My friend Ken died just before Thanksgiving in 2008. Ken was a kind soul who cared deeply about his friends. He was a great photographer who shared my fascination with urban minutiae. You can see some galleries of his work here. He was also a musician and a painter, and had one of the largest rubber duck collections I have ever seen!
I met Ken at the bar where my roommate worked in South Boston. He was enjoying a pint of Guinness, and we struck up a conversation about poker. I knew we were going to be good friends when I found out his band, Air and Space Museum was named after a Simpsons quote (NASA official: “There’s no air in space.” Homer: “But there’s an Air n’ Space Museum.”). His sense of humor was dry and sarcastic, but he was a loyal and sensitive person. He actually listened and remembered when you told him things. If you were in trouble, Ken was the kind of guy who would help you out, with no questions asked. He would be first to offer help with those tough favors like moving, or a ride to the airport.
Ken and I got to hang out 2-3 times a week for a few years. I’d see him at the bar, we’d hang out at mutual friends’ places, and we made many runs to Foxwoods. Every Thursday night we played poker at Redtree. Ken would pick me up right on time, and then, if parking was tough downtown by the finish line of the Boston Marathon where Redtree is located (and it usually was), he would offer to drop me at the door while he continued to look for a spot. That’s the kind of guy Ken was. He was also a funny, pessimistic poker player. If he had a flush, he assumed his opponent had a higher flush. If he had two pair, he assumed his opponent had a set. But the trademark of Ken’s poker style was his passionate, undying love of The Hammer. I know many poker veterans, loose cannons, and bloggers profess a love for The Hammer, but Ken took it to a whole new level. He probably lost more money playing that hand than any other home game player in America, but he also won some huge pots and very memorable hands with it. The joy of those moments far outweighed the losses, and that was representative of Ken’s life too.
On the long rides to Foxwoods or the monthly tournaments we used to go to in Framingham, I learned a lot about Ken, and he learned a lot about me. He was a deep and wonderfully honest person. Ken battled depression and insomnia. He worried about his photography career. He worried about his place in society and his relationship with his family. He didn’t want to disappoint anybody. He worried about finding the right woman. He worried about all the things that an intelligent, perceptive, creative artist would worry about. Through it all, he was a great human being who would always listen to his friend’s problems and offer them support, or give them a thoughtful and touching gift at just the right time. Ken rarely got a good night’s sleep, but he never missed work or an appointment. He always showed up.
Ken used to have barbeques in the backyard of his condo in Southie. The food was great, and he always made sure everybody was comfortable. At one of those barbeques, he introduced me to a wonderful woman who is still a good friend to this day. That’s how Ken was. Always looking out for people. He even gave me the recipe for his awesome cucumber salad (the secret is toasting the sesame seeds).
Ken died from a bad reaction of alcohol, sleeping pills, and anti-depressants. It was so sudden. He was just gone, and there were so many things that I should have said to him but will never get the chance. I could have been a better friend to Ken, and it hurts me beyond measure to admit that. I hope he knows how much he was loved, and how much he is missed. Sometimes I feel that I didn’t know how much Ken meant to me until he wasn’t there. Ken’s passing taught me to not take one second of one day for granted. We should all love without fear and tell the special people in our lives why they are so important to us. This realization was both a horrible and beautiful gift. Thank you for that, Ken.
February 28th is Ken’s birthday, so I’m thinking of him. Every time I see a pint of Guinness, I think of Ken. Every time I see a rubber ducky, I think of Ken. And every time I look down at a poker table and see that 7-2 peeking back at me, I think of Ken. And I play a ton of poker, so I think about him a lot. I know you are in a happy place, Ken. Playing cards, drinking a Guinness, and listening to Fugazi at top volume. You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten. I miss you buddy.
R.I.P. Ken Herbst 1975-2008.