‘SISTAH’

The old folks don't talk much

And they talk so slowly when they do

They are rich, they are poor, their illusions are gone

And have they laughed too much

Talking of times gone by

And have they cried too much, a tear or two

Still always seems to cloud the eye

 

(Jacques Briel ‘Old Folks’: Alive and Well in Paris)

 

Bodhi Dog and I have come into the warm kitchen from the winter outside. He shakes off the drizzle -sleet and waits for his treat because he did: “Time to Make the Donuts.” The heavy scarf, overcoat, old-man hat, and clunky boots get put away and we head into the living room for the best part. A log gets placed into the cavernous interior of our old iron stove, the flu opened to catch the fire. We’re lucky, it’s a cedar log and the whole room smells like incense and the ghost of Robbie comes for a second or two. We head for the little couch, cozy to the furnace, pull on a fleece blanket and curl up. He waits until I settle and then makes a nest behind my knees, his head resting on a leg.

This comforting ritual looks to the winter light when it’s present and floods through the large windows, making glow the warm, amber pine floors of this embracing, plain, old room. Music settles too, usually Sate, Ravel, Debussy stirring impressions, plumbing memories. This is when I realize I’m getting older and catching up with a past too intensely lived at the time to be fully known. This morning I think of Maura's letter:

You know, the older I get, the more I examine my life. I have come to the conclusion that I will never be able to totally shake off the shackles that still bind me to my youth. So I have decided to stop playing Sisyphus, and go with the rock as opposed to fighting it. I've always seen myself as a survivor. I'm only coming now to realize how much of me never made it out intact.

Whenever Maura reveals those moments of long ago they never fail to resonate and move me considerably. And, I reflect, as does she, on how much of us makes it intact. Are we greater than the sum of our parts or free of most of them? Jacques Briel comes-a-taunting with his ‘tic-tock’ song of transience. I wonder about it and think of it often walking with Bodhi outside in the inclement elements. There’s the beautiful, soft, blue-white snow in which we leave impressions; beneath that a thicket of damp leaves, some still colorful from the Autumn; beneath that emerald green grass; and deeper still the waiting bulbs of Tulips, Sila, Bloodroot, and Daffodils. I never counted my Springs before. Now, they seem essential and precious.

Curled up on the couch with Bodhi’s toasty-warm peace, Maura’s vision, music and the open will to relive the past spills treasures. Robbie, always true to his word, after all these years, comes haunting with gifts.

If Robbie were here, he might have said : “ Gabbadutse Sistah! For Christ’s sake get a grip, what’sa matter you?” But then that would have been well over a decade ago and never would there have been a scene of an old me fumbling through the snow on chilly long walks around the farm, staring at winter’s tracks left by vanished passage and dazzled by visions of a past which seems borrowed from another’s life.

In a very long stretch of years, filled with adventure, now knowing much more than the average contract allows it can be said that among the accolades, or infamies, that accompany my history, the honorific ‘Sistah’ is the most cherished, if not the most unique. Aside from the generic, to my knowledge, Robbie only gave that blessing to two others: Janis Joplin and Sylvester.

Those predecessors lived and died many years before I met Robbie, known as Bobby to them. Our paths were quite different in those distant days. I lived in monastic seclusion on a mountaintop in Japan, and Robbie lived in San Francisco buying a stairway to heaven and inventing the electric tambourine. It still makes me wonder—-the power of karma, which has so many meanings.

( Robbie & Bill )

I can’t quite recall when first meeting Robbie, perhaps it was at an NA or AA meeting, a bike run, or even at Spike’s coffee shop on 19th, where some of us met to talk about murdered run-a-ways in the Castro. Whenever the genesis, the impression is unforgettable. Robby was 5’ 5” tall, which means in Sicilian: 10’ feet and then some.

Robbie weighed about a hundred and twenty pounds and always dressed in black leather—-not off-the-rack, new kind, but custom made and road worn. Well aged, but immaculately groomed as its owner, his suit of fierceness resembled a classic little-black- dress—-like that old Channel handed down by at least two generations on his mother’s side.

