On Stephen Brophy

I knew Stephen Brophy for about fifteen years, but I only knew him well in the past three or four. It was my great pleasure to have coffee with him several times a month at Pavement and later in his apartment at our co-op. He was my neighbor, my friend, my mentor in radical politics, and my advisor in love and life. So I want to tell you a little about my experience of this extraordinary person.

Stephen believed in the power of the word. To the end of his life, he refused to use the word “actress” because it’s sexist. About a week before he died, he was talking to his daughter-in-law about a French film and couldn’t remember the name of its star, Jeanne Moreau. From his hospital bed, he raised his arm and he said, “Her name doesn’t matter—what matters is she’s the greatest French actor of all time!”

Words also gave him great joy. I walked into his apartment one morning about a month and a half ago, and he said to me, “I’ve just figured something out.” Now, as many of you know, Stephen had a fondness for saying “grazie” instead of “thank you,” because he loved Italy. So he says to me, beaming, “You know how I like to say ‘grazie’? Well, I found out that ‘grazie’ means ‘you grace me’ and ‘prego’ means ‘I pray it’s so.’ Isn’t that neat?”

To be Stephen’s friend was to be admitted into the kingdom of his mind. You would get things urged upon you: Alice Munro, Takashi Murakami, Satyajit Ray. You would hear about the Peloponnesian Wars. You would get to share his love of cultural production both high and low. He loved Truffaut, and he loved both “Mamma Mia” movies with a passion. He loved conversation possibly even more than he loved sweets, and he had both on his regular visits to J.P. Licks with his favorite neighbor.

I can’t give you a map of his mind, but I can give you a map of his apartment. It was full of books. I don’t think Stephen ever had any money, or if he did he didn’t keep it long—probably because he spent it all on second-hand books and DVDs, or on other people—so his library was a little shabby, but its holdings were vast. To the left when you came in, there were a couple of bookshelves of miscellaneous stuff that didn’t fit elsewhere, including some science fiction. Then the first door to your right was Stephen’s study, which contained so much literary criticism it had bowed the shelves, as well as all his National Geographics, plus all the maps from all the National Geographics shelved by region.

Now let’s step back into the hallway that ran the length of his apartment. The entire left wall of this corridor was lined with books, neatly stacked on the floor in piles to waist height. Most of that was film, arranged by both director and genre. There was a tremendous amount of Hitchcock, of course, and there were also books on Buñuel, Bergman, Godard, John Ford, John Huston, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Woody Allen, film noir, crime movies, horror, romantic comedy, and that’s just the stuff I took pictures of.

Then you went into the living room. To your right began Stephen’s collection of short fiction, which took up the entire wall and included just about every notable author writing in English and many in translation. He had so many short-story collections that an entire bookshelf of Indian literature, history and mythology was in effect double-parked in front of the fiction by the door. Behind you were books on ancient Greece and Rome—history, criticism, original texts, translations—and those continued onto the wall to your left. Further along that wall was a bookcase full of DVDs, ranging from “That Obscure Object of Desire” and “Trainspotting” to “Night of the Living Dead” and Maya Deren’s experimental films. And if you stepped into what we at the co-op call the butler’s pantry, between the study and the kitchen, you would of course find many more DVDs. There were no books in the kitchen, but there was a lot of mail and a lot of chocolate.

It was always a gift to get Stephen’s perspective on something. You went to Stephen with a conundrum: I’ve been invited to two Thanksgivings, one is family, one is chosen family, I don’t know what to do. He listened to you, and then he asked you a clarifying question: What do you want to get out of Thanksgiving? What does Thanksgiving mean to you? And then you talked your own way out of the conundrum. You could ask him about history, political economy, what he called “the fever-dream of Washington”—his observations were always pointed, sometimes acerbic, never bullshit. He was particularly astute about the complications of trying to live into the vision of social justice that was so much a part of his heart. He once defined the life cycle of a radical organization as “Birth, growth, hardening of the arteries, death.” And he told me with great glee of a book he’d seen years ago called Murder in the Collective, saying, “That’s a book I just had to read.”

Stephen was always himself. I think anyone who knew him can testify to this. He didn’t tailor his personality for anyone, which occasionally led to conflicts, but also meant that he was recognizably the same person to me last month as he was to people who worked with him in NEFCO thirty years ago. (By the way, I’d like to say there’s a scholarly article about NEFCO that you can find on the internet, and the keywords—added by algorithm, as the site notes—are “cash flow,” “citrus fruit,” “hourly wage,” “peanut butter,” and “staff meeting.” I think Stephen would have enjoyed that.) I was present during his first meeting with the hospice company. The intake nurse was nothing so much as a bureaucrat. She had her little tablet computer, and she was going down the list of questions and asked him what his religion was. Stephen replied, “Somewhere between Taoism and St. Matthew.” She said, “Can I just put Catholic?” He said yes, but he wanted her to put a question mark after it. Somewhat to my horror, he began expounding on the Biblical figure of St. Matthew. You see, Stephen was a teacher, and he taught because he loved knowledge—he basically couldn’t stop himself. He quoted his version of a famous line from the gospel of Matthew: “When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” And he commented, “I used to just use that as a club against Republicans, and then I thought, ‘You know, this is really too beautiful to be weaponized.’ ”

Here’s my favorite story about Stephen. Once last summer we were at Pavement, talking about his time in Queer Nation, and he told me of a series of buttons they’d been planning, which were going to read “Gay by nature, queer by choice,” or “Bi by nature, queer by choice.” And characteristically of Stephen, because he was a coalition-builder, he wanted to broaden this to include all sorts of people under the rubric of queer. So he proposed a button that would say, “Straight by nature, queer by choice.” I didn’t imagine this would go over very well at Queer Nation, so I asked him, “Were you shouted down?” He smiled and said, “No, but I was certainly shouted at.”

I had a short time with Stephen Brophy, but he was one of the best friends I’ve ever had. So I would like to say to him: Stephen, you graced me. And if where you are today can be a place full of friends, coffee, conversation, art, literature and good-looking men, I pray it’s so.

(Delivered at Stephen’s memorial service, 9/23/2018.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *