Saturday, April 3, 2021

Requiem for a fallen giant


Really, for the first few years I knew Ed Johnson-Ott, I had no idea how tall he was. Ed was using a wheelchair at that time, he the film critic for NUVO Newsweekly, and me the newly ensconced entertainment editor for the Indianapolis Star. 

I guess we were supposed to be rivals, but we came to be the very best of friends. For awhile his health improved and he was able to walk with just the aid of a cane, and I realized he was a big man, must've been well over six feet in his prime. As our relationship deepened from adversaries to colleagues to friends, I came to realize he was as gigantic a person as I've ever known.

Ed passed last night. He was a great writer, an even better friend, and an even better human being.

Please forgive me if this paean is as much about me as it is Ed. His loss has affected me on the deepest of levels. Since I moved to Indiana 16 years ago, I only have made three really important friendships. With Ed's passing and that of Star columnist Matt Tully a few years back, two are now gone. I'm not the type to make friendships easily, but they do tend to last. 

I'll carry Ed in my heart forever.

Before I fell in love with Ed as a person, I fell in love with his writing. There was just such a natural ease about it. He referred to his takes on movies as essays, not reviews, and often they were about him as much as they were the film. Reading one of Ed's pieces felt like sliding into a table at a diner for coffee with an old friend to chat about movies, even if it was the very first piece of his you'd ever read.

It affected my own writing style. My reviews had tended to grow into overly wordsmithed ruminations meant to impress the reader as much as inform. Lots of "vocab words" and complex run-on sentences. The sort of thing where you realize the writer is smart, and very much wants you to know how smart they are.

I knew I wanted to write more like Ed, and over the last dozen years I've adopted a simpler style that, if not exactly trying to emulate Ed's, at least took his gentler, more humanistic approach to heart. I even learned to put personal reflections in.

Ed dealt with a lot during the 16 years I knew him. His health, obviously, which landed him in and out of the hospital repeatedly over the last few years. On one occasion I went to visit him and found out he was at a different hospital from the last time. Ed had been in a terrible car accident decades ago where a friend was driving in an altered state and crashed (into a telephone pole, I think it was). His stomach was torn open, a disability that followed him the rest of his life, while the friend was unscathed.

I asked him once if he resented the guy who put him in a wheelchair, and he said not even for an instant. That's just the kind of guy Ed was: the man had no hatred in his heart. Even if he disagreed with you or thought you were behaving badly, he approached you with advice and kindness, never anger or harsh words. 

I remember one time we were out together and some young fellows were acting the fool. Ed, three feet lower in his wheelchair, spoke to them quietly but firmly about how great it was they were enjoying being young, but to have consideration for others while doing it. They stopped, listened and went about their way, a tad less rambunctious. 

Ed never had a lot of money, and his living situation continued to deteriorate over the years. At one time he made his living as a film critic, NUVO paying well enough and a syndication deal with other alt-weeklies making up the rest. It gradually went away, bit by bit, to the point NUVO had to stop paying him. 

Still, he wrote on. Never even considered quitting.

He lived in a ramshackle duplex in Downtown Indy. It was a scary neighborhood when I arrived in Indy, but has now gentrified with a huge, expensive condo building across the street now. His son, Donnie, lived with him for a few stretches, but it was a small place and they had their clashes as his adopted son desired his independence. 

The place got in worse and worse shape as Ed's health grew poorer again. He developed COPD and had to use oxygen tanks  to breathe. He had a car (given to him by a cousin) but stopped driving it because he felt he was no longer safe behind the wheel. We developed a system for press screenings where I would drive to his house, load him in his car with his tanks and wheelchair, go to the movie theater and then do it all in reverse afterward.

Ed lost a ton of weight as a result of his various ailments, which in a strange way actually helped him. His BP improved and the doctor said it was making it easier for him to breathe. He downscaled from the big, heavy oxygen tanks to a portable, lighter battery-powered machine that assisted his lungs. He loved his skinny new look, going from somewhere around 300 pounds when I met him to about 160.

He asked me to take some pictures on the stoop of his place to show off his hot new bod:

Still, he struggled to take care of himself and the place was a mess. Every time I came over I helped pick up, and suggested he consider an assisted living facility. He resisted, holding onto his freedom. He did agree to get a home healthcare aide, which helped for a time. He had a few of them over the span of a couple of years, some good, some not so good. One aide stole from him, but even then Ed was hesitant to report him to his employer.

I grew seriously worried when his mental state began to waver. Sometimes he'd be all there and other times he'd be confused and disoriented. He didn't have dementia, but the combination of his health challenges and medication would leave him addled.

One time I came over and there were pills strew all over the floor of his place, some of them crushed. I carefully put them back into their bottles (thank God for color coding) but the decision was finally made to give up his place. Fortunately Ed had turned 65 and could now receive Medicare, and moved into a nice rehabilitation center on the northeast side of Indy.

