I still recall it now, as clear as if it were a moment ago, yet more than a decade past, arriving home after a week of camping in the Collegiate Peaks to have Stephanie tell me, “I think you need to sit down. Allan died last night.”
The way that the afternoon sun settled in the living room, the prism of potted plants that sat on the sill casting a glow of green on the walls. Street noise from below, the rumble of delivery trucks, the rush of crosstown traffic and the puerile din of defiant Harley pipes. The banging and howling of next-door-neighbors who had distorted love into a primal display of mutual abuse.
Stephanie’s ubiquitous television blared CNN while our two daughters — a toddler and one soon graduating from the bassinet — barely acknowledged me as I blanched, empty of words, uncertain of emotion.
News of death has never provided a consistent thread for me. There have been times when I’ve been immediately affected, a blow landed to knock the wind out of me and bring tears to my eyes. Other times, I’ve handled a death announcement with a seeming callous composure, indulging in a selfish exercise of self-examination, thoughts gripping my heart to see if there were any warmth or life there.
After Stephanie told me about Allan, there was only disbelief as if lack of acceptance had edged out any room for sadness or grief. In that refusal, my clean slate inexplicably gathered every detail of the moment and inscribed it for the rest of my own life.
A few months later, planes would topple the World Trade Center and, like everyone else sentient on that day, I have a vivid memory of everything as the news unfolded: The shock and disbelief as it became clear an attack had been launched against the U.S., the silence of a pitch-perfect late-summer day as air traffic was instantaneously halted, the stunned looks of commuters with knuckles white on steering wheels as they stayed locked on radio reports. The seemingly infinite loop of airliners exploding into buildings and people leaping to their deaths amidst the incidental confetti of paperwork blasted from desks and drawers.
The news of Allan’s death remains bookmarked bewteen the birth of Middle Child and the attack on 9/11. A year of indelible memories.
Allan became my mentor in the midst of my confused, amorphous adolescence in Montgomery, Ala. Bereft of any affiliation in the overly-stratified society of high school and intellectually adrift, Allan appeared in my life, shredding the scrim of my middle-class, suburban world to reveal the universe of art, music and ideas.
Up until then, I had constructed myself from scraps of articles from “Creem” magazine, scenes from movies (Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver” and Johnny Strabler from “The Wild One” informed my various poses) and cuts from albums, a collection of sampled cultural material that would make any respectable hip-hop producer cringe.
With a tattered copy of “Howl” stuffed in my back pocket and a pack of Marlboros hidden in my sock, I embraced the sounds of Punk music, as well as its ethos of nihilism: If I was to be consigned as an alien, unfit for this world, I would scream back at the ugliness, letting anyone within earshot know that the world was unfit for me.
Like most kids exiled to the fringe, I sought refuge in the theater, finding kinship with society’s other malcontents while losing myself in the various roles I took on stage. It was there that I could lose myself in a role, exorcising the paradoxical demons of self-loathing and narcissism.
It was also there that I met Allan. A towering figure in the town’s small, but thriving community theater scene, there was no one I knew who did not solicit Allan’s opinion or court his approval. I was no different than the rest.
Allan, often quoting GB Shaw, was apt to say, “He would not suffer fools gladly.” I was fortunate to find myself drawn into his tight circle of friends since he had little patience with anyone under the age of 30. To this day, I don’t know what he saw in me, what potential he believed I possessed, but I soon found myself a fixture in the small salons he hosted, the opera parties on Saturday where we’d gather for the live Met broadcast, or the late-night debates on philosophy, literature, art ... realms in which I feared I was far outclassed but nonetheless welcomed, learning much more than I’d gleaned from a Catholic high school education.
It was Allan who elevated my appreciation of opera (especially Wagner) from a dilettante’s flirtation to a life-long love. He was the one who introduced me to John Barth and JK Toole (and so many others), making clear the undeniable lyricism of Faulkner’s prose. He helped me to see beyond my own representational bias in order to understand the complex beauty of abstraction.
He was the most brilliant, well-read, well-travelled, most cultured, sophisticated, refined, and intellectual person I have ever met. A product of southern aristocracy, his tastes not only reflected his exquisite breeding, but his genuine commitment to culture. Never ostentatious, his house was nonetheless full of books, original art and antique odds and ends that he had come by through wile, an unerring eye or hard work.
