Jewels and Jim

Jim Ridley died last week. I still don’t know how to make sense of this. Jim was the most brilliant writer I’ve ever worked with, a precise and dogged editor, a fiercely loyal friend, a tirelessly loving father and one of the kindest people ever to walk this planet. For more evidence along these lines, please read: this, from Jack Silverman; this, from Noel Murray; this, from Margaret Renkl; this, from Sam Adams; this, from Renata Soto. Listen to this, from Emily Siner. Watch this. Search Twitter, where the name Jim Ridley trended for days alongside the likes of Star Wars and, fittingly, Bruce Springsteen, who was one of his heroes. And then, please consider chipping in to help his family.

The last time I saw Jim, I picked him up at the Nashville Scene office, where I was once an editor under him. Jim was not a fan of punctuality, and our appointed time came and went. I tried his office phone, then his cell. Then I texted him, and after a few minutes, he finally heaved open the front door — a more difficult task than usual, thanks to a stiff and drizzle-flecked wind — and gave me a chagrined smile. He swept into the passenger seat, apologizing for being late.

One thing Jim disliked as much as punctuality was seat belts. He was the only person I let ride without one, and I always drove a little more carefully with Jim in my car. After we had agreed on a destination, I turned out onto 12th Avenue, as the skeleton of a high-rise loomed overhead, trying out its newly fitted glass. Jim slid his iPhone out of his pocket and raised it.

He had a particular way with this device, a thing he’d been slow to integrate into his life, and one he still marveled at every time someone showed him a capability he’d been unaware of. As always, Jim held his phone out directly in front of him, perfectly centered half an arm away. He peered over the top of his glasses and started tapping at the screen in his usual deliberate manner, like he was conducting a very small orchestra, or dabbing a few more glints of sunlight on a painting of the sea.

He flashed me a mischievous grin. (Jim had the best mischievous grin — a look that, paired with his sparkling blue eyes, invited you along as a co-conspirator.)

“Hey, sweetie!” he beamed when his daughter, Kat, answered.

I’ll never forget the way Jim’s voice sweetened when he talked on the phone with his kids, or with his wife, Alicia. As the painter Wayne White would say, beauty is embarrassing — and sometimes his voice in these moments caught me off guard. It was impossibly sweet.

“Guess who I happen to be in the car with right now?” Jim boomed in a comically puffed-up tone, as if he were lounging in the back of a limousine next to Beyoncé or Hayao Miyazaki — or someone, you know, important.

But the only other person in the car was me: the guy who, 18 months earlier, had walked into his office just as the most crushing season on the editorial calendar was becoming visible on the horizon, and announced that I was leaving the paper I’d worked at for seven years with nothing lined up, nothing that I was ostensibly leaving for. What I missed most about the job was working with Jim, and he always found a way to carve time for me out of his overloaded schedule.

As it happened, Kat had read an essay of mine in one of her classes at school, and apparently said afterward, “Hey, I know that guy.”

So, for no other reason than to make his daughter feel special, and to make me feel like some sort of big-deal writer for a few minutes — never mind that he had guided my writing probably more than anyone, or that he had connected me with the person who recommended me for that essay in the first place — Jim had patched us in over a squelchy cell phone connection, just to give us each a little lift.

There’s a notion in the air lately that young people are coddled — that in a culture where everybody gets a trophy, no one’s special if everyone is. But Jim lived in a world where the exact opposite was true. Everyone he knew was special to him; everyone around him gave more of themselves because of that fact, not in spite of it.

And if you couldn’t see that jewel of potential nestled in the messy workings of yourself, then Jim would make it his mission to show you.

That day at lunch, Jim and I talked about a little of everything: our kids, the paper, The Force Awakens, the suddenly real possibility of a mutual friend lining up a bona fide star for his first feature film. Jim could hold court dazzlingly on almost any subject — most especially movies — but he always wanted to know more about you.

As we lingered over our hot dogs and fried pickle spears, he was eager to hear about the documentary I’d been working on, and with a signature Jim “wow!” — roughly five syllables long, delivered with mouth agape and wide eyes blazing like sapphires — he took in my list of planned travels and potential interviewees, insisting that no one would turn us down, considering the footage he’d already seen.

It feels dumb and self-indulgent now, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t secretly thrilled by the idea that one day, just maybe, Jim Ridley would write something about a movie I had a part in making.

Because, man, could he write:

The other night I decided to rewatch my two favorite movies this year — two movies that couldn’t be more different, except for the love I feel for them. Mad Max: Fury Road is all maximalist gestures, painted in a palette of rust, dust, fireballs and speed — a motorpsycho hellscape out of Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” monster drums and electric guitar included. Yet beholding the mastery, kinetic panache and, yeah, beauty that George Miller marshals from that chaos is like watching a conductor coax Mahler from an orchestra of air-raid sirens.
Carol is quiet where Fury Road is loud, restrained where Fury Road is orgiastic, anchored in a recent past of suburban comfort where Fury Road cruises a dystopian futuristic desert. What the two movies share — besides a long road journey, and starting by following a male character who yields to a female protagonist — is uncommon command of the medium.

Jim knew something about command of a medium, all right. Who, in such a short space, can find so many ways two movies are opposites, then mint them into two sides of the same coin?

In writing, as in life, Jim preferred to mention himself only as a way to build up someone else. Here he is on Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg:

More than any other film I know, Umbrellas affects people differently at different stages of life. When I first saw it, newly married but still remembering vividly the pang of adolescent crushes, it played as tragedy: the story of a young love snuffed out by war, fate, and economic hardship. Over the years, seen in the light of Demy’s other films, it has come to seem more properly an exaltation of life’s bittersweet balances and trade-offs — of unexpected triumphs made richer by the dashed hopes that offset them.

Later, he adds, in a paragraph whose beauty still startles me every time I return to this essay:

When I watch it now, it reminds me of the doorjamb in my grandmother’s house with my height marked in pencil over the years, or the dresser with my own children’s measurements notched along the edge. In it I see the person I was and the person I turned out to be, but the object itself will always be the same.

Selfishly, I wish I could read what Jim would have written, had he seen Umbrellas again as the twinkle-eyed, belly-laughing old man he should have become. More than that, I wish he were still here with Alicia — “my rock,” he called her, when he wasn’t enumerating all the ways that she’s a badass. I wish he were here to watch his kids, Kat and Jamie, outgrow the dresser’s edge that measured the people they once were.

I am so grateful to have known you, Jim Ridley. I will never be the same.