by Charney Bromberg
Charney Bromberg's speech for Mike Manoff's memorial at Mohegan Colony
Remembrance – Michael Manoff Mohegan March 11, 2012
It’s easily 45 years or more since I saw or talked to Mikey – he was Mikey as we were growing up in the Tarrytowns. My brother, David, and Tommy organized a folk singing group, and it was through that relationship that I came to know Tom and his brother. As I wrote this, I wrestled with whether I would refer to Mikey as Tom’s younger brother, but the word “younger” carries a whole set of baggage that really doesn’t mesh with the Mikey I knew – and with Tommy’s call that Mikey was gone – the Mikey that I realized that I loved.
“Love,” as all of us know who have lived this long, is a very complicated word, particularly when it is applied to someone with whom you have had so little contact, although over the years I often asked Tom about Mikey, and kept abreast, a bit, about his life.
Because I didn’t know Mikey as a day-in, day-out friend, he was something of an abstraction to me – my James Dean; my Steve McQueen. Young as those film icons were – young as Mikey was then – there was something old about him, something both hard and vulnerable. He seemed fiercely independent, self-reliant, street smart, older than his years. Hurt and hurting, too, and though reticent to speak about himself – not talkative – he was hardly mute, and very much able to laugh, not the least, at himself.
I remember that Mikey smoked, earlier than most of us, and openly, without inhibition, among his friends in public places at a time when most suburban young people would only smoke in hidden places, like backstage or in the catwalk above the high school auditorium.
All of us then were trying to figure out the world, and Mikey’s world – two families, a mom and a step mom, a dad and a step dad, was, I suspect, far more complex and vexing than I imagined or could have imagined at the time. Family for Mikey and for Tommy, I had the sense, was less the comfort of protective nurture, than a challenge to self identity, a cornucopia of so many adult and serious things, and maybe not always enough time or space for just being a kid, although looking at the web page Tommy put up, clearly there were times and places to be a kid, to be loved, and to be carefree, but still, even in the persona of being street-wise and independent, there surely was a price that was paid.
As Hi, the deeply loving off-center character in the Coen brother’s film, Raising Arizona, says of his domestic life, “It ain’t Ozzie and Harriet.” And that’s not to be disparaging, except maybe to the image of Ozzie and Harriet – certainly not to Arnie and Artie, nor Marge and Lee – each one a complicated, complex, struggling person. How much was this ironic, detached, prematurely worldly, even cynical personality a product of the family experience, not the least of which was as part of a movement and belief system made furtive, made shameful by the outside world, to be defended from within, even if it wasn’t one’s own choice or predilection? How much was that an imposition on the process of growing up, a process that is usually absorbed by the pressures of school, peers, and pubescence?
I don’t know – and surely as time has passed, and surely as Mikey’s life took him far away from here, into new and different experiences, people, and stages of life, it is not mine to pass a judgment or offer an explanation of Mikey’s life.
How to balance this out: Mikey knew things long before others his age knew them – and was searching for things others knew, or didn’t need to search for, in adolescence. Even then he was able to talk about being a writer, or wanting to be a writer, although he only showed me a few things he had written. Now, having seen the poems Tommy posted on the memorial page, I see how clear was the prism of Mikey’s eye, how sharp and unaffected the prism of his mind. His poetry is powerful but unpretensious and direct, capturing nuggets of truth caught in the special angle of his observation, in the crystal clarity of his mind. He was a writer. He had a writer’s gift. But in the space surrounding these poems, in the unfilled space when he wasn’t writing, or couldn’t write, or was frustrated writing, is, I suspect, the bigger part of the story about who he told himself he was, and I suspect this remained a difficult subject for the duration of his life.
But here, I’m in the dark, angry at myself for not having made the effort which I felt, on many occasions, the urge to do, to call Mikey and try to catch up. Angry, too, at Mikey, as we often are, when a special person leaves us, whether at their own will, or not, because, in whatever way they leave, they take with them something of us. What that something is differs for each of us, and for each individual for whom we feel this particularly acute sense of loss at their leaving.
It’s not the not saying goodbye. It’s not as if the leave-taking is a specific or targeted rebuff. And for me, at least, it is not the anger of that person’s not having, as the mundane expression goes, fully attended to one’s own affairs in contemplation of death – of having those conversations in which feelings are exchanged, old hurts are exposed and disposed, a lifetime of unspoken things are finally spoken, opened, at last, to the cleansing air; and, if not fully unburdened, then made lighter. It’s not that for me, though it could certainly be for those who were closer to Mikey, closer biologically, or simply closer by more frequent contact.
Many people aspire to be known, to be famous, to be the best, to be acknowledged publicly. Some people achieve it broadly, others, not so broadly, some only within a small circle. Some are content with the level of acknowledgement they receive in life. Some are not. And I have no idea of the numbers or the percentages, and that really doesn’t matter, except to the individual person in point. But what does one do when the moment comes when someone whom you may not even have realized is the personification of something that is of meaning to you leaves, and only in their leaving do you realize that they have taken something of yourself in the leaving, and there will be no getting it back? And as I have searched for what that something is, I have come up with this. It is the person himself, because he personified and radiated the qualities and attitudes that were so important to me, even if I couldn’t articulate them, or recognize my need for them within my own heart and mind. Mikey’s death has rekindled feelings and thoughts that were kept in the vessel of his being, and while they remain in the same place in my heart and mind, they are now raw and open. I did not know that he was important to me, and, after all these years, surely he did not know it either. Now, if he has found peace, mine has been disturbed.
So I am both angry and grateful, at the same time. And, an even more futile thought: what if that person had known from you how warmly he was regarded, that he was acknowledged in your heart beyond fame, at some mysterious junction where one feels love? How do we cope with such thoughts now?
The simple answer is that we mourn. So I mourn Mikey. I mourn his strength and his vulnerability. Both those qualities made a mark on me, and on each one of us here – some to a lesser extent, and some to a far far greater extent. And because Mikey is not here to know that we mourn him, that even over time and distance he was a part of us, we come together to share our mourning with one another, and perhaps transfer a modicum of that love to someone still living who holds an even greater hurt and anger at Mikey’s passing.
In Judaism, the mourner’s kaddish mentions nothing about the deceased. It is a reaffirmation in the power and authority of the Almighty, a reassertion of belief that there is some meaning, some eternality in the tree of life, and that we are not simply individuals – like leaves that fall singly from a tree – but part of an organic community that endures. And it doesn’t much matter to me whether this authority resides in some God-head I cannot see, or perhaps, in a God-head that we are in the long laborious task of creating, or in no God, whatsoever. What matters to me is that it is we – that we are bound together, and that we are bound together through the lives of those who have touched us. And for that we should mourn Mikey and thank Mikey for his life, and let the process that his death has created teach us about him and the pains and joys of the lives we share.
Charney V. Bromberg