went into the cardboard box with all the other things for the thrift store: an orange
radio with a broken antenna, a vintage purse that was only in fashion in San Francisco’s Haight
Street where I had spent my younger days – some old clothes, a pink pair of cowboy boots that I
was brave enough to buy but not to wear, and a sewing basket with a broken clasp that belonged
to my long-dead mother. St. Martin’s thrift store was buried in a strip mall in an Albuquerque
suburb with a view of the Sandia Mountains. It was early June and already one hundred degrees
in the shade so I was pretty grouchy by the time I arrived. There is nothing like meandering
aimlessly down Rio Rancho streets – the sun reflecting mercilessly off the grey asphalt – to put
someone in a temper. If the thrift store was closed the nearest dumpster would do. Anything to
unload the car and the memories.
In my former life, my life before Richard, I had been an archaeologist. On digs in England, Washington, Virginia, and California, I had soiled my hands in the rich dark earth, longing to connect the present with the past — to find that thread of continuity. As layer after layer of dirt was peeled away to reveal the lives of those before us lay just below the surface, I found myself strangely comforted. The physical evidence of bone, metal, and stone, told me our lives could never completely be erased. Our time on earth had meaning. This was an important lesson to a woman who had lost her mother while still a child.
When I was an eager three-year-old, growing up in California, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and returned from her surgery drained and incomplete. She drifted in-between life and death for the next six years. Not quite understanding the events that were occurring, I looked for God in the cloud-covered sky – picturing the man with pale white skin, a light brown beard, and blue robes that I had recently been shown in a Sunday school book. I also envisioned my mother’s cancer spreading across her body on its crab-like legs, infecting first one part and then another until there was nothing left but the disease.
Mom did rally for a while. She traded in her nightgown for an olive-green suit and attended a commuter college in San Francisco to study creative writing. At that time, Mom took my sister, Sarah, and me across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco to catch up on various artistic and cultural events. From that point onward, Mom was always in a hurry — as if to make up lost time. At wind-swept cliffs leading to the Palace of the Legion of Honor museum, we giggled at the statue of a naked man by Rodin, counted the painted folds of Elizabethan collars, or looked for monsters in the heating ducts — only to get our picture in the paper, all knees and elbows in over-starched dresses. Being the youngest, I would often get lost at the Fleischacker Zoo — despite the blue helium balloon tied around my wrist meant to mark me for easy identification. Mom took us to Gilbert and Sullivan plays at the Lamplighters Theatre, where the lead actors and actresses impressed me with their caked-on beauty and flashing smiles. To my dismay, their wrinkles, crows-feet, and faded costumes became more apparent as they walked up the aisles to autograph our programs. We remained impressed by the supporting cast members who moved symmetrically in matching outfits of red, green, yellow, and blue as they sang hanging from the rigging of a pirate ship or stepping out of a painting in a ghostly hall.
Mom’s cancer resurfaced a few years later, on a routine x-ray ordered to troubleshoot pain in her back. Her olive-green suit was traded for a housecoat and the sewing room behind the kitchen was converted into a sick room with a hospital bed. Dad had a wheelchair ramp installed by the back door so Mom could spend some time in her carefully terraced garden. My sister and I took turns racing in her motorized wheelchair, sometimes with our unwilling tabby cat aboard. Grandmother Marta moved up from Southern California to help and we grew accustomed to learning poker and rummy, betting quarters on the Kentucky Derby, and watching Perry Mason reruns on tv. Mom’s home cooked meals were replaced by Marta’s “Shake-N-Bake” chicken and corned beef hash from the can. Grandma adorned our applesauce with cinnamon candy and wrote our initials in food coloring to give it that extra “zing.” Our mother disapproved of what she called such “lowbrow” activities but knew we had to depend on the new regime. She spent her time painting, mainly her garden view and her geraniums, with an occasional soulful depiction of the tree line at night. She kept her radio tuned 24/7 to a classical station and Mozart and Wagner became synonymous with illness to me.
Although she fancied herself an intellectual and avid reader, the spreading cancer affected Mom’s vision and concentration. Ayn Rand, Virginia Woolf, and Charles Dickens were replaced with mystery books, Agatha Christie, and Raymond Chandler — first in cheap paperback and eventually in Braille. When I arrived home after school let out I would tiptoe up the stairs in an attempt to postpone the daily check-in telling Mom how my day had gone. My bright, busy, Mill Valley classroom became a welcome respite from my life at home, as I wrote my first essays on cougars, cloves, and Saudi Arabia, or tracked the explorer’s routes in colored pencils. About the time that I turned eight, Mom was put in a nursing home — the youngest resident at age thirty-six (more humane hospice care had yet to reach our shores).
