An old friend lost, found, lost again

About a month before I got into the business of writing people’s life stories, I tried to reconstruct the life of my oldest friend – post mortem.

I’d known Barry Ginsberg since we were eight years old, playing little league baseball on the same team in our neighborhood in Bayside, Queens.

We were also on the same basketball team, as you can see in the photo above. That’s Barry on the far right in the front row, kneeling next me, when we were about twelve.

I’ve been reading a lot lately that 2016 has been a year of great loss, people citing the U.S. presidential election result and adding the death toll – Ali, Prince, John Glenn, Leonard Cohen, Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, Gene Wilder, Patty Duke, Garry Shandling, Carrie Fisher.

I could have easily written any of those obits with material available online. Piecing together my friend Barry’s life proved more challenging.

Barry and I had been out of touch for most of our adult lives. And just after we reconnected, began to catch up, he died on October 5th in northern California at the age of 70.

As I mentioned, we met as kids playing baseball. I was the pitcher. He was the catcher.

My dad managed our team. Barry’s mom, Flossie, was the team mother. That was an actual title – team mother. She was in charge of the drinks and snacks.

Barry and I became best friends. Our families became close, went on vacations together. But then, Barry and I went to different high schools and colleges, had separate sets of friends.

This was the mid-1960s. Hippies and straights. Barry was a hippie. I stayed straight.

I didn’t see him for a couple of years. Then, in 1968, the summer after the Summer of Love, I moved to San Francisco.

I knew Barry was in the Bay Area. I saw him once.

We met up on the Marin side of the Golden Gate. We each had girlfriends along, and he suggested a drive to the top of Mount Tamalpais to watch the sunset. Much alcohol and cannabis was consumed.

Walking back to the lot where’d I’d parked my Mustang, we spotted a biker making off with my hubcaps. “Let’s get him,” Barry said.

I tossed him the keys. “You drive.”

It wasn’t until we got to the bottom of the mountain, no sign of the biker, that I smelled something burning and realized Barry had neglected to release the emergency brake.

I didn’t see him again for nearly five years. In January 1973, I drove across the country – from New York to L.A. and up the coast – to take up a posting as the UPI correspondent in Vancouver.

I stopped a night at Barry’s place in Mill Valley. By this time, he had a wife and young daughter. I remember playing with the kid — and that Barry and I had nothing to talk about.

The last time I saw him was the spring of 1978. I was covering the Blue Jays, in Oakland for a series against the A’s.

The Jays weren’t playing that Monday in May. I rented a car and arranged to meet Barry in Sausalito.

We had a drink in the No Name bar. He told me he had been abducted by aliens.

That was it for me – until last May, 38 years later, when he phoned to offer condolences after my mother died. Barry sounded good, like my old friend.

It was a brief conversation. I was at my sister’s house in New York, and my family had a funeral to get through the next day.

After I returned home to suburban Toronto, we had a longer chat. He was in northern California, where he’d lived since the ’60s.

I learned he was married again, to a woman I never knew existed. We talked some sports, our original bond. But he spoke mainly of his ill health.

On August 1st, I sent him a HAPPY BIRTHDAY email. I figured we’d keep in touch, maintain a long-distance friendship through our declining years.

A little more than two months later, I got the news he was dead.

I phoned his wife, Alex, the woman I never knew, and asked her to fill in my blanks of my friend’s life.

I conducted the conversation like an interview for a profile I’d be writing. In this case, I knew the beginning and end but not the middle.

Barry started as a chef in the 1970s at The Trident, beside the bay in Sausalito, a hangout for the likes of Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia.

From there, he moved up the coast to run the kitchen at the Pelican Inn, in Muir Beach. That’s where he met Alex when she started as a waitress.

“My first impression was – chef has a bit of a temper. I thought he was mean.”

But it soon became clear to Alex that the “big lion was really a pussycat – and he was funny.”

That was 1989. Barry was in his early forties, long divorced from his first wife.

He had raised his daughter Lucy, then 18, on his own, and recently dealt with the deaths of his father and his kid sister, Sharon.

Alex recognized the sadness in Barry’s “beautiful blue eyes.”

They flirted at work for months. “One day, he just moved himself into my apartment, lit a joint, and stayed.” They married four years later.

In the mid-’90s, Barry had a serious heart attack. “After that, it was extremely difficult for him,” Alex said. “He’d say, ‘I feel like a shell of a man.’ It took him quite a while to recover – physically, mentally, emotionally.”

Just after he bounced back, Barry found out he had cancer. Nine surgeries would follow. Last January, he had a kidney removed.

Barry and Alex lived in a little one-bedroom cottage in Guerneville, in beautiful Sonoma County. Barry tended his garden, medicinal marijuana, and watched a lot of sports on TV.

When he died in October – of a massive seizure, not the cancer – he was looking forward to the Giants playing the Cubs in the playoffs and seeing Kevin Durant with Curry & Co. on the Warriors.

It saddens me that I will miss the opportunity to again talk sports with my old friend, my old catcher.