What Was, What Is, What Could Have Been

Buffalo, New York 1993. Joe is center top in this photo with glasses. I am the slug sitting down with a woman on my lap.

22 years ago today, one of my law school friends died. He wasn’t one of my best law school friends, but he was a regular in the National Lawyers Guild office in O’Brian Hall at the university of Buffalo. Joe was a year ahead of me in school (Class of 1995!), and was best friends with the boyfriend of my best friend. I liked Joe very much — he was always ready with a laugh at any number of dumb stories I could tell him. He had a great laugh, and I had a lot of dumb stories. I spent a lot of time in law school going to Club Heat (local gay dance club) every night til 4 a.m. (Because Buffalo is ridiculous with its bar closing times), and I almost always had some adventure involving poppers, making out in the bathroom, and robot dancing. And I cannot count the number of times we spent in the NLG office talking about everything that was wrong with the world — Bill Clinton and his war on the poor, Newt Gingrich and his extreme hatefulness towards anyone who wasn’t like him, the Bills losing the Super Bowl AGAIN, how great Buffalo was, the best places to bike in Buffalo. I have very fond memories of this time and that space, and Joe is a part of it.

Joe seems much older and mature than I was — of course he wasn’t. He was only 25 when he died (I was 23). But it wasn’t just his maturity that made him seem older. It was his drive. He was passionate about progressive politics, and wanted to be a lawyer to “change the world.” He meant it too. He was a good person, and made me feel like a better person by talking to him (and by borrowing his notes when I missed class, which happened more than once).

So one day — a Saturday — in February in 1994, Joe and two other women (who I didn’t really know) went walking on the ice of Lake Erie, fell through, and drowned. I had called Joe the day before to ask him for notes from a class I missed — I think evidence. That was the first thing I thought of when I heard Joe was missing the next day — that I bothered him with something so trivial.

My best friend and her boyfriend has been invited to go on this walk. I am forever grateful that they didn’t. I still don’t fully comprehend what happened to Joe. I’ve read innumerable stories since about others who made “a mistake,” “a stupid mistake,” “a how could they be so dumb mistake.” None of these people were stupid — they were young, idealistic, hopeful, adventurous. And then they were gone.

A few of the folks I went to law school with carried out their idealistic visions of changing the world. My best friend works at a nationally respected organization advocating for the rights of undocumented people. Another law school classmate works at the Southern Poverty Law Center (I am sure he finds my activism around gender identity “problematic,” but I’ve never asked him). Others work at state legal aid bureaus. A few of us went into private practice. But I am sure we all have the same thoughts on the anniversay of Joe’s death — who would Joe have become? How would things be different?

There is regret in knowing that his impact was not what it might of been. But there is joy in knowing his impact was what is was.

And I guarantee he would be working to get Bernie Sanders elected.