I only met his parents once, shortly before he died. They were wonderful animated, affectionate, generous people, and clearly, long embraced the alien genius of their only son, who god knows gave them every opportunity for prodigal banishment. Although they had been in Palm Beach since the cottage days and no longer bred race horses, there was no trace or affectations of the social climb. Their comfort with old money bohemia was insulated by security and sparkled by the eccentricities of their son, whose crooked path was a genetic disposition popping up every generation or so.

To this day I don’t know why Robbie chose me to be a special friend. Two more disparate personalities could hardly be imagined. He was larger than life, fierce, theatrical, and brilliant. I, on the other hand, was morbid with scholasticism, pompous, and cloaked in a moody Irish mysticism that folks often mistook for wisdom. But we both wore black, laughed often, played with irony, and bristled at the slightest gauntlet of injustice. It happened simply. He merely said, “Sistah, you’re my Sistah.”

 

(Janis Joplin Bobby McGee)

I had never been a ‘Sistah’ before. Certainly, I had been a brother on many different levels, but never a ‘Sistah‘. For the longest time, I thought of Robbie as a brother. The only ‘Sistah’ I had ever known was a woman friend of such affection that our bonds transcended the decades. Even my ex-wife was never a ‘Sistah’ as this implied. It was new territory, different, and I knew it meant a unique journey ahead.

When I learned that Robbie was a Menlo Park Boy’s School dropout much seemed clear in that five-degrees-of -separation sense, which seems to work in the closed human universe. For reasons of obscure synchronicity some of my acquaintances, even ex-family, were bad boys, whose last chance was disciplined life at MPBS. Some of these conscripts had been bounced by upper’s like Choate, Exeter, or various grim military academies in the deep south and thus were shipped west with their ‘spirits crying for leaving‘.

“Society’ has always had a way of dumping its ‘different’ in banishment until trust funds, dissipation, or imagination’s death solved the pre-adult embarrassments. ‘Harold and Maude’ comes to mind. MPBS was one of those comfortable and respectable institutions where the stiff jaw and power of entitlement could be forcibly transfused as if class plasma.

In the West, as far from home as possible, Robbie was shipped for redemption as generations before him had once been exiled to the desert of Santa Fe, before it became joined to the union by modern technology. The only other choice was Key West and nobody came back from Key West stiff-jawed. Robbie had lost his stiff-jaw long before his parents realized, due to a precocious interest in dressage and a willing muck-boy in his mother’s stables.

Robbie ran away from Menlo Park, a town which once housed my parents, although I didn’t even know him then. But, I did know Menlo Park and thought that a good time was sneaking into the music school at Stanford and losing my soul to the cadences of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Passion in Menlo Park was my mother stuffing a bushel barrel of Meyer’s lemons down the garbage disposal to ‘freshen’ the house. Everybody in the house agreed, however, that the hedge of Gardenia bushes under the living room windows gave one terrific headaches after awhile. It was one of the few occasions we ever agreed on anything. When later learning of Robbie’s incarceration at the ‘School’ and his escape to the City across the Bay, I was totally empathetic, because like Robbie, Janis changed the pulse of blood for all of us. It is entirely possible that we intersected in Golden Gate Park, during the Summer of Love.

At that matrix it is likely our two tribes would have but passed in the light and celebrations in Golden Gate Park. I was living on Potrero Hill in the San Francisco Liberation Commune and Robbie, unknown to me then had found his identity in the wild gorilla theatre known as the Cockettes

The Robbie, aka Bobby, that I knew rarely talked of the past, except on the turn of a circumstantial memory. That happened one day when we entered a restaurant on 19th and Castro in San Francisco called The Elephant Walk. It was probably named something else in the early days. The front door was at an angle to the street corner. We entered and headed to a red booth at the back, tangential to the front window. “This is where Sistah Sylvester and I used to come in the ‘old days.’” That’s when I learned about the Cockettes. Early pictures of Sylvester from those days reveal a young, friendly, smooth-faced drag queen with the voice of Mahalia Jackson and the soulful depth of Billy Holiday, whom he echoed to perfection before becoming famous as the Disco Diva. I suggested we name the booth, ‘The Sylvester Memorial Dish Booth.” And, so it was. I doubt that any of the tourists or prosperous, young family couples who have reclaimed the Castro and occasionally sit in that booth, know that their behinds ghost royalty.

