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On A Bird Singing In Its Sleep

Jeff Lester

We met at where the cable cars turn around on California at Market, Hibbs and Paul and Anina, Graeme and myself. As it turned out, we ended up talking and leaning against the small monument built there for Robert Frost, the poet who so famously wrote about roads not taken and miles to go before you sleep, and etc., etc. An hour earlier, I’d sat by myself behind the ferry building, staring at the Bay Bridge, and tried very hard to think about Rory Root being dead at fifty.

I’ve lived long enough to know I don’t process death in anything like an efficient way: I’ve looked down at the dead bodies of close friends and death is still an abstraction to me, something I understand intermittently. It’s like two thrashing sides of a severed power line that only occasionally touch and connect and when they do, I realize this thing that has haunted me through my life–the idea I shall end–is something that has happened to people I know and I’ll never see them again. But mostly, the idea is too large for my simplistic worldview, and while I’m not happy with that, the experience of losing people close to me has forced me to accept it. I grieve when those wires connect and the realization comes through, and when they don’t connect I think of that person just as someone I haven’t seen in a while, out there about in the world, talking, laughing.

It seemed important, though, on that beautiful summer day to look at the Bay Bridge and think of Rory Root being dead, to try and measure and see if it was a weight against which I could judge the fairness and unfairness of things in the world. It seemed unfair, for example, that Rory could be dead on such an impossibly lovely day–a day where San Francisco weather had called in sick, and Texas weather had shown up to fill in, the clouds vertiginously high and the breeze as warm on one’s neck as a lover’s breath. It seemed outrageous to the point of blasphemy that Rory would not see this day. And because the wires weren’t connecting, I thought about the outrageousness of all the people who had died who would never see a San Francisco day like this, and how I, out of some odd parsing of the lots, could, and could also sit on a bench and think about exactly that because for some reason I was still alive.

At the cable car turnaround, we went underground and caught BART over to Berkeley. Although the platform where we waited was cool and breezy, BART itself felt like someone stoked a fire under us with the intention of slow-roasting alive everyone inside. We sweated and swayed as the train wavered on the tracks like a heat mirage, and Graeme and Brian talked about what might happen with Dan Didio and DC.

As we came out into the pungent Berkeley afternoon, Graeme said to me, “You know, I never make it over to Berkeley as much as I should. And when I do, I can never decide if Berkeley is great or skeevy. Or both.” The man with four teeth in his head and the piss-yellow beard went on to underscore Graeme’s point by insisting we give him money. And the more I thought about what Graeme had said, the more I realized how much that point resonated with me. I didn’t make it over to Berkeley as much I meant to, either, and it wasn’t just the convenience of living in San Francisco, that roguishly charming impersonator of a world-class city. Something about Berkeley set me on edge, but I couldn’t say what it was. So I thought about it as we moved up to the entrance of Comic Relief, where people stood out on the walk, talking and drinking and smoking. The memorial had begun at 5, the testimonial for Rory’s at 6, and we had shown up a little after 7, to see all these people on the sidewalk, making pleasant small talk and shaking hands and hugging one another. Hibbs stepped up to immediate greetings. Graeme and I stood to the side of the doors, looked at everyone and then went in to hear people talk about Rory.

The store had trapped the heat of the day, as well as all the people inside, and it felt even hotter than the BART ride over. A woman wearing Rory attire (black hat, black t-shirt) with Scandinavian features stood behind the back issue counter and talked–not quite loudly enough–about Rory and his love of Swedish meatballs. I assumed at the time but never confirmed that it was Rory’s sister, and this is something you should keep in mind about my recounting of this night: my mind still refuses to confirm or deny the identities I assigned to each person. I can’t say for certain it was Bob Wayne who talked travel benefits with Anina Bennett, or Shaenon Garrity, heart-stoppingly elegant in a gorgeous green dress, who walked quickly out of Comic Relief with tears in her eyes. But my mind continues to tell me it must’ve been, there was no one else it could be. Mortality had rendered everyone at Rory’s memorial important and mysterious and fragile and powerful, and I guess some part of me refuses to negate any part of that with something so trivial as knowledge. The very obvious (but no less true for that) analogy would be picking up a superhero comic for the first time, and trying to infer how all the colorful characters related by what they said to one another, how they reacted, and even with the occasional assistance of a blatant bit of introduction. Even people I knew seemed somehow strange and new, and so I can make no true claims for people’s identity that night, not even my own: I wandered about, watchful and sweaty and silent, not quite sure I recognized myself.

