Joel Copenhagen died on August 13th, in the morning. He was 72. It is hard to struggle through the unspeakable sadness to say something about Joel. At this point I can’t sort myself out of the equation. I think of many things: his son Ed, and his wife, his life’s love, Julie. Even to speak of Joel, without saying Joel and Julie, is strange, for Joel and Julie spent their lives together, creating between them a beautiful work of art. This art is expressed in their home, a small house on a dirt road in a remote section of the Finger Lakes. Beside it grows an enchanting garden, tall with sunflowers, currants and blueberries, punctuated with tea and bush roses, masses of purple echinacea, neon phlox and sturdy blue green hostas, the broadest and oldest called simply Mother. In the midst of it a clownish scarecrow, like a Bread and Puppet theatre figure. Above the house is Joel’s Woods, planted from finger length seedlings decades ago, and now a forest of 30 foot pines, with soft bronze needles underfoot, smelling of mushrooms and loam. Below is a pond fringed with sweet woodruff and multiflora rose. It is a gentle, surreal, anarchy of butterflies and flowers, of garlic, potatoes, kirby cukes and tomatoes. Beneath the house is an old basement where Julie grows seedlings. On the deck are birdfeeders, busy with chickadees, nut hatches, downy woodpeckers and tons of chattering critters whose names I don’t know. The birds are tame; they feed from Joel and Julie’s hands. Sometimes a bear comes around. In their house opens the world of art, vinyl and books lining the walls. Books and books and books: books are the love of their life, books and avant garde music. In this home lives the spirit of art, of the best we can be as imaginative individuals living in a web of connections that extends from the pit to the heavens.
Joel was a Taoist, and lived his life according to the Way. The Way is Thelonious Monk playing in the Five Spot, it is Gary Snyder writing from a fire tower in the Sierra Nevadas, it is a lunch of lentils with an old friend in the winter, gazing out at the humps of snow glistening over the garden bracken, and bending Joel’s Wood’s down. But it was also a joy in anarchic comedy, of Groucho Marx, of Woody Allen, of The Big Lebowski. He found the way in Thoreau and Whitman, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Blake and Snyder. Wherever the fingerprint of the first creation could be found, the song of the universe modulating in the small human throat, speech and song. And it was the Way he worked, for 30 years, at Olin Library, sharing an office with Julie. To me, Joel will always be my boss. The word Boss seems at odds with a peaceful, contemplative man, but Joel was complex, deep, brooding. He didn’t like going to work every day. He didn’t like how he was treated often, or how people who worked for him were treated. But he had to do it and he did it like everything else with a quiet, gentle power. Joel brought calm to work, calm and respect. As a boss, he hired people who loved books, because in a library that was the real qualification, not a college degree. Joel was the stacks manager of one of the biggest academic libraries in the country. He had a large staff and managed the circulation and moving of 3 million books, bursting the seams of the library. He was a master at the job. But his greatest gift was as a teacher, and father, to countless people who worked for him. Many went on to be librarians, including his son Ed. Joel allowed people to be who they were. He used his position to give a decent life to people who might otherwise suffer from living in the marginal economy: no health insurance, no paid days off, brutal productivity. He allowed us into this space where we could be artists and eccentrics and still make a living. He listened.
I worked for Joel for 15 years. I was a single father when I washed up in his office. He gave me security. He liked that I wore a purple T shirt and red shoes. He liked that I henna’d my hair and wrote poetry. We talked. Shelving books can be a lonely job. Deep in the stacks, walled in by academic books, plodding slowly forward, an armful of books disappearing one at a time into the endless order, there would come Joel, drifting as if on air, appearing like a shadow. Then we would pass the time. He was just checking in. Every day. He protected me from myself. He put up with the last vestiges of my adolescent rebellion. He accepted that my desire for justice would sometimes get him in trouble. He was kind and forgiving.
Joel looked in many ways like a peasant. He had dark eyes and skin, a full beard and hair just to his shoulder. He was most at home in the garden, with the dirt. He made bread. He made pickles from an old relative’s recipe. Like the Amish he believed the old ways were best. But he grew up in Cleveland, in an urban Jewish culture. His father owned a bar. He moved to Miami, a place he hated, though he thrived on the memory, where he was a teacher. I have thought of Joel in extravagant terms: a great man, a seer, a Boddhisatva. But Joel was humble and strong and what he was really, all his life, was a teacher. He taught by his presence, by the example of his life, and through the grace of his generosity.
I can’t say how much he gave me. I never expected to meet a father in middle age, but there you have it. I’m one of so many who can say that. When he gave me his job. While he was training me I said to him that it might sound hokey, but I thought being able to give people a good job and treat them well was a way of giving back. He smiled and said he felt that way too. We both loved Whitman. On my first day at work, in 1991, I mentioned that I loved The Tao Te Ching but hadn’t read it in years. The next day he handed me his Witter Bynner translation. I still have it and keep it at hand. Over the years he gave me music. He gave me his peace.
Joel died too young. He died as he lived, naturally, at home, with Julie. This doesn’t make me less sad, but one day it will. We meet so few great people, and in this land, in this time and place our measure of greatness, like everything else, is a perversion of truth. Joel was a great man. All that he leaves behind will be vivid in summer and grey in winter, it will quicken with the first rays of March sun and blaze in its death clothes in autumn. The music will go on, and he will go on with us. I can’t fathom the loss for Julie. My love goes to her and to Ed.