That was the first and only time we went there. It made Robbie sad, but he would never let on about the grief of loss that so greatly echoed his intense history. At the time ,too much death was stalking magic and the past was an Eden lost to hell. Our circles seldom intersected. Robbie was a planet which constantly spun in a cosmos of the radical. Still, true to his quality of friendship and Sisthahood, we met once a week for lunch over the years left us. It was always ‘war wonton’ at the South China Cafe on 19th Street. That old restaurant had been around since the nineteenth century. With its high, partially enclosed oak booths and tin ceiling it provided a womb of comfort for talk and food. The only other place quite like it was Sam’s place in the financial district which belonged to power, business, law and the stiff-jaws.

It was probably during the Cockettes period that Robbie met Janis. I guess it was before Monterey, where she sang ‘Ball and Chain’ and knocked Momma Cass out of her seat with a ‘WOW. Then, Janis was, according to Robbie, young, sweet, beautiful, simply formed, but with an inner titan of voice that brought the ancient power of all blues women to instant claim. Videos of her performance show as much, as do her ruin some few years later in songs like ‘Cry Baby Cry.’

After singing ‘Ball and Chain’ at Monterey Janis stooped to pick up a gold ball and chain that had been lying at her feet during the performance. I like to think that it was the same she later gifted Robbie before sailing off to her terrible destiny. Descriptions of her as a hard bitten, boozing drug addict, suicidal genius seemed alien to Robbie’s loving memories of her. But, then she self-destructed and Robbie lived on. I write all this now because Robbie appeared in a dream some weeks ago holding that ball and chain and dancing like Isadora Dunkin , whose spirit he channeled and whose name Izzy he carried as a Cockette.

In those long ago days Robbie had waist length, gold/red hair and the most stunning, pale, saucer-shaped blue eyes. They reminded me of the beach pools at Sans Souci or aquamarine jewels. He was absolutely beautiful in an unearthly sense. No one saw any of that in the last years. Hidden behind biker armor, he had lost his hair and wrapped his head in purple do-rags. He seldom removed his dark aviator glasses. The  soulful would understand when I give him the deepest, heartfelt,  Irish complement –he was a true fairy, magical in all degrees, and a giant in spirit.

Before his death he said, “Don’t forget me, Sistah or I’ll haunt you—- prayers are important.” Robbie was also a formalist, whose altar included a plethora of beach glass, shells, feathers, Mardi Gras beads, sentimental objects, herbs, dried flowers, photos and incense, carefully and purposely arranged. It always reminded me of those ‘voti’ piles one finds mounded in the debris of Italian monasteries. The Sicilian still informed Robbie’s Wiccan rituals. The last gift he gave me was taken from that very altar. It was a small silver box, engraved with ocean waves and whose lid contained a little amethyst cabochon. Inside, wrapped in soft glove leather, was a tiny chunk of the Giza pyramid. “For immortality,” he said.

Some months later he called me. Although we both lived in the same area of Twin Peaks we never ran into each other except by pre-arrangement. He floored me by saying, “I’m scared.” I bought a few dozen yellow roses to cheer him up. He loved flowers and his small balcony was chock-a-block with color from Sloat’s Nursery in the Avenues.

I was the first one he told. Brain cancer. The new cell therapy backfired and magnified his decline. “I’m afraid Sistah.” After that he was lost to emergency and I seldom saw him . His caregiver called me when he died, because he left explicit instructions and a star in front of my name. He had given me his immortality and I will never forget him—-walking in the snow with ‘Sistah’ mine and Bodhi Dog, dreaming of Spring.

 

( Lead Zepplin ‘Stairway to Heaven’ )

 

 

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