The Minneapolis Jewish Cemetery sits past a multi-block stretch of small businesses heading south on Penn Avenue, a half-mile off Highway 62 in Richfield. It wasn't until midsummer when I parked under a cluster of trees and saw the wave of tombstones that I realized it was going to be impossible to find Sid Hartman.
Because he died during the era of COVID-19, there was no public memorial. No large gathering of family, friends and co-workers. I went through the grief of losing someone at this time in the only way I could, sitting at home.
But months after his death, something kept telling me this longing was not going anywhere.
Late at night lying in bed with my face illuminated by a cell phone, I typed "Sid Hartman grave" into a Google search.
The first result was for a website called Find a Grave.
It told me that Sid Hartman was buried at the Minneapolis Jewish Cemetery, in Richfield.
I did not know such a thing existed until I did. And then I had no excuses.
Still, as I pulled up to the cemetery, my naivety hit me clean as I turned off the engine and realized that just because you can find a cemetery doesn't mean you can find a grave.
I wandered for a while and didn't find what I was looking for. No Sid. No one I know. Just the unknowable loveliness that life gives to us all. The rolling hiss of insects, the laser whistle of a cardinal, the Gordons and Meshbeshers and Sigels and Roths.
* * *
I watched Sid go to work over the last decade of his life. I transcribed his interviews, helped him compile stats and edited his copy. I watched as he plowed ahead in a journalistic landscape that he refused to let pass him by.
It seems impossible to think that the last story we worked on together in-person was the column for his 100th birthday. March 15, 2020. It was a year ago Monday he died, Oct. 18.
I come to the cemetery again a week later, and as I scan the graves I start noting the ages and think of how blessed Sid was to live as long as he did, but how little he seemed to care.
It was, without qualification, his most incredible professional talent. Age meant absolutely nothing to him when he went to work.
But still, what an age. 100. On the nose. So elegant when you consider how many lives end up in slanted numbers. 86 years old. 63. 45. 74. 82.
I see the grave of an 18-year-old. Dead in 1942. I wonder if he went to fight for his country and did not come home. But I do not know.
I become fixated on finding someone who lived longer than Sid. It takes a while, until:
Mae Florence Lipshie
Daughter of Samuel & Jennie Lasky
Sept 26, 1900
Jan 26, 2004
What do you even do with that amount of time? The end of World War I as an 18-year-old. The start of World War II at the age of 38. John F. Kennedy assassinated when she was 63. With 40 years left.
I try to visualize an unknowable person, turn around and see the grave of Sid's brother. And I know.
* * *
See a small white placard with the Star of David that reads:
March 15, 1920 - October 18, 2020
Take off your hat and shoes.
Stand afoot. Feel the parched grass between your toes.
Sit down, resist the urge to lie down, spread your fingers along the ground, press your fingers into the dirt, notice the plastic mesh attempting to grow the sod, the anthills developing in the drought, the sky breathing, the distant hum of a lawnmower, the small stones placed above him, his family plots next to him, the shade from the maple tree like a blessing overhead.
Say, I'm so sorry.
Say, I hope you're finding peace.
Say, I miss you.
Resist the urge to feel only sadness. Resist the urge to remember how many times you declined invitations to ride on his boat. Or to go out for dinner. Resist the urge to think that he didn't get to meet your son. Resist your worthless ego.
Say, What a blessing you were.
Notice that the wind, which had been as still as someone hiding, starts to rise. Notice the idle tree overhead begin to violently sway. Feel the air creep up your neck. Feel the hairs on your arms stand up.
Take a second.
Tell Sid, OK.
Take a second.
Tell him what's new with the Gophers.
* * *
This is not the first time I have talked to him since he died, but the previous time was to a bronze statue of Sid in downtown Minneapolis.
That statue is very lifelike. And if, say, you found yourself in a deserted cityscape at 4 p.m. on a random April afternoon reporting on the return of 1,600 fans to Target Center, you may have ended up completely alone staring at it.
Then you may have found yourself talking out loud to that statue and, starting to get uncomfortable, felt your normally rational mind irrationally thinking it was about to start talking back.
So that didn't provide the usual sensation of communicating on a spiritual plane.
Still, it did help me to realize how isolated I was in my work. How reliant I had been on his routine and on his reliance on me. How much I have missed what it meant to show up and be forced to share space. What it meant to matter, in a desperate capacity, to someone professionally.
It was a capacity that pushed me to the brink at times — made me curse the reality I existed in that had placed me in his care or him in mine. It was also a capacity that occasionally made me wonder if it was the reason I was alive — a chance, in such a weird way, to give of myself to someone I met as a total stranger.
But whatever part of the spectrum I found myself on, one thing I realized when he was gone and I started a new job was that professional growth was not a replacement for actually meaning something to someone.
So it felt good to say, "Sid, I have no idea what I'm doing. If you have any ideas …"
* * *
After I leave the cemetery I go into my basement and pull out a box and take out the only two books Sid ever gave me — his biographies.
I take them upstairs and put them on my shelves.
I put a framed photo of us just outside the left edge of my computer.
I used to want to separate Sid so violently from my personal life that I wouldn't think of displaying mementos like that. I was an independent person, and this overwhelming personality was not going to subsume who I was.
When people would ask me what I did for a living I would tell them I worked in the sports department at the Star Tribune, that I compiled boxscores and stats and helped edit copy.
I was loath to mention him. I would refuse to answer his calls on my days off. I have dozens of voicemails from Sid that are variations on a simple theme: "Jeff, would you call me back, please?"
I take these memories at face value.
At the time, I felt what I was doing was absolutely necessary for my life.
And now I try to answer every phone call I get from my family.
And now when people ask what I do at the paper, I say I used to work for Sid.
* * *
But working at the paper right now means working in a room at my house, so I leave it where it is from time to time and drive back to the cemetery.
I can be there in 10 minutes if I hit the lights on Penn and speed past Vale Typewriter, Sandy's Tavern with their world-famous burgers, the seemingly closed Pickin' Parlor and Cuernos Chuecos Western Wear.
There's no real need to be here, but it feels good to communicate in this physical space — even if it is impossible to imagine being the driving force in a conversation with Sid.
I sit down and can't think of anything meaningful to say.
I tell him what he's missed.
I tell him Ryan Saunders was fired.
I tell him the Twins are having a tough year.
I tell him about all the jottings he would have published.
I tell him the Vikings have a shot, if a few things fall into place.
I tell him my son is nearly 2 years old and he's talking a mile a minute.
I tell him I have a new job and it never would have happened without him.
I tell him life is going well and it never would have happened without him.
I tell him life can feel lonely without him.
And then I stop talking, look up to the leaves above us and pray for the wind to rise.
* * *