My strongest memory of the home in Greenbrae was the goldfish tank in a faded lobby that was usually devoid of visitors. The bright orange fish were barely visible through the wall of green slime in the tank that was seldom cleaned. This impression of neglect extended to the nursing home residents who called out to us because they were lonely. Since Mom’s room was located at the end of an L-shaped hall, my sister and I would try and tip-toe down the corridor – wishing we could dissolve into the yellow-papered wall. Invariably, an old man or woman would spot us and call out the name of an absent daughter or long-lost friend. Still in her thirties, Mom seemed to lose hope in this end-of-life place and our visits became shorter and filled with tension.
Mom died a week after Christmas in 1967 when the sky was gray and the tree branches spidery and bare of leaves. My older sister was allowed to attend the brief service but, at age nine, I was sheltered at home, most likely playing cards with Marta. With Mom’s things relegated to the basement, Mom seemed to disappear from our lives. I would only find her in a dream somewhere, or in the laminated obituary with the 23rd Psalm that my father hid in the back of the filing cabinet. My sister and I clung to the needlework pillows that Mom made for us to remember her by and brought irises and daffodils to her gravesite in the spring. After that, I couldn’t look at a cemetery or visit a hospital without my stomach turning to Jell-O. All of that changed when I met Richard Irwin.
Thirty-six and handsome when we met, Richard had the clean-cut features of a little boy and a combination of sensuality and innocence that was startling. His chestnut brown hair was short and slicked with mousse and just starting to turn gray at the temples giving him a scholarly air. Performing as “Irwin Irwin,” a variation of his surname, Richard seemed to enjoy the official uniform of the San Francisco art set: black leather Doc Martins, a dark shirt, and black peg-legged jeans covered by a long woolen coat.
A brief attempt to lighten up his wardrobe ended in disaster and was not repeated by mutual consent. Richard wore a heavy silver ring which was shaped like a castle. It had a turquoise at the center — like something a comic book villain would wear. His brown, heavy-lidded eyes gave him a serious air, yet his crooked smile suggested a more jovial nature. Richard had an itinerant tooth which made him look like a little boy when the dentistry failed and the cap came off. His arms were muscular and he had a farm boy tan — white chest and upper arms beneath the short sleeved shirts. Richard’s radiating cool added to his look of shabby dignity. Because Richard’s youthful good looks seemed to house a soul of suffering — a life of hard living, I often thought of Richard as Dorian Grey. There must have been a portrait of his true self in an attic somewhere showing the wrinkled face, the knotted bow, the haunted eyes…
Born in Chillicothe, a small town in southwestern Ohio, Richard left to pursue art and a Bohemian lifestyle in New York’s Greenwich Village, hobnobbing with actors, painters, musicians. He hitchhiked to Woodstock in a sea of mud and lived with (and became romantically involved with) his legal guardians, a screenwriter couple who had a house in the Hollywood Hills. Richard claimed to have had an affair with one of the Rockefellers — the one who was later found to have been eaten by cannibals. Relocating to San Francisco, Richard attended an art school on a painting scholarship, wrote a screenplay entitled Swan and became a younger member of the Beat Poetry movement. In the eighties, he learned to master cabaret performance art. It was in this last incarnation that we met.
Nine years my senior, Richard and I met in a therapy group at Stewart House, a Queen Anne-style Victorian, in toney Pacific Heights. To distinguish him from other Richards in the group, he was nicknamed Richard III, after the scheming British monarch. I was attending the group to get over a breakup and, at twenty-six, seemed to enjoy wallowing in my own depression. Richard was attempting to find reality again after becoming delusional during a performance. I remember sitting on the polished oak floor during a session where we made masks to represent our emotions. Richard remarked he liked my use of blue — the color of spirituality. “You also seem intelligent, and pretty too” he said in a steady voice. This compliment from such a handsome man eclipsed my first impressions of his narcissism and arrogance.
We kissed one night as we sat in a nearby park with the sound of foghorns resonating in the distance. The leather swings creaked on their silver metal chains and the park held the fragrance of the salt sea air. Almost yellow against the darkening sky, the street lamps seemed to blur out-of-focus when the mist rolled in leaving small drops of condensation. The cypress trees looked ominous, their twisted profiles looking almost human framed against the dark blue night sky. Richard was the first man I had kissed that tasted of cigarettes. For some reason, I saw this as a symbol of grown-up sophistication. In later groups at Stewart House, we no longer hid our public displays of affection, and this seemed to attract the jealous glances (directed at me, not Richard) of several men.
