Irwin’s Death

By Tsaurah

A photo of Irwin’s Brooklyn apartment that was taken by Rudy Burckhardt when he lived there in 1958.


It was early March 1974. Everywhere in New York people were talking about the Watergate hearings. The hearings were televised daily. No one on the fourth floor of 1 Old Fulton Street where we lived had a T.V. but Irwin listened to the hearings on his small portable radio when he was driving his taxi and then, of course, there were the newspapers. Irwin was very upset by the hearings. He was talking all the time about   duplicity in high places, how we had failed as a country, the need for compassion and love between people, between nations. About a week before his death, he came in to see me, we were next door neighbors, bringing a bottle of Windex for a gift. He urged me to keep my windows clean. I was not much of a housekeeper. He said the view from my windows ( I can see down the skyline of lower Manhattan, out into New York harbor past the Statue of Liberty into the open sea) was so important for the understanding we need to save the world. I was touched by this lovely gift but I also saw how agitated and unhappy he was. I might have mentioned this to Gerrry, I’m not sure, but I remember I thought I should spend more time with him, but I didn’t act on this.


Irwin had been dating a friend of mine, Harriet, she and I had not spoken for a while. The night before his death she called me up to say Irwin has been acting strangely the last few times they saw each other. She had spoken with her therapist about Irwin and they wanted to come over the next night so the therapist could speak with Irwin and try to help him. I told her this might not be a bad idea but she should talk with Irwin first about this so he would not feel ambushed. Also Gerry and Donna, the woman he was living with, were moving out the next day, which was March 20th – the vernal equinox. They lived across the hall. Donna was not happy in the building. There was another couple who lived on our floor and it was a time when we were all not getting along. I was living with a man no one liked excerpt Irwin who always tried to see the best in everyone.


The morning of March 20th was sunny and very warm. As I was preparing to go into Manhattan on an errand, Irwin knocked on my door. He said he was unhappy about how everyone on our floor was not getting along  and asked me if I would make a dinner so we could eat together and try to find some harmony. I said of course I would. Before I left I went into see Gerry. I told him about Irwin’s request, Harriet’s phone call and how out of it Irwin seemed. Gerry said he had noticed it too and would keep an eye on him until I returned.


It was just noon when I was coming home down Old Fulton Street. There was a big knot of people at the end of the block. Right away I knew it was Irwin. I ran. There was a crowd of longshoremen in the street from the greasy spoon luncheonette that was on the ground floor of our building. At the center of the crowd was Irwin lying on his back in  the gutter. Gerry, Donna and woman friend of hers who had come to help them move were kneeling around him.


“Irwin,” I think I was yelling, as I sank down beside him. Irwin opened his eyes, “Am I dead?” he asked. We said, “No, no.”  Then he started to chant over and over, “Nixon is guilty, we are all guilty, we have to learn to love, we have to learn to love one another.” An ambulance had been called and when it arrived, Gerry and I climbed into the back to be with him. On the way to the hospital, Irwin said, “Tsaurah, give me your lap for a pillow.” The EMT who was with us thought that was a bad idea but I did it anyway. With his head in my lap, Irwin said, “Don’t mourn for me, Tsaurah. I am free.”


When we got to the hospital, it was Woodhull Hospital in Williamsburg, Gerry and I waited in the emergency room waiting room while they were taking care of Irwin. A doctor came out. He said it was amazing, Irwin had jumped out of a fourth story window and the only injuries he sustained were two broken ankles. They were setting the ankles and were going to keep Irwin for observation. The doctor told us they were putting him in the Men’s ward on the fourth floor. We could wait in the waiting room up there and see him when he was settled in.


Gerry and I went up to the fourth floor waiting room. We were so relieved he was still alive. I remember we were kidding about how we would give him hell for scaring us. We also talked about how we would tell him how much we needed him. We were there for a while when suddenly we heard a loud, keening cry, a kind of song somewhere between chanting and dovening. ‘That’s Irwin,” Gerry said. The song grew louder and louder. Down the hall and into the ward came rushing Dr’s and nurses with machines on  wheeled carts. The song grew into a sound that covered everything. Then, abruptly it stopped.


A doctor came into the waiting room. “I’m sorry about your friend,” he said, ‘It was massive heart failure, we tried to save him but we couldn’t”.


I don’t know how Gerry and I got back to the building, maybe we took a cab, I know we didn’t walk. Irwin’s door was opened but I went past it into my place. I was bouncing off the walls but then I thought I should go shut Irwin’s door. When I got out into the hall the police were coming up the steps, two uniformed cops and a couple of plain clothes. Probably the owner of the luncheonette had called them. They said they had to go into Irwin’s room to look for signs of a struggle. They closed the door. When they came out, I was still in the hall, I think Gerry was with me. They had his cameras and some other things, I don’t know what, in a bag. I said the cameras now belonged to his wife who was coming down from Canada. One of them said they were taking them for safe keeping., She could come to the precinct to get them. His buddy added, “How can you people live like this.” Then they were gone.


I don’t remember if Gerry called Yvonne or if he called your mother, who I seem to recall then lived in Queens. Yvonne came down the next day. I had met her before when she came down to visit Irwin. We talked about what happened to Irwin’s cameras and I know she made an effort to get them back but had no success.


In the months preceding his death, Irwin was working on a series of photographs of shrines. He used to take long walks around Brooklyn and take pictures of the shrines  people constructed in their front yards, made from plaster Virgin Marys, plastic flowers,  found objects, etc. I saw the contact sheets. They were gorgeous. He also had negatives, contacts of other photos. I don’t know what happened to these, if Yvonne took them or if  the police took them.


It was about a week before I could make myself go back into Irwin’s room. The room contained an old beat-up dresser, a very thin single pallet on the floor that was his bed. His leather jacket and a laundry bag hung on a couple of  nails. That was all but it felt like he was still there.

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