It’s been a time of reflection. A time of thinking about how much I miss having meandering conversations with friends over coffee and dessert. And, most recently, thinking of long-time friends including Dennis Maness, who succumbed to cancer just a little over seven weeks ago. There was no opportunity to attend an onsite memorial service; the pandemic and sheltering in place made that impossible. But it hasn’t prevented me from thinking about this latest loss—and all the gains I had from knowing Dennis.
He and I worked together at the main library here in San Francisco for nearly 15 years—which was just a little over a third of his 41-year career with the library system. We had numerous brief conversations and countless laughs together over the years—the brevity of the conversations initially driven by the fact that they took place within the context and constraints of work interactions that didn’t leave us a lot of time to really kick back and get into long conversations about our overlapping personal interests. That brevity continued after his retirement, when his preferred form of communication always seemed to be short notes and shared links sent back and forth via Facebook. Which is why I have been thinking about Dennis with such great regularity since he passed away.
It almost always happens when I come across a link to an article or a video—generally something with wickedly humorous roots that parallel Dennis’s own wickedly lovely sense of humor. I read (or watch); I laugh; I think to myself, “Dennis would love this. Have to send it to him”; and then I feel a bit crushed to realize I no longer have a way to send it to him other than through recollections of all the lovely laughs we shared over the years.
As is always the case, the very thick veneer of humor was a tough, but not impenetrable, barrier tightly wrapped around the core of a friend of great depth, empathy, and artistry. He was, among many other things, a lifelong photographer with a distinctive, engaging point of view that consistently shows up through the work he posted (and which remains available for viewing on the website he maintained). Glancing at that wonderfully extensive record of his photographs and skimming some of the many categories into which he had broken his work hints of his range of interests and the playful approach that he often took: “Scottish Games & Gatherings,” which included images captured between 2004 and 2017 and remind me of how much he loved all things Scottish; “Hula,” a stunningly beautiful set of photographs taken over a similarly long period of time and reflecting that facet of his interests; “Flamenco”; “Renaissance Faire”; “Portraits”; “San Francisco,” which included his fabulous effort to follow and photograph each of the 29 walks that were included in the latest (at that time) edition of Adah Bakalinsky’s Stairway Walks in San Francisco; and, of course, “the Adventures of Gumby,” which includes subcategories along the lines of “Gumby and the Ladies” (beautiful photographs of women holding Gumby), Gumby in Washington, DC, “On a Road Trip” with Gumby, and Gumby in Ireland. The Gumby pages make me giggle. Bring back memories of the Gumby figure he always had in his office at the library and which obviously accompanied him and his wife (Gloria) during their frequent travels. And make me wonder how Gumby is getting along without Dennis to chronicle his adventures…or whether, in fact, Gumby and Dennis are still, somehow and somewhere, hanging out together and sending photos to Gloria.
He was also what all of my best friends and colleagues are: a combination of friend, colleague, muse, and mentor. During our years at the library, he often asked about the writing I was doing away from work. This was an extended period during which I was immersed in trying to produce and publish works of fiction. He consistently asked how the writing was going as I completed drafts of two novels and was working on a variety of short stories and other novels. He was consistently encouraging in spite of the non-stop series of rejections I was receiving from literary journals, agents, and publishers. And he provided no room for (rare, thankfully) moments of self-pity: he was always there to remind me that I was writing because I had to write, and that stepping away in discouragement would be a surrender I could not afford to accept. (I still have and cherish the multi-panel Grant Snider “All I Need to Write” cartoon he emailed to me in 2014—long after I’d given up the fiction and was focusing more on short nonfiction pieces for a variety of online publications/blogs. “All I Need to Write: a room with a view; no other work to do; a childproof lock; a ticking clock; natural light; a chair that fits just right; new paper and pens; some animal friends; the right phase of the moon; ancient runes; a world of my creation; or internal motivation.” And our personal, shared punchline was that we both had more than a lifetime’s worth of internal motivation to pursue what our hearts told us we had to do.)
There were three cherished encounters with Dennis, after he and I left the San Francisco Public Library system, that very much broke the pattern of talk-laugh-and-run: a half-day photo shoot he did for me when I was in the process of upgrading my website; an exhibition of his work arranged, sponsored by, and held on the premises of the Main Library here in San Francisco; and a breakfast with Dennis and Gloria at a Denny’s restaurant (of course, fate determined it had to be Denny’s if I were going to have a meal with the friend who consistently, tongue in cheek, referred to himself as “Uncle Denny”).
