We take a lot of things for granted in life. We wake up in the morning and expect there to be a floor underneath our feet. That we’ll flick the light switch and electricity will flow. That each time we go to bed, life will seemingly pause around us until the morning. But sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes you lose a loved one in those hours and, undoubtedly, you’ll wish you hadn’t taken so much for granted.
I’d like to bid a fond farewell to “Doctor” James Dixson. A friend gone too soon. So I’ll take you through a few of my favorite memories of JDD. Some you may have heard before, others you likely haven’t.
Sweating in the Summer
When I started working at Atomicdust, I met James and we were quick to become friends. It was only natural, since we shared a lot of the same hobbies and interests. From cooking and canoeing, we always had something to talk about. And for every topic, James had a story to tell from a life well lived. Over the years, our shared interests brought us closer and closer together.
My fondest memories of James often revolve around trips on two wheels. Working near a motorcycle dealership meant my ears were accustomed to the sounds of Ducatis ripping down Locust Street. After a while, I finally decided to pull the trigger and buy one. I’d decided that a Ducati Monster was the bike for me. A reasonable starter bike at a reasonable price. I mentioned it time and time again to both James, and brother Taylor Dixson. Every time, I got the same response from James. A hearty, baritone laugh. He thought I should go for something a little more serious. But I was scared. Anything more than a Monster was far from my radar. But James knew better. In his years of riding, he knew that I’d want the power and performance of a real motorcycle. Eventually, I caved.
After work one day, James and I walked down the street to that very dealership and test rode a beautiful beast of a motorcycle that belonged to a friend, Chris Kuhn's Ducati 848. For good measure, James gave it a spin. After riding, we both knew that I was ready to head to the bank. All James asked is that I not drop it or let Taylor ride it. (He said, with time, "Taylor would end up either outrunning the cops or die trying.")
As an inexperienced rider, that Duc was intimidating. But James committed to riding with me to show me the ropes – and Taylor was always down for a two-wheeled adventure. For those first few months, we rode damn near every day. During the week, it was an excuse to go somewhere a little farther away for lunch. And on the weekends, we took to the back roads of Bixby, Labadie or Augusta. We’d crank through an entire tank of gas, sweating through our protective gear and laughing all the way. I’m thankful for the memories of each and every mile.
Carving in the Winter
As my first winter as a motorcycle owner began, we all went back to four wheels and enjoyed the cold weather. James and I both welcomed the drop in temperature. That just meant it was time to don a puffy jacket and hope for snow deep enough to drift in. Then, James’ birthday would roll around. At work, we’d share a slice of heavenly carrot cake (the best kind of cake) from Cravings. James would slice it the right way, carving it up like an Imo’s pizza. Soon after, we’d make chili to pit against one another for the annual Halloween Chili Cook-off. Sooner still, it'd be time to prepare a feast for Thanksgiving. By this point, the holidays were upon us. When it came to holiday presents, James wrapped them with a skillful precision that still confuses me to this day.
As one particular winter rolled on, James, once again, convinced me to get out of my comfort zone and go skiing. As a native St. Louisan, skiing was barely in my vocabulary. But I agreed. Until this point, everything I knew about skiing I’d learned from South Park. French fries to go fast. Pizza to slow down. While I tumbled down the ice-covered hills of Hidden Valley, James would collect my skis and give me pointers on what I was doing wrong. By the end of it, I could at least make my way to the ski lift and sketchily carve down the black diamond runs.
Savoring the Spirit
In that giving spirit, James once gave me a present – and a memory – that I’ll never forget. Sitting at Planter’s House for a Christmas party afterparty, James and I were a few Old Fashioneds deep at this point. Buffalo Trace in my glass. Four Roses in his. But that didn’t stop me from noticing a distinctive bottle on the top shelf. I asked Ted, the owner/bartender, how much a pour of Old Rip Van Winkle would be. Again, I heard a bellowing laugh from James as he said “Don’t worry about it.” Ted grabbed the bottle, poured me a glass and left it on the table for me to admire. It was damn good. Hell, just as it reads, it was pretty fitting as a "remarkable whiskey for memorable occasions."
As the years went by, James and I shared many more moments like these. Often over a glass of good bourbon. Of all the drinks we shared, one of the more memorable occasions was at Small Batch. On a day like any other, I packed up my computer and walked by James’ old office on my way out the door. This particular day, James called my name as I passed by. Sitting in his “Papa Bear-sized” Aeron chair – leaned back far enough to explore its engineering integrity – he asked me if I wanted to grab a drink. I'm rarely one to turn down a good drink, so I obliged.
We sat down and sipped our bourbons. About half way through our glasses, James looked at me with watery eyes. Which was a first. I was used to his laughter and not many more emotions than happiness and joy. He told me how much he loved Katie, his wife, and how scared shitless he was to be a father. I had no idea that they were even expecting at the time and really didn’t know what to say. So I stood up and gave him a hug. Which was another first for me – neither of us have likely ever been described as huggers. But as his eyes cleared, we talked about what was next in the world of JDD. About how James would always do absolutely anything for his nephews, so he couldn’t imagine what his life would be like with the addition of little Agnes.
James and I also enjoyed a lot of meals together over the years, but one has been on my mind the past few days. As Gerard Craft prepared to close his James Beard Award-winning Niche, everyone was making reservations. As a somewhat frugal guy, I’d never been at the time. But I definitely wanted to go once – just to say that I had been. It just so happened that the night I’d made reservations to go with Chelsy, James had also booked around the same time to go with Katie. While we were waiting, we chatted with Gerard and he asked if we would mind sitting together as a group since customers had been sticking around longer than usual. I hadn’t really planned to do a double date for one of the priciest meals of my life, but I figured why not? The four of us sat together and enjoyed course after course of exquisite food. Dishes I couldn’t even begin to think of, let alone execute. It was a meal for the ages. All the while, James vlogged the whole thing. It seemed a little silly at the time. But you better believe I’m thankful for that video now.
When I got the news of James' passing on Sunday, I went to YouTube to find it later that day. (Also, I just want to say thank you to Tara Nesbitt for having the strength to deliver those calls.) I scrolled through video after video until I found it. There it sat, entitled “Last Supper at Niche.” And it was our last supper together. We’d talked of having each other over for dinner, but just never got around to it. But Niche was fitting of our last supper together. Food fitting of the care and passion that James lived with. Fitting of James’ spirit of experiencing life to its fullest.
When I stopped working at Atomicdust, I gave my two weeks to Mike and wasn’t able to tell James right away. It was a few days later that I ran into him at the office. I walked over to him in the tight hallway next to the coffee machine, and I told him the bittersweet news. At the time, James had recently left his post at Atomicdust and I’m sure that weighed on him. He paused while making coffee and, for a second time, his eyes were watery. He didn’t say anything for a couple seconds, so I broke the silence. “Life’s weird, man.” Then I gave him a pat on the back that sunk into his puffy coat.
And right now, life is certainly that. It’s weird. It’s sad. It’s painful. But just as I will forever cherish the memories I have with James, I hope to make the most of my days. To make the best of my life. To, in James’ own words, “Do better today than we did yesterday.”
Rest in peace, JDD. I miss you greatly, we all do. As the mountains have called you, I know where I can find you. Just as that Old Rip bottle reads, "Asleep many years in the wood."