Dearest Tom Wolferman,
Oh Tee Dub. That’s what I call you as you deserve a catchy nickname befitting your rock star status. Let me remind you that these letters were your idea. Sure, I showed up at our writing group with a letter to Stephen King explaining to him why I hadn’t been writing, but it was you that suggested we collaborate on more with the hopes of compiling them into a book. You pitched the project as “a freefall philosophy of no rules. Our opportunity to bust out of the solitary confinement of spoken word Alcatraz”. We agreed from the start that the recipients were immaterial, the format was just a device to express ourselves outside the standard storytelling model. Of course I said yes when you asked, because we had a rich history of saying yes to one another, like our relationship was some sort of interpersonal improv class.
I’d been meaning to check in with you and tell you that I submitted my latest letter to the Modern Love column of the New York Times and in the 1 in 100 chance that editor Daniel Jones should publish the piece, you should prepare to write letters like you were ghostwriting for Dear Abby on crack cocaine trying to make a deadline. I wrote you that email 100 times in my head, but I didn’t send it as I’ve been uncommunicative with the world of late. I haven’t been feeling well the past few months and when given the choice between faking that things are fine and being a bummer, I usually check none of the above and shut myself off from everything. I should have sent that email, I should have told you that despite Google diagnosing myself with Parkinson’s, I’m still saying yes to enough mezcal to kill a rhino and getting tattoos. I’m sure you’d appreciate that I go to my neurology appointments wearing purple velvet Converse kicks and a shirt that says “BE YOURSELF; EVERYONE ELSE IS ALREADY TAKEN.” You would reassure me that drab medical facilities could use a pop of color and a splash of Oscar Wilde realness. You always made me feel like my quirkiness was not only tolerable, it was exceptional. I believed in myself when I breathed your air, because you were pure of heart and genuine with me from day one.
Our mutual friend Jill talked you up for months before we actually met. We were both booked to tell 1970’s era stories at a show at the Hideout and I was instantly smitten with you and your recount of getting a man perm in Skokie. We seemed to be aligned from then on, mostly at the behest of our story yenta, Jill. When she and Rachael produced Story Sessions, we did the first show together. You were always a reluctant live lit star, insisting you wanted to go on first to get it over with, leaving the rest of us groaning and threatening to go home. Telling a story after you was like singing after Otis Redding, it just seemed pointless. Your work brought clarity to the most difficult of subjects, weaving your darkest concerns with wit and wordplay. You never shied away from emotional heavy lifting, which magically eased our load. Your super power was making hard topics not only easy to digest, but delicious, like you were hiding crucial medicine in a vat of chocolate pudding.
Viva la man perm!
I was always down for any word nerd adventure if you were involved, because I knew we would share a moment of “What have we gotten ourselves into now?” I’m sure you recall we once found ourselves in rural Michigan the night before a show at the home of a fellow storyteller. The host asked you to fetch a Sprite from the garage, a garage that also housed a dog that was half wolf and was billed to us as a man hater. You asked me to accompany you on this errand as you said if you were to meet your demise to the jaws and claws of a misandrist beast on a story road trip, you’d appreciate me being a witness. As we stood in the glow of the refrigerator, wolf dog howling in his cage, we both cried laughing at the fact that for two people dead set on flying under the radar, we often found ourselves knee deep in some serious crazy.
Pre-show in Michigan, both of us considering making a run for it. We discussed hitchhiking to Gary, Indiana to sell Michael Jackson memorabilia.
Post show at Journeyman Distillery. Clearly we survived.
We joked about writing a sitcom called “Totally Tom” where you would play the neurotic landlord to a community of writers, ala “Melrose Place”. I asked you to put me down for the Heather Locklear character; you suggested she should be a former Rockette who owned a dance studio while trying to break into erotic fiction. We both tried our hands at writing fiction for real when we were commissioned to write for “Pleasuretown”, a podcast chronicling the residents of a fictional turn of the century Oklahoma town that believed in pursuing hedonism as a lifestyle. I sent you a draft to review, telling you I thought it read like it was written by a 9 year old with ADD after an overload of Count Chocula and Wonder Woman cartoons. You told me your draft was trying to strike a balance between thoughtful, wise, sage, geezerly and beloved advisor to the kinky. “Story of my life”, you told me. We agonized over these drafts until we threw up our hands and said, “One day we will laugh about all this. AND THAT DAY IS TODAY.”
