“A lot of people are upset over the news about Jerry,” said Joe Serrano.
Serrano, a burly Cuban émigré in his ‘50s, is part of a small but durable Downey tennis sub-culture that plays and gossips at Furman and Independence Parks, and has been rife with concern over the troubling rumor that Jerry Baxter had died. Some said they saw Baxter earlier this year, ducking their queries about the malignant tumor that had formed on his neck.
He didn’t look good,” was the general consensus. And, “He didn’t want to talk. He said he’d had it before and it cleared up on its own.”
They weren’t the only perplexed bunch in search of answers about Jerry (it’s illustrative that everyone knew him mainly by his first name). There would be people at Rancho Los Amigos’ used clothing store, where Baxter would buy whole outfits for less than five dollars, turn in his soiled pants, socks and shirts, and buy them back too after they’d been cleaned; the whole transaction was cheaper and faster than visiting a Laundromat.
There were the subcontractors who hired him as a construction worker; homeowners who entrusted him with care of their lawns and gardens; the short order staff at Mr. Pete’s hamburger joint on Firestone and Rives; the librarians at Downey Library, where he spent countless hours on computer research and checking out and returning books. And the sweet Latina taco stand waitress he flirted with after a profitable day of dumpster-diving.
Anybody who played tennis in Downey knew Baxter, who was a local legend, and looked the part. At 6’4” and 170 pounds, he had long rangy limbs and quick reflexes. He also had a shock of gunmetal gray-white hair that gave him the aspect of some kind of eminence grise, particularly since he spent so much time practicing alone on court. But he was always good for a game, a rally or a lesson with anyone, rarely charging for his time. He was also good for a laugh, offering sardonic asides in the style of actor/comedian Bill Murray, whose style he imitated to perfection.
Jerry was virtually impossible to beat. He had a finesse game of angles, short shots, sizzling put-aways when he needed them, and tactics for moving you out of position. And he covered the court like a blanket. I don’t know how many sets we played over the thirty years I knew him, but I never took a single one. He stayed on top with good grace and humor; I fumed sometimes, even threw my racquet over the fence. But in both tennis and life, it felt ungracious to stay mad, particularly at him.
You may have gathered by now that he was homeless, but he concealed the fact from all but his intimates (his messages on my voicemail often began, “This is your hobo friend, Jerry”). When I first met him, he worked as a court reporter and made enough to rent an apartment and own a Toyota pickup truck. But some kind of ghastly psychological fault line ran through his family, striking in the form of severe manic-depression. In one episode, his mother was bed-ridden for three years (“My father begged her to tell him, just once, that she loved him,” he recalled). An older brother committed suicide. When the malady hit Jerry, he lost his job, his apartment, and his life savings, and lived for a while in his truck. He never regained a secure financial footing.
How he coped has to be some kind of miracle, but he managed with such aplomb that you wouldn’t suspect his living and emotional condition if he didn’t tell you about it. An elderly couple allowed him to sleep in a shed behind their house on Farm Street, where he wound up helping them sort their financial and medical affairs. He kept a postal box and a cell phone. He washed daily in rubbing alcohol and gargled in hydrogen peroxide to keep his teeth clean. He cut his own hair. He scoured the neighborhood for recyclables, and found odd revealing objects; sex toys, vintage record albums and books; in one instance, a trove of brand-new sexy lingerie, price tags still attached, from a woman who’d probably had a fight, and a change of heart, with her mate.
Mostly he read books, listened to talk radio’s fulminating outrages, and played tennis, sometimes walking across the street early mornings to sweep off the courts. His reading was voracious, and sometimes stopped him still in the street: history, science, philosophy, social theory, biographies of rockers, great artists and athletes, show biz types, and the Bible. He was a connoisseur of cultural and political lunacy and would joke about the latest preposterous item to make the news. He talked and joked about it all.
About three years ago a former high school tennis champ from Huntington Park named Jose Perez showed up to see how much of his old game he could recapture. Soon we were playing Australian style, or rotating two-on-one sets, every other afternoon, playing all out to win, but also laughing at the absurdities big and small that went on outside the cloistered precinct of the court. We played until dusk, all year long, watching molten sunsets deepen over the big field of Rio Hondo elementary school. Jose and I took Jerry to dinner and the Downey Symphony (my girlfriend found him charming and intriguingly handsome). We bought him a new bike for Christmas. ‘These are my guys,’ I thought. I hadn’t had more fun in decades, and I thought it would last forever.
But it fell apart almost as quickly as it had come together. Jose ran into virtually every kind of problem a healthy young man can face, and stopped showing up. Caregiving for an elderly couple, one of whom was slipping into a dementia reminiscent of his mother’s, began taking its emotional toll on Jerry; the toxic chemicals he used in gardening worked their way into his body. He stopped coming around too. The rumors began to circulate. Few of us, it turns out, fathomed his prideful loneliness. Finally I called the County Coroner’s office and learned he’d died of metastic head cancer on April 7, 2017. No one claimed his body, which was cremated.
Jerry was my friend. He was smart, engaging, and kind to a fault. He read my poetry, listened to my music, and bicycled over during the holiday season to leave a Christmas card on my mailbox—which I’m sure he did with many people. Now he’s gone.
I’m not the only one who feels the impact of his loss. It weighs like a sizeable debit posted against one’s life that can never be redeemed.