a fucked-up wandering eye got wise and started chasing anybody with “writing” on their clothes out, whether they were in the middle of a game of Q*bert or not. Andy was there a lot, a "White" kid who passed for Latino because he was Greek. When kids got chased out of the store, he’d leave too, even though he didn’t have to and that’s one of the things I always remembered about him through the years.
I say I knew Andy, but everybody did back then, from Amsterdam Avenue, to 125th, to 180th in the Bronx, back down to Alphabet City, and up on over to Brooklyn. He made it a point to go up and approach people he thought were doing cool shit, but that’s not to say he was shy about his estimation of his own talents. Andy could talk some serious trash too. I saw him stun more than one kid into absolute silence, and the man really liked to argue.
Andy was the first community organizer I ever met, -before I knew what the word actually meant, although he probably didn’t think of himself that way, he was too down to earth for that. But I certainly did think of him in those terms often because he got people talking to each other wherever he went. I was from the South Bronx, where nobody rode a skateboard more than 5 feet’s distance thanks to the rotten state of the pavement and broken glass everywhere. Andy was one of the only people on a skateboard I knew of, outside of an eccentric “Rider” in my neighborhood who used to tag/write “Rib.” Skateboarding was something you read about in “Skateboarder.” Anybody who did it in New York City back in those days was kind of crazy.

After I graduated from the Calhoun school in 1986, I didn’t run into Andy anymore except for one day in the summer of 1988 by the Astor Place cube. He was watching kids skate… he said he’d fucked up his foot. He asked to see my sketchbook, which was full of academic drawings of human models in conte and hard charcoal. He really let me have it. With Cooper Union as a backdrop, he gave me all this shit about “conformity” and how “the world didn’t need anymore paintings of naked ladies.” As always, he was just more experienced and sophisticated than I was, due to the difference in our age, and I couldn’t put up much of a fight. He was hell to argue with when he was high, so I walked away without saying goodbye.

The last time I saw Andy was at a show a couple of years back in Williamsburg Brooklyn, I can’t remember exactly where, -a space north of the bridge off Bedford Ave. A good friend of mine named Ezra Talmatch had paintings in a show hung in a typical grey painted floor factory space that had been turned into a gallery… but a permanent wooden ramp had been built for the kids in the neighborhood to skate in. The place was packed, paintings everywhere.

But there was a grown man with slicked-back hair wearing dickies and a dark brown flannel work coat buttoned to the neck, catching air off the ramps. It was Andy.

He saw me and called me over. We shook hands and hugged. We talked for a bit, he mentioned wanting to transform more unused factory spaces around the city into indoor parks, so kids could skate despite the rain or the snow all year round; restating his lifelong mission as if he’d never told anybody before. We complained about Giuliani, Bloomberg. A kid interrupted him to ask him to sign his deck. Then Andy slapped me and Ezra five and abruptly tipped off of the lip of the wooden ramp, down and up, down and up.

I had named a family of characters after him in my 2001 story for “The Innertube Mothership Connection:” -the “Kesslars;” extraterrestrials posing as bicycle messengers on Earth. I never got to tell him about it, or show him the drawings for the series. I never got to tell him that there were no hard feelings about all the shit he gave me, here and there over the years… Well, no hard feelings that lasted.

Andy was flying through the air the last time I saw him, and for all the shit I’m going to read and hear about him over the next few days, about all the problems he had and people he pissed off, and everybody who loved him or envied him, that’s the way I’m going to remember him: in glorious flight.

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