Last night, I went to Heinhold’s First & Last with my Jane and my sister. Getting drinks, I noticed a sign behind the bar that I hadn’t seen before: “We welcome all Nations except Carrie.” Which is brilliant. I told wife and sis, and we all had a good laugh, but this wasn’t enough. Something fundamental about the moment remained unfulfilled.
The thing I wanted most of all, the thing missing was telling Jason about it. Because he wouldn’t have just gotten the joke, he would have cherished it. And then he would have started talking. He would have told me something I didn’t know about the hatchet-wielding prohibitionist, taken a quick loop through Russ Meyers’ oeuvre, dipped a toe into the history of prohibition, brought it around through a brief history of moon shining in the military and ended up… somewhere. Somewhere I never would have imagined being. Via a road so daft and wonderful that only he could have charted it. That little sign is the sort of spark that would have launched a whole evening that I would have remembered for the rest of my life, in with so many others spent across the table from him. Light the fuse and hold tight to the rocket.
In the year since he killed himself, I’m sure everyone who knew him has had that moment of wanting to tell him something. Probably several of them. Probably several a week. Because some people change how you see the world by pointing out what’s wrong and beautiful about it, and it’s only natural to want to share that stuff with the person who brought them to your attention.
*Heinhold’s First & Last is, in it’s way, a perfect monument to J: dwarfed by modern concrete buildings, it is constructed out of an old oyster boat; The flooor slopes steeply towards the back thanks to an earthquake, and all of the furniture has been rebuilt to accommodate; the walls are splattered with cultural and military memorabilia, a historical residue both carelessly placed and deeply meaningful; It only had gas lighting into the 90s before finally caving to modern demands and putting up strings of Christmas lights; There is good beer there, both ales and lagers, accompanied by occasional drunkenness. There is absolutely no way it should exist, but somehow it not only continues to exist, it thrives.
The average lifespan of a bar is 7 years, and Heinhold’s has been there for 131 years. It wears it’s history – Oakland’s history – casually, comfortably.It is successful in a way I always assumed Jason would be. It’s hard not to think of him when I’m there.
The French have the phrase, “L’esprit de l’escalier” for a retort realized too late. “Wit of the staircase” is a nearly perfect phrase for that situation. A telemarketer just called. I waited patiently for him to run through his spew, then asked to be removed from their call list. “But why?” he said. Which is a remarkably annoying question. “Because you’re the only thing uglier than your mother’s vagina,” I deadpanned. And here the French have let me down by not having a phrase for knowing just exactly what to say because of a dead friend.
I’ve had a hard time explaining what this man meant to me. He was incapable of the most basic social interactions, often made a terrible impression, and was loathe to engage when he thought people were waiting for him to put on a show. And as the clock wound down, he was worse and worse at the basics of being alive, less and less comfortable in his own skin.
I can tell funny stories about him all day. I can quote him at length because when he was at the height of his powers everything he said was effortlessly memorable. But there’s something fundamental about his character that I can never seem to get across. His perception of the world around him was unique, but it was his ability to describe the world that truly set him apart. His ability to stitch it’s farthest-flung corners together effortlessly and ice it with a few scatalogical laffs; His ability to establish a clear perspective on the world with a few perfect word choices; His ability to make even the most horrible things sound like a laugh riot… I guess you just had to be there to get it, and I hope you were.
It breaks my heart that his last days were so difficult, and that suicide seemed like a good way out. A year on, though, and I think less about the tragedy of his death and more about how lucky I was to know him.