While the people outdoors laughed and smoked, the people with the too-quiet voices continued to stand and speak about Rory (underneath a poster of The Inifinity Man, Jack Kirby’s strangely impassive hero, the one who resembles an Aztec Warrior crossed with a ’56 Chrysler) and all the things Rory loved: Swedish meatballs, military histories, his customers, comic books, bad puns, talking. “He loved, well, he loved just about everyone,” one speaker said, and the way she said “everyone” caused a surprisingly fresh wound of anguish in my heart.

For a moment, those interior power lines snapped together before slicing apart and putting me outside myself again, making me again someone sweaty and uneasy and out of place. And yet I was filled for whatever reason with the hubris that if I got up and spoke, I could say what none of the speakers had yet to say. I could say something that could put everything in context, that could be notable for its candor but without cruelty, forthright and yet gentle.

Because this is the other thing I’ve learned about myself in seeing friends and family and casual acquaintances die over the years: I’ve come less and less to care about the love. It is well and fine, of course, and it is in fact very, very important for us to talk about how we love the person who is gone and how that person loved us. But for the most part, talking only about love and laughter and bravery and success renders the person who has passed as flat as a pop song. The older I get, what makes people alive for me is everything we usually don’t talk about at a memorial–a person’s failures, the prickly edges of their angers and resentments, the resonant tones of their shortcomings and pains. And this is what kept me from standing up and saying anything at Rory’s service and what makes me feel uncomfortable and creepy as I sit here typing this, because one of the things that makes Rory Root most alive to me in my mind–both as he lived and now that he’s dead–can be summed up in this question: why did someone so kind and loving and prominent in his field seem so lonely and in such terrible health?

Later, outside in the night, watching Joe Field hold his two daughters close and smile and nod, I saw a woman march determinedly through the crowd, her eyes on the ground in front of her. She was about Rory’s age–fifty–and she clutched to her chest two hardcover books so throroughly marked with blue post-it notes they seemed feathered. Watching her pass, I finally figured out the discomfort I felt in Berkeley.

If you live in San Francisco, you deal with a lot of people who went to U.C. Berkeley. Frequently, they are people who seem to command a certain amount of money and prestige and seem entirely comfortable with it. And even if they don’t take that path, they have both a knowledge and a network–whether they want it or not–that seems to keep them from, say, attending a political fundraiser without bumping into someone with whom they went to school.

But Berkeley is like a low-grade singularity–objects of sufficient speed can hurtle right by with only the most minor change in trajectory, but some objects get caught and swept in, and the last you see of them is right at the point of an event horizon from which they’ll never return. These are the people who stick in your mind when you go to Berkeley, people who went there and never escaped, who found some passion that overwhelmed them, outweighed their trajectory. You see them dressed in second-hand clothes, clutching a rare edition of Goethe’s letters in which they’ve made notes in three languages. You spot them sitting at cafes, one leg jiggling like a telegram key while they pick out their change with unwashed hands, calculating the cost of a refill. Their teeth are a mess. They have an impressively substantial mole or perhaps a single long white hair that juts from their eyebrows and sways in the corner of their vision.

I have no reason to fear these people. I don’t even have any reason to pity them–who am I to say that their life, empty but for a dizzily powerful passion, is worse than mine? Isn’t it just as likely that whatever wild passions and commitments they carry make their lives better, richer? But, with a childish superstition, I fear staying too long in Berkeley because there’s not nearly enough distance between myself and those men and women, their tiny apartments stacked with sour-smelling books, as I would like. I fear staying in Berkeley because of the fear that I am them already, and just haven’t realized it yet.