Weeks later, in his run-down Edwardian apartment on Bush Street, Richard and I shared a dirty mattress on the damaged wood floor. The garish orange and green thrift store bedspread made up Richard’s world as did black candles dripping wax, a beat-up radio painted orange, and a book on the occult purchased at a Polk Street store. The rounded bay window looked out onto the streets of the Fillmore District. A Philly cheesesteak shop, a corner grocery, and Bill Graham’s music venue, “Winterland,” were mere blocks away. One night, while we were sleeping in Richard’s room, a homeless man tried to crawl in the window — attempting to find shelter from the cold and the rain. Sleepy and already irritated, Richard yelled at him and slammed the wooden sill down on his fingers. I felt sorry for the man with no place to sleep, but I also felt thankful for Richard, my rumpled knight, for watching over me.
As our lives progressed, Richard continued his work as a groundskeeper for a science museum in San Francisco’s Marina District. Enjoying the freedom that this job allowed, he came home with stories of eccentric visitors he had encountered or the two-hundred-year-old tortoise that surfaced from time to time from the nearby pond. As my own focus changed from history to more contemporary matters, I left archaeology behind and enrolled in a social work program at the same college my mother had attended years ago.
Short on money, our entertainment mainly consisted of affordable things — taking the N-Judah streetcar to Ocean Beach, watching the (talking) San Francisco Mime Troop perform in Golden Gate Park, crashing a Haight Street ashram for a free meal, or watching arty films at the Roxie in the Mission. So proud we were that we avoided Pier 39, never called the City “Frisco,” or rode the cable car. On the rare days that it was hot, we sunned ourselves on the roof of my apartment – Richard taking off his t-shirt to attempt an unsuccessful tan. When a neighbor chased my cat with an ax due to Cyrano’s feline leukemia diagnosis, Richard was surprisingly protective and sympathetic.
Going to some of his performances in small theaters or on the streets, I would often observe the crowd and was sometimes surprised at their reactions. While some viewers seemed blindly adoring, others would walk out — leaving just a handful of spectators when Richard’s act was finished. This could have been because of the props he used – crosses covered in barbed wire, exploding roses, and plastic dolls who were beheaded onstage or melted with candles. Richard seemed happy with any reaction — he just seemed to crave the attention. Richard’s poetry readings fared somewhat better although he did manage to empty several churches as he referred as he talked rather bluntly about his sexual exploits.
Richard was recognized by City Lights Books as being a contributor to their accordion series. Several books from that period are still on my shelves — thin volumes: “Trashcantations,” and “Letters to Theo.” I was impressed how this angst-ridden man had kind and gentle friends among the writers, poets, and performance art crowd. Ben edited poetry and practiced his Buddhist beliefs while raising a daughter, Jim and Gretchen hosted traditional holiday parties with neon Christmas trees. Tom drove a truck and hailed from Fresno. Emily cared deeply for her much older mate — a Beat poet from the vanguard of the movement.
When Richard tested positive for HIV, we forever changed our habits, sleeping together as children might, back to back, with his arms wrapped around me. I would read “Wuthering Heights” aloud to him as he nestled close to me, my Heathcliff and newly platonic lover. After his blood test, Richard took a trip to Florida to visit his mother, a pretty woman with six ex-husbands — including one she married twice. “My vacation is tedious,” Richard wrote back in a lengthy latter. “But it has given me a few insights; like how lucky we are to be living in a sophisticated city like San Francisco, as opposed to this culturally deprived sun-land.” He went on to conjure up a life together in a large studio in Oakland where “you’d have a place for (archaeological) specimens, art (and other) activity and I could make large, expensive art objects!” He closed by writing that he missed me, my cat, my voice, and my pink nightgown — my everything.
Looking back on this period of my life, I can’t say what about the situation drew me. In my current world (so far removed from this one) I would not seek a partner as intense and self-absorbed, or a place as dark and gritty as San Francisco in the eighties could be. Perhaps my attraction was the reaction of a young woman in her twenties, who had never been known to rebel but had finally grown tired of towing the line. I was also young and unafraid of poverty, and thought that love could conquer everything — even Richard’s life-threatening disease. Over the last few years, we had fought over little things like my “bourgeois tendencies,” his punked-out narcissism, or my sub-par choice of cereal — perhaps in preparation for our final separation. During one last battle, held in the creaky back room of a bakery in the Haight, Richard asked me sardonically if this was my “annual Chairman Mao get rid of Richard purge.” He then knelt before me and I kissed his brow as we declared our undying love for one another. We also laughed in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation.
That was my last view of a healthy Richard, solid and glowing before the AIDS virus hollowed his cheeks and eyes. I did see him do one last performance on Haight Street, involving a skull with a “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” music box inside. By that time his cheeks were sunken and his body rail thin. Richard’s chest rattled as he performed wrapped up in a mountain of scarves. The event was mostly lost on the crowd, drowned out by bus and automobile noise, and sullied by the fumes of the traffic. I spent my last New Year’s Eve with him opening the champagne early since he was tired. After all, it must have been midnight somewhere in the world. One day, we decided to visit the park where we had our first kiss. It took Richard almost an hour to make the three-block trip.
