The world lost a good man yesterday. Around 3 p.m. on Wednesday, with his family close around him, beloved local playwright Tom Poole passed from this world to the next, after suffering massive brain trauma from an accident eleven days earlier.
On the night of June 25, around 11 p.m., Tom was struck by a car while crossing the street two blocks from his home in St. Paul. He had just taken a bus across the river after seeing a play at the Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis, and, according to witnesses, the car that hit him did not have its lights on. Consequently, Tom’s light has gone out as well. As a result of the accident, the right, left, and center lobes of Tom’s brain—the part that controls creativity, imagination, humor, compassion, joy, and most of the other elements of Tom Poole’s singular personality—was crushed. Surgery at Regions hospital postponed the inevitable for a while, but in the end it was not enough. Tom spent the last days of his life in a coma, and died prematurely and unfairly at the age of 56.
I should perhaps not be writing this, because Tom Poole was one of my best friends and his family is like a second family to ours, so the loss cuts especially close and cruel. However, I want the world to know the character and quality of the man I knew. His death was tragic, senseless, unnecessary, random, avoidable, and, in so many ways, utterly and completely stupid. If Tom had gotten off that bus a few seconds earlier or later, if the driver of the car had been paying more attention, or had remembered to turn her lights on, Tom would still be with us today. But he isn't, and it's the tragic idiocy of the thing that galls the most.
Tom would not have wanted to go out this way, because anyone who knew him knows that he was invariably the smartest guy in the room, a handicap he tempered by also being the funniest. He lived for intellectual stimulation, great conversation, his family, his work, and—most of all—the opportunity to laugh loud and hard at life’s many foibles. The irony that he, a paramount man of the mind, was taken out by a blow to the head, would not be lost on Tom. It’s the sort of plot twist that would never make it into one of his plays, because he would never write anything so artless. If I know Tom, he’s busy right now writing a better ending for himself, entertaining the angels at god’s expense: A head injury to a writer? Really? That's like a heart surgeon dying of a coronary, or a pianist sticking her hand in a wood chipper. It's so goddamn . . . obvious.
Tom Poole has been a fixture in the local theater community for more than 30 years, so the outpouring of grief in the coming days will be immense. Pretty much every actor in town knew Tom. He developed his craft at the Playwright's Center, and his work has been produced at the Children's Theater, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and several other smaller theaters in town, many of which no longer exist. Tom was also the founding force behind Thirst , the popular series of short playlets performed in various bars around town. As if that weren't enough to endear him to local artists, he and his wife, Geanette, also run a talent agency called The Talent Poole, which provides actual paying work to dozens of local actors, including Dan McKeague, the new voice of the Aflac duck. Tom's most recent play, Safe as Houses, was produced by Joseph Scrimshaw's Joking Envelope Theater. It's about a real estate agent who is desperate to sell a house located a little too close to the flaming gates of hell. I still maintain that it's the funniest play I have ever seen—and I've seen thousands of them.
Joking Envelope's motto is "we take comedy seriously," and it's a phrase that would make a fitting epitaph for Tom Poole. He believed in humor's power to expose truths that cannot be revealed any other way, and he immensely enjoyed being a cultural jester. He also believed wholeheartedly in the restorative health benefits of a good long belly laugh. At dinner parties, Tom would often sit back and listen to the conversation bubble along—then, at precisely the right moment, he'd toss in a golden laugh grenade and the whole room would explode. Tom lived for those moments, whether he was manufacturing them spontaneously in conversation or crafting them for audiences on the page. Tom's everyday conversation was just as smart. Everywhere he went, he rolled out droll observations one after the other, in a wry voice that retained the music of his Southern roots growing up in Arkansas.
As witty as Tom was, though, he also had a remarkably refined aesthetic sensibility. His appetite for media of all kinds—books, music, film, theater, art, poetry, etc.—was voracious, and his intellectual curiosity was insatiable. He's the only person I know who, while sitting in the sauna, would relax by re-reading a tattered copy of Lolita . (He threw the pages away as he read it, because the heat of the sauna melted the book's gummy binding.) And he's the only person I know who read both David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Keith Richards' book Life — on his iPod (which he used to solve the aforementioned melting-book problem). He also devoured hundreds of paperback mysteries in his lifetime, listened to a million records, and knew more about the history of film than anyone I've ever met.
All of this artistic consumption fueled and informed his writing. Humor is the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Tom, but he was also an extraordinarily compassionate man, and was capable of writing sentences and scenes of exquisite lyrical beauty. Anyone who saw his 1991 production The Nightingale , with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, knows what I'm talking about. That play was a pure reflection of Tom's soul—a funny/sad fairytale so lovely it almost hurt.
Unlike many artists, Tom was an enthusiastic supporter of other people's work as well. Indeed, the Red Eye event he attended the night he was hit was a program of experimental new plays. He also attended countless readings, workshops, rehearsals, and other less-than-glamorous events, because he was interested in the entire spectrum of the creative process. It didn't much matter who was doing the creating, either. He once came to hear my teenage son's band play at the old Eclipse Records space on University Avenue. The music was so horrendously loud that I wore earplugs and had to leave the room every now and then for sonic relief. Tom, on the other hand, sat unprotected and unfazed through the whole ear-crackling ordeal. When I asked him why, he said something along the lines of: "Everything you think was wrong with it is exactly what I think was right about it. Teenage bands are supposed to suck, and listening to them is supposed to hurt. I loved every minute of it."
Tom was my friend, so I know more about him than can be captured in mere words. I know he loved dogs. He loved cooking. He loved his wife. He loved his daughters. He loved running. He loved talking. He loved obscure rock bands, scientific esoterica, old TV shows, vintage cars, Fender guitars, tennis, barbecued ribs, dark beer, and hundreds of other things, including a long afternoon nap. In short, he loved life—the whole messy stew of it. He was one of the kindest, smartest people I've ever known, but his passing was the most unfortunate and unnecessary of tragedies. We can all honor his memory by being slightly less stupid in our own lives, and by enjoying the time we have left a little bit more. Because, as Tom can attest, you never know when fate is going to play its final joke on you.
Wherever you are in the afterlife, though, save a spot for me, Tom. In the meantime, you will be missed, my friend—truly and horribly missed.
P.S. Another long-time friend, Mary Ellen Smith, died of lung cancer on Tuesday night at the tender age of 60. Most recently Mary was the music calendar editor of the Star Tribune, but over the years she also kept the train running at the Twin Cities Reader, City Pages, and Sidewalk.com. Almost every arts writer in town relied on her at one time or another. We loved you Mary—and I hope god at least had the decency to give you the best seat in the house.