A Farewell to a True ‘Man for Others’
It was raining at a pretty steady pace when I got into my car this past Wednesday night. If I was not accustomed to the ways of the road, it would have been a no-brainer to turn around. But tonight was movie night with my cousin, a sacred night, the first in several months. And there was no way I was missing a chance, possibly a final one, of seeing ‘Creed’ on the big screen. By the time I took the ‘death entrance’ aka the South Street Bridge ramp onto the 76 West fastlane, the rain became heavier. At the fork right after the 30th St. station exit, I almost slammed into the back of a car that decided it would be a good idea to stop and reverse its way onto the 676 East entrance after narrowly missing it. My car spun out avoiding the slow decision-making idiot at the fork and it was a miracle there were no other cars around me as my car completed a full 360 and I continued merging onto 76 West. The sight of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the background (which along with City Hall is my favorite building in the world and whose steps were made famous by the first ‘Rocky’ movie) made me vow to not turn back even if I had to part the Schuykyll to get to my cousin’s house. Having respect for the ways of the road, I knew Mother Nature still had something left up her sleeve.
Fate struck about halfway through the Conshohocken Curve in the form of a lightning bolt. If it had been ten seconds sooner, there’s a chance I may not be writing this post today. Judging by the wooden debris on the highway, this may not be the final time it strikes. It’s moments like this one, where it seems nearly impossible to reach deep down inside to find courage, that having faith is most significant. The storm may have been reigning down on me but somewhere I knew somebody was looking over me. I had experienced this feeling before. The most recent instances were after my Pop Pop had passed a couple years ago while heading to Sea Isle during a big storm and last summer heading to my cousin’s house during a bad storm after Don Bigley, a man I worked for in college, had passed. I sat up in the driver’s seat and put both hands firmly on my steering wheel, a common practice of mine when I get anxious on the road. Next, I turned up the radio and was blessed with some new music on XPN, which I later found out is a song called: Every Songbird Says.
On paper, it’s another song about love. Not the first and certainly not the last. It does not sound much different from most other contemporary indie duets yet I find myself hooked to every note as I make my way toward King of Prussia. As I pass the Gulph Road exit, the storm begins to gain some color. Out in the distance, I see many different painted eyes flicker like stars through the nighttime rain. Painted eyes that belong to familiar faces, from a familiar place. My heart begins to beat rapidly. I get to the Swedesford Road exit and stop my car even though the light is green. At this moment the rain stops. For an instant, it all seems so beautiful: the song, the colors, the feeling inside. Traces of lightning flash all around. I pay no mind. The image of the Philadelphia Museum of Art comes back into my head. But I’m not thinking about the iconic steps or even what’s inside the building. I think of art, I think of Philadelphia and, as a result, I think about the news I received thirty hours prior about a man synonymous with both these words (‘Philadelphia’/’art’). It’s at this instance when it suddenly hits me: Joe Tiberino is gone.
I’m not going to lie, my eyes were filled with tears as I made the turn. I knew Joe but I feel like everybody in Philadelphia knew him. He’s a legend. What hit me was the thought of knowing that he knew me. He always took his time to say ‘hi’ and talk to me at his family parties. I always felt comforted by his presence and he always made me feel proud of having a Mexican heritage. He always commented about how many of his favorite artists were Mexican and after visiting the ‘Art Garden’ aka Tiberino-Powell museum it would be foolish if you could not see the comparisons between his style and that of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Walk down 15th Street near City Hall for further evidence, this being his murals in a more public setting.
By the time I pulled up my cousin’s house, I was a mess. He gets in the car and asks me if I wants him to drive. I say: “why, because I’ve been balling my eyes out?” He responds: “no, I feel bad you drove out here in this weather.” We get on the road and he asks me why I’ve been upset. I tell him about the news of Joe’s death. I mention how the news hit me on the ride down the Schuykyll and how I almost crashed as a result of the crazy storm. The rain starts coming down pretty hard again as I get onto 422 West. For a second, I think of how anybody that knew Joe will carry on his example of what it means to be an artist, starting with his children. As we go further down 422, another thought began to creep in pretty deep. Like me, Joe was a Prep guy. Granted, he graduated in the late Fifties, when it was a different school. And he was not the type to wear it on his sleeve. But if you knew that about Joe, you knew that he represented everything about what a Jesuit school like the Prep was about…mainly the only thing it should be about, being a man for others. Joe was the ultimate man for others. I witnessed that firsthand throughout the years in the relationship he had with my friend Jimmy, one element of the cast of characters you’d see hanging out in that West Philadelphia compound dubbed the ‘Art Garden.’ It also meant a lot to me that he was not afraid to celebrate his faith. He was a proud Catholic. His love for his faith was a prime example of how one can celebrate their faith outside of the Church. He was not afraid to show it in his artwork. I got pretty worked up thinking about this aspect of Joe’s life. The Prep connection. Better yet, the fact he felt no need to talk about it. He lived it. Every day up until the day he died. All these thoughts were overwhelming. The rain, the road, the beauty of life, death, and art all combined in a sudden bout of high anxiety. If it wasn’t for a beer my cousin had in his jacket pocket, my first sip of alcohol in almost 14 months, I probably would have passed out at the wheel and harmed us both. We made it to the movie. ‘Creed’ was the perfect movie to watch this evening. Celebrating an iconic fictional Philly character on the same night I’m remembering a real-life Philly legend. I see Rocky in this movie and the whole time I can’t stop thinking about Joe. Particularly the scene where Rocky tells Adonis what he would give to have another second with Adrian. I always thought Joe felt that way about his wife Ellen, who passed away over twenty years ago. On the ride back to Center City, the traffic was brutal as a result of flooding from the storms. I sat on 76 for two hours between City Line and Spring Garden. For a good chunk of the time, I could see the Art Museum in the distance. I thought of how the world looks at this building and thinks of Rocky Balboa running up its steps. Or the ones that visit it and think they know art in Philadelphia as a result of walking though its vaunted doors. And yet, anybody’s right in whatever they think when it comes to art. That’s the beauty of it. For now, I look at the Art Museum and I can’t stop thinking about Joe. I smile while sitting in traffic. Some people look at that building and think about the steps on the outside of it, some people like at that building and think about what’s inside of it, I look at that building and think to myself how lucky I am to know the Philadelphia artists that are responsible for building it.
Rest In Peace Joe