Last week, Ken was admitted to Elmhurst Memorial Hospital for pain in his stomach and back. Monday morning, Ken died from pancreatic cancer. It was fast. I spoke to him briefly on Friday. He knew was going to die. We agreed that he would wait until Monday (when I could visit him to say farewell) but he exited almost exactly 45 minutes before I got there.
I stood in his hospital room, his body still in repose in the bed, looking like Ken but really yellow, and told stories about Ken with his father, his friend and his friend's daughter. We laughed and broke the man's balls three feet from his corpse. I kept looking over to Ken’s body expecting a reaction but it never came. It was surreal and awful and wonderful.
We told stories for about an hour before I felt myself approaching that breakdown moment, so I bid my farewell, threw Ken's body the rock and roll horns, went to my car and cried for a little while.
I've known Ken since around 1990 but really became his friend in 1996 around the time WNEP did Metaluna and the Amazing Science of the Mind Revue at the Annoyance Theater on Clark.
For the uninitiated, Ken was the long-time Box Office guy who also played the Warden in Co-Ed Prison Sluts at the Annoyance Theater for decades. The Annoyance was his home. Years later, the theater company I founded in '92, WNEP, became his home away from home. While not attending shows at the Annoyance, Ken helped me build sets, paint the stage, became a WNEP Theater member, performed in shows.
There are a metric ton of stories being told and to be told of his time in the community of actors whom he loved so well. So I won't tell those stories.
Shortly after my second divorce, Ken started coming over to my empty-ish bachelor apartment. He'd bring four or five DVDs (of a collection of thousands of movies he hoarded), we'd order some food and spend a few hours watching old movies and telling stories and being a couple of bitchy, gruff men complaining about the world. Without too many exceptions and until I moved in with Alice (who did not like him much but she didn't really like me much, either) we did our Sunday Movie Day every week for nearly a year and a half.
Ken hated the fakeness of CGI and we would frequently argue its merits or lack thereof. One day, we were watching The Cowboys (a John Wayne film that also featured a young Robert Carradine and Bruce Dern in full cultural appropriation make up) and I paused it in the middle.
"You know, Ken? You're right. I hate that fake shit. I completely agree with you on this argument."
"What do you mean?" he grumbled, knowing I was setting him up.
"Bruce Dern is the least Mexican person on the planet! Totally fake!"
Ken got so angry, he took his movies and left without speaking another word. The next week, we watched three movies that featured Bruce Dern.
Ken knew more about movies than any five people combined so our mutual love for them was a bond. His love of Disney (a company he worked for for decades) was a close second.
The next story seems inappropriate to write about someone who literally just died but he loved it when I told it. He would encourage me to tell it to anyone around. Once, I asked him why he always wanted me to tell this terribly embarrassing story where he is the butt of the joke. He replied that he liked how I told the story and how it became more and more exaggerated the more I told it.
OK, Ken. Once more for you.
Ken was less than an adventurous eater. Plainly a meat and potatoes guy, he would rather eat nothing if there wasn't pizza or burgers available. So, of course, on our Movie Days, I would stretch the boundaries just to fuck with him.
One day, he came over with some musicals. I had ordered a pepperoni, jalapeño pepper, Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza. He was not interested at all. "Pineapple pizza? No thanks."
"OK. Then I guess you don't eat," and I grabbed a few slices and sat down for optimal viewing.
He eyed the pizza a bit. He got up and got one slice and he loved it so much he ate half the pie. An hour or so later, he decided we should get ice cream. So we paused the movie and started to walk the block or so to the grocery store.
Halfway down the street I hear this godawful grunt and moan. Ken was doubled over making the sound a cat in heat makes. "What's wrong, dude? Are you OK?"
"I'm going to [grunt] shit [moan] my pants!"
Being the paragon of sympathy I am, I started laughing so hard I thought I might shit my pants.
"Let's go back to the house!" I barked in between gasps of guffaws.
"I don't think I can walk or I'll shit myself!" and he started doing that Tim Conway shuffle walk back to my apartment while I howled with laughter.
He made it. Almost.
Once he was out of the bathroom, he laughed, too. "That was close!"
And then I noticed the foot-long brown stain on the crack of his pants and started howling again. I couldn't speak words I was so incapacitated. He realized what had happened, grabbed his movies, left, got in his car and sped away.
A week later, at a bar with a few people, he comments to me that he wore dark pants, you know, just in case I order pizza. Everyone wanted to know what that comment was about. Ken simply said, "Let Don tell it. He thinks it's hysterical." He had me tell that story at least a dozen times.
Ken was one of those pillars of society who, without fanfare or need for recognition, was just always there. To lend a hand, to cheer you on, to listen to your jokes. He was one of the kindest, most generous souls I have known in my life and I loved him dearly.
The last time I saw him in life, we agreed to have lunch after his latest massive Disney vacation. I chose a place with burgers but it turned out to be closed so I talked him in to going to Smoke Daddy BBQ. No burgers, though.
He sat and read the fucking menu for ten minutes before I finally said, "You just want me to fucking order for you? Jesus!"
"What if I don't like it?" he groused.
"Then you don't eat it, jag!"
I ordered him a plate of brisket, pulled pork and chicken.
He loved it. And I'm pretty sure he didn't shit his pants.
I'll miss Ken. I'm grateful to have known him. I'm glad he wasn't in pain when he graduated. For me, he will live on in the stories we tell of him. And that's good enough. As far as I know, there isn't a single person who spent any time with Ken who does not have a story. Those stories are how we pay tribute and remember a truly excellent human being.
Farewell, my friend. I'll watch The Cowboys and eat a pineapple pizza in your honor.