Taxidermy tomfoolery with Sheri. Photo credit and total blame: Jill Howe
Publicity photo for "Totally Tom", this fall on NBC.
We both stopped doing story shows for the most part a few years back, but we kept writing. You said you needed to move on from storytelling to pursue your dream of working up a chimp act, you’d just need to change your green room contract to include bananas and diapers. You signed your emails “Tom and Mister Bobo”. I’d always send up a flare before going to our writing group or the occasional social outing in hopes I would see you there. Birthdays and holidays were always occasions to check in; your birthday email entitled “Your Hair Has More Fullness Than That Slow Cooker Chili Recipe I Saw On Facebook” is one of the strangest and most treasured pieces of correspondence I’ve ever received.
The last time I saw you read at a show was in the basement of a tattoo parlor in the spring of 2016. You threatened to take your last Valium to deal with your nerves, a condition we all lovingly referred to as “Tomming out.” You were brilliant, as always, fighting your onstage cotton mouth with your trusty water bottle. We caught up after the show, you polishing off your Aquafina and me slugging Manhattans from a flask. You always made sure I got safely into an Uber, that night I recall us waiting quietly. I’m sure neither of us thought that our third act would involve standing on a deserted street corner in Westtown far too late on a school night trying to identify the license plate of a stranger’s Toyota Prius, but we were most content. As my ride share chariot approached, you hugged me and said “I love you, E”. I said “I love you too, Tee Dub.” We shared such sentiments more often in writing than in person, not because we were fearful of emotion, but because it went without saying. Although we were brought together by our love of language, there was such joy in feeling seen and heard with no words required.
I learned so much from you, becoming a better writer and a better human through your examples. You moved through this world with such grace and humility and as E.B. White told us in “Charlotte’s Web”, “it’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” When I heard you were gone, I drank all the brown liquor in my house and cried my eyes out. The next day I sobbed on the Ashland bus to the grocery store and then in line at the store buying a case of La Croix to replace all my tears. I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of the initials “T.W.” written in the sidewalk on Ashland, a reminder that your spirit is always inside of me and I should be on the lookout for your greetings and salutations. This is all more manageable if I consider you to be Charlotte to my Wilbur. You were such a wonderful friend to so many, and that in itself is a tremendous thing. I regret not hiring a skywriter to proclaim that during all of our reluctant grumblings and synchronized side eyes we were most certainly having the some of the best times of our lives. But much like declarations of affection, I trust it was a known quantity, an unspoken understanding.
I’m sure Daniel Jones of the New York Times will soon send me a rejection letter, but it will be fine. The letter project was never about recognition or publishing for me. It was just an extension of saying yes to anything that involved working with you. Saying yes to the stories, to the podcast, to the wolfdog, was always a given. I would have said yes to shoveling shit on the road with Mister Bobo, for the record. The letters kept us attached creatively, our voices in chorus. In an arena full of navel gazing narcissists, the letters were our cries to be heard from the cheap seats. This is the only letter where the recipient truly does matter, because it is my attempt to honor what you mean to me. It’s also my last letter as I have no interest in continuing this project without you. The letters were a collaboration and I refuse to try to make jelly work without peanut butter.
Godspeed, you gallant creature. I haven’t spent much time ruminating on the afterlife as I’m having enough trouble navigating this current assignment, but I pray your next adventure is worthy of you. I also hope Mister Bobo made the trek as well. Because that chimp knows that in the face of absurdity, just below your “Totally Tom” sitcom star twinkle, there’s an “Oh, what fresh hell is THIS?” face in search of an ally. That’s my Tee Dub. One day we will laugh about all this, Wolferman, and that day is today.
Love always from your friend and fan,