When I was in middle school, the McDonald’s near our house had this painting hanging on the wall just inside the front door. I’m not sure when I first noticed it, or why, but I remember being captivated by what I thought was its intended message.
The painting’s point-of-view is voyeuristic, looking through the clear glass front of a bar called Phillies, which sits on a dark, otherwise desolate street corner. Inside, three people—Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and James Dean—are seated at the counter, and the bartender—Elvis Presley—is reaching down to grab what one must assume is a bottle of liquor from beneath the bar. Except for these four icons, the street is empty. The title of the painting is “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Several years ago, a friend bought a copy of the painting for me and it’s been hanging in my apartment(s) ever since.
The painting is always a discussion starter, mainly because people have conflicting ideas about its meaning. My aunt terribly dislikes it and wishes I would stop hanging it up when I move. She believes it is bad luck, bad Feng Shui. To her, the painting depicts four people whose lives were cut short, people who died before they were able to fulfill their life’s destiny. To her, these people died “before their time.” And by focusing on this painting each day, I will attract a similar end to myself one day.
I disagree with this interpretation of the painting. I haven’t quite figured out how to explain the meaning behind the title (maybe the artist is referring to outside perception), but to me, this picture depicts something I truly believe with all my heart about life: Greatness is not based on longevity. Sometimes, great people live short lives. And sometimes, terrible people live long lives. I don’t believe the value of a life should be measured in days. And I don’t believe we should earn more days simply by being great. Life is not too short, or too long. It just is. And if we all walked around assuming today was the last one we had, this world would be a better place to spend any amount of time.
I bring this up because yesterday I attended the memorial services for Jeremy Lusk, a 24-year-old freestyle motocross rider whose image could have been seamlessly brushed into that painting. He died young, last Monday, yet had accomplished enough in his short life to satisfy most folks with the opportunity to stick around three times his number of years. I listened to his friends, some 10 years his senior, talk about how they would never accomplish some of the things Jeremy had accomplished and how thankful they were to spend the time with him they had. Yet it would have been so easy for them to talk about how his life was taken before his time, and ask why this would happen to someone who was so well liked and respected. (More than 1,200 people came to the service, which was also webcast live online for fans to watch.) They could have asked, “Why?” I don’t think there is an answer.
Several of his friends, including Brian Deegan and Ronnie Faisst, gave really touching speeches. It was tough to listen to a tough-guy like Deegan say he wished he’d given his friend more hugs, and that he hoped to be a better person, someone more like Jeremy, in the future. His speech probably made a lot of people want to be better, even if just for a few hours until the magic of the moment wore off.
But Jeremy’s grandfather gave a speech I will not soon forget. It was unprepared, unplanned and completely off the cuff. While choking back tears, he said he always knew that some day, in the middle of the night, he would receive the call he received last Monday telling him Jeremy had died doing what he loved. (How many people can say that?) He always struggled knowing that his grandson had such a passion for something so risky and that he would likely lose him because of it. He said he knew Jeremy “wanted it all” and wanted it “right now.” He wanted more out of life than simply living day to day. He didn’t understand why his grandson couldn’t simply settle for alright.
By the end of his speech, he seemed to be at peace with his grandson’s death. He said he had spent the past week looking at his own life and realized Jeremy’s was so much fuller than his own. Sure, he had lived a long life, but “I am mediocre,” he said. “I never took risks. I wasn’t great. Jeremy didn’t want that. He didn’t want to be me. He didn’t want to be most of you. He didn’t want to be average. He wanted everything. He wanted it all. And he had it all.”
Sometimes, short stories have the greatest impact. You might call them works of art.