Whenever he didn’t have a good comeback — which was usually — my friend Joe Nowakowski would feign anger and say, “Your face.”
Sometimes in text messages, Joe would shorten it to just “Face.”
I loved seeing that message or hearing those words because I knew I had just won our latest exchange.
Joe almost seemed to enjoy being on the losing end. Judging by his smile, I honestly believe he liked to be the butt of the joke.
Really, why else would a man decorate his arms with tattoos of flowers?
Why else would a man freely admit that the T-shirt he was wearing actually belonged to his mom?
Joe was the page designer at the newspaper, and I was a writer. We sat across from each other where we could always see each other’s face. Joe made the nights when we would spend 8 hours staring at the computer seem worth it.
He worked the same nights as I did, and I thoroughly enjoyed every single one of them. We had so much fun and I was heartbroken when Joe left the paper to take a job elsewhere as a process server, where he was as out of place as a Bears fan at Lambeau Field.
I would still see or text with Joe a lot, and we would constantly give each other guff. I’d say that I won about 80 percent of the exchanges. Just when I would feel like a bully for teasing him too much, Joe would fire out a line that really roasted me.
“Your face,” is all I could answer.
Paul Panisko liked teasing Joe, too, and Joe gave him some good ammunition.
A few months after he first met him, Joe called me to ask for Paul’s number.
Joe just bought a motorcycle, and he did not yet have his motorcycle endorsement on his driver’s license. He wanted to ask Paul, who had an endorsement, if he would drive his new bike to his house for him.
“Just drive it,” I said. “No cop is going to give you a ticket, and even if he did, it wouldn’t be as bad as the ration of (stuff) you’re going to get from Panisko. He will never let you live it down. Never.”
It felt like I was Ferris Bueller telling Cameron Frye, “No, no, you don’t want this much heat.” Panisko is brutally quick and funny. Joe asked him anyway.
Joe was the ultimate law-abiding citizen. He didn’t put those wheels on the street until it was 100 percent legal. Panisko was more than happy to drive the bike to Joe’s house, and even happier to have the ammo.
He mocked him mercilessly about it for the next 8 years.
If Joe didn’t enjoy being the butt of the joke, he would have driven or even walked the bike home before he asked Paul to drive it for him.
If Joe didn’t enjoy being the butt of the joke, why would he have told me the following story?
One day, Joe was driving up to work during Evel Knievel Days, and a real motorcycle rider pulled up next to him.
Now, when Joe rode his motorcycle, which was a street bike, he dressed the part all the way. He wore leather pants, a leather coat, leather gloves and a helmet that covered his face.
Everything matched his bike, so he almost looked like he was a professional racer.
The guy who pulled up next to Joe was wearing a bandana on his head and a jacket that looked like he belonged to a biker gang.
The guy looked Joe up and down a couple of times at the stoplight. Finally, the guy said, “You look like a Power Ranger.”
Joe didn’t say anything to the guy, but I bet Joe muttered “Your face” under his breath. That’s what he said to me repeatedly as I laughed for a solid hour and a half when he told me the story.
Those stories and so many more have been bouncing around my mind since last Thursday. That’s when I heard the news that Joe took his own life.
Joe really was one of the good guys. He was a terrific father and a great friend. Even though he moved to Helena a while back, I know that if I would have called him in need he would be standing by my side in a matter of minutes.
As much as I loved ribbing Joe, I loved it more when we had our deep conversations. He was as smart, carrying and funny as any person I have ever known. He was one of the best friends I ever had.
To me, Joe was like family. I am going to miss him so much that it physically hurts right now. I just want to grab him by the shirt and say, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” like the young boy supposedly said to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
Sai it aint so, Joe. For the love of God, say it ain’t so.
Joe never seemed like a guy who would take his own life. But, really, who does? Depression is a nasty disease that is too easily hidden.
If you’re battling it, like most of us are at some point, make sure you talk to someone. Talk to anyone. It’s OK. Everyone will understand. We’ve all been there.
Tell a story about some of your friends. That one little happy tale will almost definitely be enough to get you through the night.
I know telling stories about Joe has helped get me through these last few days.
I like to tell about the time Joe missed his chance to shake hands with Ken Griffey Jr., his all-time favorite athlete.
Panisko, Blake Hempstead, Joe and I had press passes to cover Rob Johnson with the Mariners in their first home series of the 2010 season against the A’s.
We had all access at Safeco Field. We were in the dugout or standing in foul territory during batting practice. We were in the clubhouse talking to players.
A year earlier, we started to establish a bit of a relationship with Griffey. By the last night we were there in April 2010, Griffey started talking to us like we were friends.
Before the future Hall of Famer left the locker room that night, he initiated a handshake with us and wished us well as he left took off.
Joe missed it all because he left that game in the seventh inning to go see about a girl. I teased him that he was like Robin Williams in the movie “Good Will Hunting,” but I didn’t put up a fight when he said he was leaving.
Missing out on a great baseball moment, however, didn’t work out as well with Joe as it did in the movie. He met up with a girl he knew from college, but, to use a baseball metaphor, Joe struck out.
At least that’s what he told us. Who knows, maybe the night really did go well for Joe. He might have just told us otherwise because he so enjoyed being the butt of the joke.
As we mocked him the whole way home from Seattle, Joe just sat and smiled.
His only defense was, “Your face.”
— Bill Foley is the editor of ButteSports.com, where you can also find Bruce Sayler and up-to-the-minute news on the Bulldogs, Maroons, Orediggers and much more. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK.