The news came down yesterday afternoon that John Harkness had been found dead in his apartment. He was 53.
I don’t have anything pithy or clever to say. With Angie, there was a sense that things weren’t going well; she’d been fighting cancer for years, and there was an inevitable downward track. John, well, I’d just seen him on Saturday to advise him on a projector for his new condominium, and we’d spent Friday night exchanging e-mails while counting the TFCA nomination ballots.
And now he’s gone. I spent most of yesterday afternoon coordinating phone calls and hearing people make the same noise I made when I got the news — a sudden, shocked exhale of air, followed by silence or tears.
Disbelief. Anger. And then, almost immediately, a sense that John would have had something funny to say right about now.
John Harkness was a great critic and a good friend. In addition to helping me develop as a writer over the eighteen years and change that we knew one another, he taught me two very important moral lessons: Never apologize for the things you enjoy, and always buy your friends dinner if you can afford it.
Also, back when I lived up the street from him, he always had a cracker or two in his jacket for Avery when we met him on the street, though that was probably because he didn’t turn his pockets out all that often.
People who didn’t know John well would say he had an abrasive personality; sure, he didn’t always calibrate his comments for the room, and he had absolutely no patience for sycophancy or empty small talk. But as you got to know him, you learned to detect the patterns, and to see the huge heart behind the sharp tongue. John’s anger at bad movies came from missed opportunities; he wanted every movie to be worthy of the time it took to sit and watch it.
John walked out of a lot of movies. Bad movies, to be sure, and he usually gave them an hour to get better before he gave up. Liz Braun told me she called him on it once; in response, he asked her how many bad movies she’d seen that genuinely got better in the second hour.
I got a different reply when I asked him about it a few years ago: “Life’s too short.”
He always had a gift for irony.
Mathew Kumar at Torontoist has written a lovely rememberance, from a slightly different angle. You should check it out.