CLICK HERE to read the official version of this eulogy/obit at VICE. The following is an extended version of the VICE obit, meant for Jonah’s friends and family.
New Orleanians shed a tear this week upon the death of 28-year-old Jonah Bascle, local artist, comedian, filmmaker, activist and rabble-rouser. Jonah also happened to roll in a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy, which began attacking Jonah when he was ten years old. I felt anxious and melancholic, rolling up in front of the old three-story house occupied still by Jonah’s parents, Sue and Jimmy Ford, and their surviving sons Frankie Ford (20), and Jonah’s brother by Sue’s ex Barry Bascle, Jesse Bascle (29). Jesse also lives with muscular dystrophy, and drives the same Quantum model wheelchair Jonah did. On the street outside sat the family’s two huge European-style Sprinter vans, big enough to stand up in, or haul two 375-pound wheelchairs plus your mom and dad’s band equipment. In their driveway sat the giant pink and black Mardi Gras float that Sue and Jimmy ride each year as Pink Slip, the first rock band to ever play in the traditional, big parade routes. I sat for a minute in my running truck, not looking forward to going in and talking to Jonah’s two young brothers about the most depressing thing they’ve ever had to face. But when I turned the engine off, the loud drums and distorted bass blasting from the big house’s front practice room put my heart at ease.
Jonah Bascle attended high school at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), which boasts graduates from Harry Connick Jr. to a Marsalis brother or two. Jonah spent those days at Math and Science charter high school, before being transported to NOCCA after lunch to study visual art. He later switched to filmmaking. Neither Jonah nor Jesse opted to finish high school, but no one had to worry whether the boys would get an education. “Jonah taught himself everything he could,” says Frankie Ford. “Near the end he got really into the cosmos, and learned everything about black holes, and Stephen Hawking.”
Being funny was always important to Jonah. When Sue first brought Jimmy Ford home to the kids in 1993, they liked him enough, but Jonah had a serious question for his mother: “Do you think he’s funnier than me?” Jonah didn’t roll onstage at his first official comedy gig until mere weeks before Katrina’s flood filled his family’s Uptown house in 2005. After Katrina, Jesse and Jonah were mandated to live in Lafayette because their bodies couldn’t handle New Orleans’s overabundance of post-flood mold. “One night in Lafayette we were watching TV, and Jonah got really mad at me for laughing at this comedian he thought wasn’t funny,” remembers Jesse. “I mean, just really mad because I was enjoying something he thought was stupid. He yelled at me, ‘I could do that!’ And I said, ‘You’re not doing it though.’ And he went into his room and slammed the door…and started writing jokes.”
“You know, if you have sex with a person in a wheelchair, you get a tax break,” was one of Jonah’s better ones. Another more Andy Kaufman-esque conceptual piece involved Jonah rolling up to the stage and struggling to adjust the microphone, as if he just couldn’t manage. Beforehand, a friend would set a small table on stage topped with a glass of water so that Jonah’s wheelchair could bump the table over, and he’d bumble and stumble trying to fix it. Inevitably, sympathetic audience members would stand and approach Jonah to help. “No, no! I can do it!” Jonah would shout, and continue to simulate pitiful struggling. Sometimes people howled with laughter. Just as often, no even one caught on that he was acting out a concept. Either way, Jonah, Jesse, Frankie, Jimmy and Sue found it hilarious every time.
Jonah’s comedy didn’t fixate on his wheelchair, however. He peppered the handicap jokes in artfully—though he almost always closed his stand-up sets with, “I started taking Ambien because I heard it makes you walk in your sleep.” Jonah’s doctor didn’t laugh at that joke during Jonah’s recent last days in the hospital. In his weakened state but still smiling, Jonah, air tube down his throat, scrawled on a piece of paper for the doctor, “It’s a good joke, you just don’t get it.” In the years after Katrina, New Orleans hosted maybe one weekly open-mic standup comedy night–until a small band of local comics including Jonah began building a real comedy scene. Jonah helped establish and produced the “Comedy Catastrophe” night at the Lost Love Lounge in Marigny. These days, New Orleans is a minor comedy mecca, where amateurs choose from tons of clubs and event nights to practice their jokes. Most recently, Louis CK, Hannibal Buress and Zach Galifianakis have at various times done weekslong impromptu runs in New Orleans, presumably working on standup specials that they will later share with millions. They all followed in Jonah’s wheelchair.
Though Jonah Bascle would prefer to be known as a creative and artistic force, he got more press—tons of press, really—for advocating in extreme but thoughtful ways for wheelchair access, mostly in places where it was already mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Jonah could have sued many establishments to make his point, but instead he and his family spent many hours building and painting wheelchair ramps personalized to each of Jonah’s favorite bars and comedy clubs. The “Ramp It Up” project, as it was officially known, served as a precursor to Jonah’s mayoral run in 2010 on a wheelchair advocacy platform, and under the slogan, “I Will Stand Up For You!”