All the while, Ed kept reviewing movies. Maybe more sporadically than before, but whenever he could. He had another friend who would pick him up and drive to a movie theater, watch it together, and then work on the review collaboratively. Ed's fingers shook -- he had Parkinson's, on top of everything else -- and had lost the ability to type. Even a special laptop for people with disability I arranged for him from Easterseals Crossroads didn't help. So Ed would talk and the friend would write it down, and they'd turn it into an essay.

Even then, Ed worried that the work wasn't representative of his voice. I told him honestly that reading them, it sounded just like the same ol' Ed. I think this reassurance was important to him. Even with all his problems, he couldn't stand the idea of letting his readers down.

Ed seemed happy at the rehab center. He liked not having to worry about meals or meds, it was all taken care of. The last picture I took of him was January of last year. He wanted me to post it on his Facebook page, because in all the moves and complications, he'd lost access to his social media and email accounts. He wanted everyone to know he was doing OK.

I'd go see him every few months, bring him food or talk on the phone. It could be hard to get ahold of him. Most of the time he wouldn't answer the phone in his room, and voicemails never seemed to find their way to him. You'd just have to call and hope he picked up.

A couple of times when I saw him he was very confused. One time they'd had to move him out of his room because of a fire alarm, and he became convinced that they'd relocated him to another facility without telling him. He finally had a moment of clarity.

"Chris, is this one of those moments where an old person becomes confused about where they are and what's going on, but everything's actually OK?"

But then I'd go back a few weeks later and it'd be Ed, same old Ed, with all his brilliance and heart.

Ed and I talked a lot, about the deepest stuff that you really only share with a spouse or best friend. We shared our worries, our hopes, our disappointments, our sadness and pain. I'd had a lot of the latter over the last few years, with family deaths, job loss and my own health issues. We talked about our relationships, sex, insecurities, body image, all of it. 

He once reminisced about when he was younger and riding a bike with a lover on a hot day, and they took their shirts off. His boyfriend had a camera and took a picture, and he remembered being mortified at the time of his paunch and love handles being captured for all eternity. He still had that photo, and looked at from time to time to remind himself that he had no reason to be ashamed of his body. 

Ed had found his way to a place of practicing self-love long before anybody had given a name to it. What's more, he encouraged me to follow his trail. 

(Though it's something I still struggle with. Even today, I hate to be photographed and, though I'm on television every week, I never watch the footage.)

I hope people will remember Ed as a film critic. He truly was one of the great writers in Indiana history, certainly a giant of Hoosier journalism. There should be tributes and memorials. 

The Indiana Film Journalists Association exists because of him. In late 2008, after I'd been laid off from the Indy Star, Ed encouraged me to keep reviewing in whatever capacity I could. He mentioned that he and former Star critic Bonnie Britton (gone now as well) had tried to organize an Indiana critics group years earlier, but nothing ever came of it. 

He and I decided to try again, and found four other critics to join our little club. Our goal was to draw attention to our own work by giving out awards, and lobby for screenings that the studios had allowed to dwindle to a tiny trickle. But we also wanted to encourage young writers to try their hand at film criticism. Today we have two dozen IFJA members, and the studios actively solicit our attention.

As important a writer as Ed was, I hope people will remember the human being even moreso. He truly was one of the best people I've ever known. He always chose kindness over hatred, engagement over isolation, and listening over shouting.

We came from opposite places in a lot of ways: politically, geographically, sexually, professionally. But Ed never let it divide us.

I haven't been able to see Ed in person over the past year, which breaks my heart. But with a breathing disease and now a senior citizen living in an assisted facility, he was in the highest risk group for COVID. Since he couldn't access email regularly, even after the IFJA bought a tablet for him, occasional phone calls were all we had.

We tried to arrange a meeting in December, after we'd heard the rehab center was allowing outdoor meetings. I picked up his favorite Indian chicken dish as a treat, and had one more. 

The studios send DVD screeners to critics at year-end to make sure they see all their movies for awards voting, and it turns out Ed's had been piling up at his old house. The guy who lived there had been saving them, and got hold of my email address. I put together the whole pile, dozens of films, in a box along with a portable DVD player and headphones.

Alas, we could not meet. The facility was still not allowing in-person visits, even outdoors. So I dropped off the food, DVDs and player for him to enjoy. We talked later about how much that meant to him. I take great joy in knowing he spent the holidays in the company of a bounty of the love he and I both loved. 

Our last phone call was a few weeks ago, and Ed sounded strong and hale. Funny, smart, wonderful. Vintage Ed. 

He told me he loved me. I told him the same. It was something we'd started saying to each other about 10 years ago. In my upbringing, men aren't supposed to say that to each other, and other than my father, Ed was the first one I'd ever said it to. I only wish I'd said it earlier and more often.

We'll always have the movies, Ed... and, so much more.

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