The photo shoot came about as a result of my reaching out to him to find out what he would charge to do a series of shots I could use for the website and other publicity materials as I was making the transition from being a writer-trainer-instructional designer-consultant to being a writer-trainer-presenter in the areas in which I work. He was adamant about not taking money; he just wanted to do it for the pleasure of taking on another challenge with/for a friend. When I kept insisting that I actually had created a budget to do this the right way (e.g., doing it without taking unfair advantage of a very talented friend), he finally, with obvious exasperation, came up with an ultimatum: he would do it for free or he would do it for a million dollars. Not being able to afford the second option, I settled for the first and had one of the most wonderfully inspirational mornings I have ever had. Dennis and Gloria picked me up from my home that morning and took me on what I still think of as one of the most fabulous Magical Mystery Tours imaginable. We went out to areas along Crissy Field (with San Francisco Bay as a backdrop), then went to a lovely area near the Golden Gate Bridge, and finally circled back to my own neighborhood for a less formal set of photos taken on the Hidden Garden Steps ceramic-tile mosaic before having lunch together in the neighborhood. What still remains vividly etched in my memory is the process of watching Dennis think on the spot and find opportunities most of us might never have sought; as we were walking by a combination gift shop/coffee shop along Crissy Field, Dennis, on the spur of the moment, suggested we go inside for a minute. What I saw was tables and shelves full of tchotchkes, bookshelves lined with materials about the San Francisco Bay Area, and that very appealing coffee and sandwich counter. What Dennis saw—and used—was a small window where the soft morning light was streaming into the building. He positioned Gloria behind me with the collapsible circular reflector disc he had brought along; positioned me next to the window so I was bathed in the glow of that incoming natural light; and, standing in front of me, caught images that rival the best of anything I’ve ever seen come out of the controlled environment of a photographer’s studio. That was the brilliance of Dennis: he could see and capture things most of us could not even imagine.
Our joint visit (again, with Gloria) to his retrospective “Summer of Love” exhibition held in San Francisco’s Main Library in Summer 2017, was equally playful and inspiring. From the moment we walked past the promotional image in the lobby of the building where he had served the public for decades until the moment we parted ways, he was in his element: talking with friends and colleagues who quickly left their work stations and went running over to greet and embrace him; looking at and talking (all too briefly and modestly) about the work we were viewing; and even staging a photograph that captured the Dennis I knew, admired, and loved: mirroring that image, in which he was leaning out of the Volkswagen Bug he and Gloria had used many years earlier when they relocated to Northern California, he peeked around the edge of the display and gently directed me on how to best capture the image of Dennis peeking around the picture of Dennis peeking out the window of the car. I believe it was a moment that would have inspired a round of applause from all his colleagues if they had been with us when he created and became part of that image.
Our final visit—that breakfast in Denny’s—started out as a result of a typical urban annoyance: someone had broken into my car (an act that produced nothing of material value for the vandal/thief and left me facing the cost of replacing that window). A few calls around the city led me to the decision to drive down to South San Francisco, where a vendor had offered to replace the window at a very reasonable price the morning after the break-in; the only problem was that I’d have to find a way to kill a couple of hours while the work was completed. Spotting the Denny’s restaurant across the street from the vendor’s building in an industrial part of the city, I immediately thought of Dennis—knowing that he and Gloria lived in South San Francisco. Less than 20 minutes after I reached out to him via Facebook, the three of us were sitting together in a booth and catching up on what we had been doing since we had last (physically) been together. And that’s when the punch in the gut came: Dennis told me he had been diagnosed with cancer, was undergoing treatment, and had no idea how much time he had left with us. But, in typical Dennis fashion, he spent more time talking about what he was doing than what he was facing, and he and Gloria did their best to assure me that they were taking advantage of every moment remaining to them—a commitment they clearly kept as he continued taking walks and producing photographs; sharing notes and links via Facebook; and interacting with friends as he always had: as a colleague, a friend, a cherished mentor, and a source of inspiration.
Our Facebook exchanges continued, but at an ever-decreasing rate, so I wasn’t particularly surprised in October of this year when a library colleague sent a note letting me know he had entered hospice. An attempt to reach him via Facebook did not attract a response…until, a couple of weeks after Dennis had left us, a family member saw and responded to the note.
So, Dennis is physically gone. The Facebook account has been removed. But our sporadic email exchanges and that lovely website remain. As does my hope that, somehow, he is seeing this. Being reminded of how much he meant—and continues to mean—to me. And taking the best photographs he has ever taken.
–N.B.: This is the twenty-fifth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.