Jonah’s most widely covered advocacy stunt involved the brothers parking their wheelchairs across both lanes of tracks on St Charles, stopping the streetcar for four hours. The RTA, which runs the streetcar, suggested the police not arrest Jesse and Jonah, but the city didn’t have a wheelchair accessible car anyway, nor was the jail equipped either; the boys would have been detained in a hospital room. The St. Charles line became Jonah’s primary target because it connected his Uptown home with almost every major neighborhood in the city, and thus every New Orleans comedy club. “Essentially he couldn’t get to what he felt was his job,” says Jesse. The wheelchairs’ batteries can take them in a six-mile radius of the brothers’ house. Jonah was fully capable of getting himself beyond that by himself—if only the St Charles streetcar had wheelchair lifts. In the last days of Jonah’s life, mayor Mitch Landrieu awarded Jonah a proclamation for his artistic contribution and his wheelchair advocacy. Neither the mayor nor the city have done anything else to honor Jonah’s wishes though. “We’re gonna bring Jonah’s ashes for a ride on the St Charles streetcar,” Jimmy joked to me in the darkest days after Jonah’s death, “since he never got to ride it his whole life.”
Because of Jonah, the city did mandate one single taxi with a wheelchair lift. “But I’ve never gotten it to actually come get me,” attests Jonah Bascle, chuckling because his life has been full of such bullshit. “I tried when Jonah was in the hospital. It was two hours late when they called me and said ‘it’s gonna be a while.’ It just never came.” Jonah had the bright idea to sign Jimmy Ford’s big Sprinter vans up to drive for Uber! But Uber rejected the Sprinters as “too old,” built as they were in 2004. Before Jesse told me all this, I’d never really considered how many people like Jonah and Jesse must be out there, raring to go out and live normal lives, but stuck at home because the city won’t do its job. Jonah’s handicap did not define him though. It merely added a layer of meaningfulness to all the great contributions he made. The Ford/Bascle household has always been one of the happiest I’ve ever witnessed.
Sue remarried to Jimmy Ford in 1993. Frankie was born very soon after. Jesse and Jonah—huge football fans like everyone in their house–were healthy and playing sports up until the ages of 8 or 9. “We would play sports with the kids in the neighborhood, but eventually it got to be unfair,” says Jesse Bascle. “So we just continued playing sports, just the two of us. That made it more fair.” In 2007, doctors installed a pacemaker and defibrillator in Jonah’s chest. Wheelchairs became necessary when the boys were 18 and wanted to attend college, Jesse at University of Lafayette, and Jonah at UNO for one year. Jimmy recalls with love how, “I just had a regular van at the time, and even just going for a trip to the store, we’d have to take the backs seat out, then you gotta lift two 375 pound wheelchairs in, then carry the boys and put em in the front seats. Everywhere you go, it was like moving a circus.” Though the family was forced to rebuild their house after Katrina (construction is still ongoing), the flood also provided them with insurance money to put toward buying the Sprinter vans that changed their lives.
And life was pretty good, until six weeks before this Thanksgiving Jonah’s heart began to weaken. At the hospital, Jonah’s health seemed to improve, but not the doctors’ attitudes and predictions. This might have served as a grim scene for some families but the Ford/Bascle clan’s wild charm took over Jonah’s whole floor. “Especially over Thanksgiving man, Jonah’s room, it was like a rave was going on,” brags Jimmy. “We had loud music, and they let us have a little bar and we were making cocktails for everyone. We should have charged admission to Jonah’s room.” Jimmy has traditionally served the family’s not insubstantial housewife role, while Sue is always away working her ass off as an artist in the Louisiana’s bustling film industry. Sue’s boss let her leave work and build props in Jonah’s hospital room: a replica “quiver,” like what Native Americans kept arrows in. During Jonah’s last days, Sue finally told him that he was funnier than Jimmy. After Thanksgiving, Jonah chose to take his breathing tube out, and signed a “do not resuscitate” order.
“He knew he couldn’t just live forever in the hospital. And he knew that if you want a miracle, you have to…” Jimmy trails off.
While over at their house—honored to have been let inside their family bubble at all–I didn’t even try and talk to Sue Ford. She came home from work during our interview and walked through the kitchen without looking up. As the father of two girls myself, Sue is a parenting idol of mine, and I didn’t need to feel that sadness emanating her in person to know that a mother’s pain always runs deepest. But the rest of the family was happy to talk about Jonah. Despite that Jesse has lost his shadow, he and Frankie and I had a genuinely “fun” time talking about it all—because this is how they are. And this is how Jonah was. Jimmy Ford gets super happy describing the elaborate nature of Jonah’s upcoming jazz funeral, this December 28. And so I left the Ford/Bascle house feeling mostly uplifted, almost happy—because despite the tragic loss of Jonah, his surviving family remains the opposite of torn apart. Even in the face of such loss, they remain a perfect family.
(I didn’t have a picture that included Frankie, sorry Frankie.)