And so it is for me with Rory Root, a man I could not have loved so much if I did not in some way fear, a man who I could not have respected so much if at some level he did not make me ashamed. Because Rory was in such poor health the entire time I knew him it never failed to tap a tuning fork of dread in my heart. Rory was in such poor health that one of the things that shocked me about his passing was that I was shocked, and this I think is one of the real reasons why, unlike in so many other memorials and testimonies about the deceased, talking about all the many ways Rory loved and was loved by people is not only necessary but vital: Rory’s love and knowledge and compassion and generosity transcended every way in which his poor health terrified me. To say talking with Rory moved me from fear to compassion is both cheesy and, fortunately, untrue: the generosity with which Rory spoke, and the gentle, cheerful knowingness with which Rory spoke, moved me from fear to something like religious awe. It can take the power of being born to them to make our love for our parents conquer the frustrations we might have with them in later life, or transcend the horror of the agony with which their old age might bring. For me, all it took with Rory was about ninety seconds of conversation. It is a tremendously old cliche (and annoyingly new-agey) but I can think of no other way to say it: Rory Root was a lifeforce, someone who conveyed to me so much of what it meant to be alive, almost entirely (but not entirely) for the better. My memories of him seem more vivid to me than they do of other people, as if they were shot with a larger lens on better film. And the love he brought to his life was so all-encompassing, I knew whether I stood outside the shop ignoring the testimonials, or pilfering a few too many oreo cookies for the ride home, or idly straightening the comics on the new comics rack–it was all too easy to imagine him encouraging me to do so.

It’s funny. That night I asked Charles Brownstein if he had given a testimonial and he shook his head. “Let’s face it, those things are almost always either therapy for the speaker or just self-aggrandizement,” he said, to which I agreed emphatically and with relief. But having reread what I have written until now, I cannot say I’ve done any better and may have done far worse. And I’ll be honest: I started with the idea of linking the singularity of Berkeley to the singularity which is the comic field, in the hopes of finding some clear link between Rory’s loneliness and poor health and some facet of the comics field I figured I would nail down in the course of writing. (The hard-knock life of retailers who’ve been in the field since near the beginning, maybe.) But I’ve reached the end here, and not only do I still not know what it is, I doubt I could fairly make that conclusion. It is very easy and satisfying to take the single context in which one knows a person and suggest that context is the reason for everything about what they do and will do and have done. It is also, I suspect, usually wrong.

Robert Frost wrote a sonnet entitled “On A Bird Singing In Its Sleep,” in which the poet meditates on a bird that sings in the night. One interpretation of the poem is that Frost at first draws a comparison between a bird and its song (and its seeming frailty) and human beings and the poetry we create (and our frailty), but by the end of the poem he rejects that comparison (“It could not have come down to us so far/ Through the interstices of things ajar/ On the long bead chain of repeated birth/ To be a bird while we are men on earth / If singing out sleep and dream that way/ Had made it much more easily a prey.”)

And so I reject my initial half-hearted thesis, easy and satisfying though it might have been to make it. At one point during the night, Brian looked the length of Comic Relief to the far end where Todd Martinez, the store manager who Rory had made owner, rang up customers. And Brian said, “I really want to talk to Todd about his plans for running this place. I think the best way we can honor Rory is to make sure Comic Relief always stays open.” Although he only said it around Charles Brownstein and myself, I have no doubt nearly every retailer who’d made an appearance that night, having traveled from many distant cities–Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Missoula, among others–would’ve agreed with him.

And in fact, right before I left at around eleven or so, I saw Hibbs talking to Todd in the back by the coolers, flanked by Charles Brownstein and Larry Marder. Todd sat, exhausted, while Brian knelt next to him, and Charles and Larry flanked Todd’s opposite side, their heads bowed. I wasn’t fooled by the coolers, the sweat stains, the crenulated pans of aluminum and their cooling tides of barbecued beef: the positioning of the people was precisely that of a classical painting where the elders of a court advise a boyish new king on the kingdom he must run. The old king had passed, and now the new king held sway. And I saw in the postures of these men an imperative, a tradition, in which one can (I hope) find a solace that no bird singing in the night could ever begin to understand. Perhaps these traditions–these communities–can help all of us, by means large and small, as we make our way toward the dark destinations our hearts hold forth as inevitable.

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