Well, crap. Kent has cancer.
I left a couple messages for Kent, not because I knew anything, but because we hadn’t talked for a while. He called back after a week, which was normal for us. He sounded good, even as he told me about the cancer. About the chemotherapy. About the not-good prognosis.
I met Kent in 1994. It was a great year to buy real estate. I came across an ad asking $10,000 for a down-payment on a large loft in West Oakland.
Yeah. Back then, you could buy real estate for cheap. Although that particular place was dark and boxy, a “for sale” sign around the corner led me to Kent.
Kent was (and is) a Marlboro man, tall and lanky, with a smooth walk and a worried face. He wasn’t worried all the time, but he looked that way. He grew up in small-town America in the 1950s, which apparently made him an avid smoker and somewhat reluctant talker. But when he did talk, he was poetic and smart. He appreciated culture and art. Although he never called himself an artist, he made furniture and jewelry that were Art.
Kent developed the lofts he was selling. More than developed, really. He was the dealmaker, but also the general contractor. He worked with his hands — broke walls, ran conduit — and knew every inch of the 15-unit complex at the corner of Filbert and 30th Street.
In the 1920s, the property was originally built as a neon sign factory. When I moved in, I took over half the former executive offices. Kent lived next door.
We decided to put a deck on our common roof space. I was an unskilled laborer, quietly following Kent and his buddy Ken (confusing, I know) while they did real work. One time, waiting with my broom and dustpan, standing ten feet behind Kent, I put my hands in my pockets. A moment later, Kent’s spine went rigid. He turned and froze me with a menacing stare.
“Kevin,” he said with the voice of command, “do you need something to do?”
I was at a loss. Was this an existential question? I did need something to do! My life was a vapid waste of time!
Of course, Kent had forgotten that I was volunteer labor on our neighborly project, not a paid construction worker. He shook his head and smiled. “Sorry, Kevin,” he said. “Old habits.”
Authority came naturally to Kent. In Vietnam he was a Swift Boat commander. He doesn’t talk about it much, but I’m pretty sure he received the Bronze Star.
He is one of the strongest people I knew. Not weight-room strong. Country-strong; beast strong; I remember one time he told me how he’d annoyed a drill instructor who was sure he could do more leg lifts than the skinny yokel named Kent.
In 1995, we often went to step aerobics class, where Kent, despite his pack-a-day cigarette habit, despite being in his fifties, could easily keep up with me (and the instructor).
I realize that’s 20 years ago. I realize we’ve gotten older and slower. I realize that I shouldn’t be surprised that Kent has cancer. But I am.
Kent is not old. My mother is 95, and that’s old. She has outlived everyone from her childhood, as well as most people she knew during middle age. That’s got to be weird, and hard, and I’m not sure but maybe it’s better to live to an average age. There should always be people who knew you back in your prime.
Kent is past his prime, but at 72, I think that’s pretty young. I think he needs to stick around. But there’s the cancer.
He’s pragmatic about it. He smoked tens of thousands of cigarettes. He’s not surprised that he’s sick.
His doctors are impressed with his body’s positive response to chemo drugs. However, in the grading system used to describe cancer severity, Kent is at stage four — “cancer has spread to other organs or parts of the body.” No one is talking about a cure.
But Kent is hopeful about having time. Time to hang out with friends. Enjoy days with his wife.
Every day, especially as I get older, I think, “Who gets more than that?”