When he was hospitalized for pneumocystis caranii pneumonia, I went to visit him and that’s when I discovered hospitals no longer scared me. I would come to Richard’s room each night and was amazed at how peaceful it felt watching the numbers on the oxygen machine dance up and down. I remember looking down at the twinkling lights and the neon Cable Car Burgers sign from Richard’s fourth-floor room overlooking Geary Street. Richard liked to pretend that he had magical powers and could move the numbers around with his mind — the way Kreskin the Magician bent forks and spoons.
He also spoke feverishly of an angel who visited him, holding crystals in her hands and wearing a long velvet gown that brushed the linoleum floor. “She told me what beautiful eyes I had and that she’d pray for me,” he croaked happily. While the gown was an illusion, the angel turned out to be real — an elderly nun in traditional habit, who arrived in the evenings to comfort the sick. I chose not to dispel these soothing visions. Nor could I question Richard when he wrote on his Power of Attorney, “God bless those who help me after death.” His last poem, “Life is Beautiful, In Reverse…” was written on the red and white wrapper of a toilet paper roll from the Kaiser Hospital bathroom.
After three weeks of daily visits, the nurse’s station phoned late one Saturday night to tell me Richard had died. I found myself walking home from the hospital clutching two plastic bags that held his things. For some reason, his death felt so raw and private that I did not think to call a friend or take a cab. The streets were dark and wet with fog at 3 am in the morning and were probably not safe to venture in. I did meet a homeless man who staggered towards me waving his arms in a threatening way. However, mistaking me for a drifter because of the bags, or genuinely frightened by the look on my face, he beat a hasty retreat.
Richard lies in a grave outside of Kingston Ohio, along a scenic highway that is marked as such on an AAA map. It is peaceful there and bordered by a field of beans and corn. The headstone had not yet been ordered before my visit and the lack of a marker made the grave even more difficult to find. Thinking Richard would appreciate the gesture, I took my archaeologist’s trowel from my backpack and hastily buried some rings there — not that there was anyone around to notice. I also planted some roses that I’ve been told have flourished there — even in the winter months. Driving back through Chillicothe, I passed a prison with a barbed wire fence and rows of ugly houses with their family secrets and sheltered lives. I also stopped at a prehistoric mound nearby, constructed by an ancient people that brought beauty and light of their own into the verdant hills. Richard left this setting years ago for art and urban landscapes, and perhaps most of all to truth. However, as he lay dying he asked me if he could be buried in this place that he called “home.”
Meanwhile, back in the land of the living, I raged and mourned, survived an earthquake, and eventually moved to New Mexico with its blood-red mesas and its deep blue sky. I think what I like most about this place, besides its physical beauty and its spiritual nature, is its relative absence of dying young men.
Five years after Richard died, I decided to give away his things and the hardest item to part with was Richard’s coat. The dark wool coat had kept me warm on many nights and had become an extension of this man. Sometimes I would cry myself to sleep bundled warmly in Richard’s coat which still smelled faintly of cigarettes. Back at the thrift store, a woman helped me unload the car and carry things into the shop. I meant to keep silent but found myself softly stating instead, “This was my boyfriend’s coat. He died several years ago now. It’s probably time to let it go.” Somewhat embarrassed by what I had said, I hoped she hadn’t heard me. Instead, the woman, who looked surprisingly young, nodded sympathetically. “I lost my husband. I know what it is like.” I thanked her and taking the donation slip she offered me, started to drive away.
As I drove home, my chest tightened and I began to cry. A grief overcame me that had been absent since that distant time in 1989 when Richard folded his arms over his chest – silently asking permission to die. My hands shook on the steering wheel as I drove back to Corrales and I considered going back to the store to retrieve the coat. I practiced the speech I would make to the store manager: “Sorry ma’am, I’ve made a mistake leaving that. I promise I will pay you for the inconvenience.” Instead, I came home to my apartment, burned a log on the fire, and made myself some tea. I also watched the sun go down on the Sandia Mountains, giving them the “watermelon” hue that they are named for. Friends lost and times past darted through my mind as I mourned the rich exuberance of youth. Then as the moment passed and calmness settled in, I began to question how a scrap of cloth could bring back a life or how its absence could erase a memory. I pictured Richard as I will always see him from a photograph I had taken in Golden Gate Park. He was standing in front of the entrance of a pedestrian tunnel with shadows behind him and cement stalactites hanging down. Wearing a black leather jacket zipped up against the cold, he was trying to look serious as he was gazing at me, but his boyish smirk gave him away. The image had become increasingly faded over the years but I felt this time he’d come to say goodbye.