He was also one of the first openly gay men I had ever met (this at a time when declaring one’s sexuality was a risk). Yet, unlike the other gay men I knew at the time (totally immersed in theater, a magnet for gay people, I estimate a third of the people I worked with were gay), he never flaunted his sexuality nor ever used it as a cudgel or a shield. He was not just unafraid to be who he was, he carried himself with such confidence and aplomb that even the most bigoted homophobe could not help but respect the man that Allan was — or God help the impudent ass who could not or would not fear Allan’s formidable intellect.
With a razor-sharp tongue tethered too loosely, Allan could slice several feet from anyone unfortunate enough draw his ire. Although I never witnessed Allan cut someone down to size who did not deserve it, he used to joke that he needed a rubber stamp to imprint “Mea culpa” on cards required after a night of indulgence.
That’s not to say I never got sideways with Allan, but I was charitably spared the indignity of his reproach, the pounding he could provide with his superior intelligence and learning. Through my twenties I was as big a prick as I could be, yet he never, ever left me feeling that I was somehow inferior nor had emptier pockets than he.
Given that holy dispensation, I was never without a confidante after I left Montgomery. We’d exchange long, handwritten missives (back in the day when a posted letter elicited excitement), laying out everything we’d read or heard or thought or felt, or spent hours on the phone arguing over regarding our respective views of aesthetics.
As old school as Allan was, I never understood his affection for me, and when he complained about his neighbor blasting out that “thumping noise,” I reminded him that I was just as apt to pump the same jams, that despite his tutelage on opera, I would still crank out my “repetitive drooling.”
Yes, he was atavistic, unassailable, certain that his music was all that mattered, convinced that anything recorded after the advent of 78s was an assault on the tastes of humanity. He’d accept the Big Maybelle compilation but refused even a second of Otis Redding. On many occasions, he said the Beatles were best left to the Exterminators.
In Allan’s scheme of aesthetics, the timeless trumped the immediate in terms of beauty.
All of this came to mind today as the brood and I listened to NPR this morning, “Ring of Fire” taking the listeners out of a story on a solar eclipse. Mister was repeating the song from the backseat — a nine year old singing a sixty-year-old song — then asking me who was responsible. As I answered him, it occurred to me how wrong Allan had been in his prejudice against modern music and his inability to understand how technology would change how we all viewed art.
“He rocks, daddy,” Mister continued, “I really like him.”
Sixty years later, Johnny Cash still grabs another generation and QED, Allan is revealed in his naked humanity, my mentor held up to the light and shown to have his warts revealed. Just as happened 20 years ago when he asked, as the music came over the radio, what was playing and I replied, without missing a beat, “Beethoven’s 7th symphony, third movement,” my eclecticism trumping his stolid sense of the eternal.
He remembered that moment, as well, reminding me time and again when he couldn’t identify Beethoven while I knew, from the first notes, what was what. In response, I’d tell him that he was missing an entire world of music, that there would be more songs like “Ring of Fire” to draw us together, to respond to one common plight.
I’d say that, given my tastes now and then, that razor-sharp tongue of his would slice me apart, finally, that he would no longer tolerate my commitment to pop music and culture, something that I know he abhorred, but yet, the thing that probably held us in simpatico, in some strange way, the reason why I was invited into his otherwise hermetic circle.
That’s something I continue to offer to conjecture, sans my friend. In the years since, I continue to pass dialing his number, still wishing he’ll bring me down regarding seeing “Tosca” this summer in Santa Fe or bolster my regard for David Foster Wallace (whom I’d assume he’d find — as I do — a cut-rate Pynchon), would offer his reactionary support for Romney in contrast to my plea for one more Obama term.
I’d laugh, but then, I never cried, not accepting my friend’s passing and refusing to acknowledge my own cold heart. Looking back, with all memories intact, there’s nothing else I could have done, given the person I was, that Allan brought close and made a friend. Just as he was unafraid of who he was, I have no problem with what I have become or that I will stake everything on what my mentor believed: That memory is a mistress that cannot be denied nor dismissed.