I just returned home from the memorial for Jeff Boughner.
I first met Jeff when he interviewed me for a job at Schuler Books, back in August of 1993. I was working as a prep cook at the time, and desperate to be in an environment where people actually read books on purpose. Jeff decided I was a good candidate, and in the middle of September he hired me for what turned into a six-and-a-half year stint selling books.
In a surprisingly short amount of time I became the special orders manager, which meant dealing with people who already had a problem: we didn’t carry the book they wanted. Finding books for those people was detailed, drawn-out, and often quite frustrating for everyone involved.
Something you should know about bookstore employees: We take the job because we love books, not because we love people.
Over the years, Jeff came to recognize the stormy brow when I came stomping out onto the floor preparing to commit mayhem on the nearest warm body, and he had an uncanny way of defusing the situation just as I was about to let loose on someone: He would look at me, get kind of a Mona Lisa smile on his face, look down at whatever he had been reading, and just say “Oh, John, John, John…” while shaking his head.
Somehow, it worked. He was taking the deep slow breath for me when I couldn’t.
Somewhere around ’96 or ’97 I discovered that writing poetry could be as rewarding as reading it, and this led to participating in a few local poetry readings. The first time I ever stepped on stage in front of a crowd, Jeff was behind me with his guitar providing a soft, blues-ey jazz atmosphere for my nervous stuttering and mumbling. Beside him were Al and Hugo, in a primeval version of Blue Nebula, even before the era when they were the Haje Nebula. Actually, I think those poetry readings might have been where the Haje Nebula got its start.
Blue Nebula’s website is here. Take a second to listen to the music. That’s Jeff on the ethereal guitar.
After I quit the bookstore for greener pa$ture$, I fell out of touch with Jeff a little. He worked the same hours I did, so I would usually only see him on the occasional lunch hour or Friday afternoon. I still tried to keep up with the Blue Nebula performances, but those didn’t allow for a lot of hanging out and catching up.
The last time I saw him perform was at a poetry reading in the middle of last year, where he was accompanying several of the same poets who were on the ticket with me my first time. I managed to say a few words to him during one of the breaks between poets, complimenting him on his playing and just enjoying hearing him talk to the other musicians at the party.
I was on vacation when I heard that Jeff was sick. A few hours later I heard he had died. I made sure to lift a glass for him on Bourbon Street.
There were probably close to 200 people at the memorial service at the church which Jeff had attended for so long. Family, friends, co-workers, compatriots. At one point, near the end of the ceremony, the pastor invited people to share their memories of Jeff. One of his old bandmates from a LONG time ago said “Everyone who ever had the pleasure of performing with Jeff, stand up.” And many people did. That moment, more than any other, demonstrated the breadth of Jeff’s influence on the world around him.
As we were leaving the ceremony, and I was saying goodbye to the old Schuler Books crowd, Christine — another one of the poets — gave me a big hug and said “Didn’t it feel great to be able to stand up and say you performed with Jeff?” and that’s where the tears finally came and my voice broke and thinking about it I can feel it all again.
Yes. It was wonderful.
Thank you, Jeff. You were a bigger part of our lives than anybody realized until tonight.
I will miss you.