Dean Allen, R.I.P.

Dean Cameron Allen, a 50-ish writer, designer, web-guy, and an all-around rascal, died this weekend in London, U.K. He leaves behind his parents, a former girlfriend and a lot of friends. If the universe feels a little hollow this week, now you know why.Jason Hoffman, founder of Joyent and a close friend, called out of the blue. He has just moved back from Stockholm, back to the Bay Area after a stint at Ericsson. “Dean is no more,” Jason said. He was fighting to hold back his tears, his voice shaking. I think I heard Jason say that Dean gave up on the struggle.

I couldn’t hear anything after — just the sound of blood pumping into my head. My veins were throbbing, and a foggy silence enveloped me. It has been a few days — the tears, like a delayed rainy season, are still not here. I am going about my week as if nothing has happened. The profound sadness of loss is not on the horizon. All I feel is a deep sense of gloom. Even music, usually a source of joy, has lost a note. I have woken up in the middle of the night — only to feel something, anything.

How can Dean be gone? I keep asking that question again and again and again!

***

Who was Dean? There are so many ways to answer that question. You could call him a text designer, who loved the web and wanted to make it beautiful, long before others thought of making typography an essential part of the online reading experience. You could call him a Canadian, even though he spent a large part of his life in Avignon, South of France, with his partner. A writer whose prose could make your soul ache who stopped writing, because, it didn’t matter. Or you could think of him as like an Old-Fashioned: sweet, bitter and strong, who left you intoxicated because of his friendship.

I met Dean at a time when you met like-minded people online. I was frustrated by the recurring problems with Moveable Type, an early blog hosting software. It was written in CGI, and often crashed the server, due to many people trying to leave a comment at the same time. It was slow and kludgy. I used to read Dean’s blog — Textism –, and he had announced an idea for a CMS: TextPattern. I emailed him volunteering my time to write the manual, FAQs and everything except the code. All I needed was TextPattern to exist.

And like all things Dean did, it became a pursuit of perfection, and a long drawn out project. The software was a work in progress and never finished. But during that process I came across WordPress, a fork of a (long gone) open source software project, bPress. I emailed Matt Mullenweg, downloaded an alpha version of WP and rest is life. Matt and I became best friends. Dean became an online buddy, whose presence was more real online than in person. (Today, TextPattern exists as an open source project.)

When his Textdrive was acquired, Dean became part of Joyent. And one day, Jason (Hoffman) and John Gruber, invited me to dinner in San Francisco at Umbria, a since-closed Italian restaurant at the corner of 2nd and Howard Street. Over many bottles of wine, a pack or two of Dunhills and gargantuan portions of pasta, a lifelong friendship had formed.

We were kindred spirits — more alike in our love for the finer things in life, in our sardonic, one eyebrow always raised attitude in the world. Dean wasn’t surprised by selfishness. However, he was overjoyed by the success of others. A generous, gentle giant — who hid behind a bonhomie and a clownish exterior. He was good at hiding his self — and I often told him that. He brushed me away.

***

Dean taught me a lot in life. A rare email from him would often have a recommendation for me — sometimes a book, sometimes a new pair of shoes and sometimes a new place to eat. It was from him I learned about the remarkable comfort of suspenders (vs. belts), the joy of great Crockett and Jones boots, and it was with him I found a tailor in the backstreets of Paris, who makes my shirts. Dean is the one who pointed me to that John Smedley cardigan is going to last three times longer than anything from say a J.Crew. That conversation put me on track towards developing an excel spreadsheet where I compare the daily usage value of a garment — think clothing return on investment. We had many adventures together — many of them included fashion, food and of course wine.

In December 2012, Matt and I went to Paris for Le Web and with a group of friends and ended up at a Michelin star restaurant. Dean, in his corduroys and blue blazer. He towered over all of us, and he spoke French like a native. His hand gestures, the shrug of the shoulder and his chortles would make any Frenchman proud. And within twenty minutes, he was running circles around the sommelier at this restaurant, ordering wines that weren’t fancy or expensive, except they were fantastic. It was a memorable evening — one of the best of my life.

Of course, he could be frustratingly obstinate and a terrible drunk. On yet another trip to Paris for yet another Le Web, we decided to get an Airbnb together. He would come up from Avignon, and I would meet him in Paris. Our other friends canceled at the last minute, and we were alone in a six bedroom apartment on Rue Saint-Sauveur in the 2nd Arrondissement.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him humming and ironing his shirts, and deciding to make a big breakfast. But it was also pretty likely that he would get a bottle of bourbon and polish it off. One such evening, while I was away for dinner with friends including Tony Conrad, he decided to stay at home, have a drink (or many drinks), put earplugs and go to sleep. And to make the situation more comical, he left the key on the inside of the front door. Upon returning from the dinner, I found I was locked out. No amount of yelling, banging on the door or inserting the key would help.

After two hours of waiting out in the cold, multiple phone calls and a trillion curses later, a little sense of panic started to set in. I didn’t speak the language and most importantly didn’t have my passport, to check into another hotel. I didn’t have my insulin, and I was starting to fill decidedly uneasy. Had it not been for Tony who used his connections to find me a room in low rent hotel, I would have been left in the cold. It was one of those rare days when I got mad. Of course, when I came back in the morning — 6 am — Dean’s response: sorry, got drunk. Like the rascal that he could be, he forgot the misery, made me breakfast and expounded on the merits of cheap bourbon. As always, I couldn’t be mad at him. No one could. To me that in essence was Dean.

***

We would meet every single time I was in Europe. Amsterdam, Stockholm, London or Paris — Dean was there and it was so much fun to spend time with him. Along with Matt (Mullenweg) and Hanni Ross, we created many happy memories. Those happy times, were a balm for the scars of the reality of his life. Others who knew him better — Hanni and Jason — knew his reality more closely.

Our last meeting was over six months ago when he visited San Francisco. He was subdued but cheerful about the future, pushing me to write more often and not forget the purpose of my life. I had no idea that was going to be the last time I would see him. Even today it feels, I will get a snarky text and a pronouncement of being in town.

Hey buddy, order me a Bordeaux for when I am up there, we gotta talk about this Italian shoemaker I met.

January 18, 2018, San Francisco

Letter from Om

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