Memorial for a Drunk

one of Frank’s memorable signs

The center where I volunteer on Fridays – let’s call it The Gathering Place – held a memorial for one of our community members last week. The Gathering Place serves a hot breakfast & lunch M – F, but more importantly serves as a place for low income, and unhoused, and other folks in the area to hang out, get some coffee or Gatorade, and be in community with each other. Being there has become my favorite part of every week, and I feel more welcome there than pretty much any other place in my life right now. More about that another time.

Today I’d just like to share a bit about this memorial for a man called Frank. I’d only seen him twice – my guardian volunteer tried to introduce me to him but he was pretty drunk & disengaged both times. She told me made great cardboard signs, but the one he attempted when I was there was incomprehensible. She also told me that there was a period of time when he would regularly lie down in the very busy street outside of the center, and the director & other folks would have to stop traffic & get him back on the sidewalk. And that he currently had a place to live, which was “a miracle” given how hard it was for non-sober people to get stable housing.

So that’s all I knew about Frank.

He was hit by a car & died last week. He wasn’t much older than me. And they held a memorial for him.

K suggested that folks write tributes on pieces of cardboard, since he was famous for his signs. (One offered “Ble$$ings” for donations on left side, and TRUMP STILL SUX on the right.) Many did. Signs like, everything is free in heaven, but you can come back here anytime, and you are so loved and already so missed/ your spirit is with us forever in your Gathering Place community, and my prayer for you is good food for lunch every day in your afterlife. Many people spoke – some of the volunteers who had known Frank for years, some of his friends among the community members at the center, and some of his loved ones from elsewhere who had come to share their grief with others who knew and loved him.

L talked about how Frank helped him when he got out of prison, how much L’s family cared for him, and the ritual he and his brothers had performed for him earlier that week. He also said he’d spent the night crafting a beautiful cardboard sign in tribute, but as he got up to fetch another marker, he’d knocked his coffee all over it. He decided that was appropriate, because Frank’s signs were never too neat.

“Frank spilled the coffee!” someone offered. Laughter.

K talked about how kind Frank was – how he never had a bad word to say about anyone, and “I wish I was like that.”

“No you don’t!” from a neighbor. Laughter.

“It takes all kinds” from another.

The guy who currently runs the center told us that one day Frank was hanging out, drunk, and getting a little belligerent. He was thinking he might need to ask him to leave when Frank said, “I gotta go to detox.” He & K walked Frank the two blocks to the familiar treatment center, and while they were waiting to get checked in, Frank was telling them a story. About breaking into San Quentin. He was slurring his words, so they weren’t sure they heard him right. “Breaking into San Quentin prison?” Yep. He managed to pull it off, but “getting in there’s a lot harder than getting out.”

He then read us a letter from a family member, talking about Frank’s relatives, his youth breaking horses in South Dakota, his many skills, and the people who loved him.

A friend who came with her two young children spoke softly about how Frank was more than a brother to her, that he was kinder than her own family, and how important he was to her kids.

C read a poem about the last time he cut Frank’s hair – cut it all off at Frank’s request, after a period of sobriety when he wanted a new start. He spoke of how we all try to be better, and how often we all fall short, and try again. And he spoke of Frank’s hair falling to the ground and being carried by the wind to line the nests of birds. Tears.

A volunteer painted a cardboard sign, “Spirt of Frank – Living on in kindness and humor and all his many friends,” and said she realized after she finished that she had left an “i” out of Spirit, but Frank often had misspelled words, so she decided to leave it. She remembered how Frank would bring his signs to J and ask if words were spelled correctly, and once J said, “no, but leave it; you’ll get more money that way.” Laughter.

J is possibly the least liked of all the regular participants at the center. He’s narcissistic, rude, and shows signs of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. He’s a hoarder who lives in his car, parked in front of the center, and pisses and throws garbage all over the front lawn, then complains about the volunteers who clean it up. He rubs grease on the pole where another member parks his bike. He’s full of conspiracy theories, particularly about how the government and law enforcement conspire against White men (LOL). He’s not threatening, as folks there occasionally are, he’s just, as a sweet, older volunteer there summarized, a jerk. I’ve never seen him say or do anything considerate since I’ve been showing up, and he’s always there. But not only did he, apparently, help Frank out with his signs, he actually raised his hand to speak kindly about him during the service. He had to be a bit of an asshole – saying that Frank just wanted people to care about him and no one did, despite ample evidence from the previous hour of testimony that many people cared for him. Regardless, he recognized Frank as a funny, honest, and admirable person – a loving guy who was kind to others, and that more people should be like him.

I mentioned my shock to the two lovely ladies I volunteer with later in the day. They pointed out the irony of that last statement, which of course was not lost on me, but I had to persist with my own recognition that he had the capacity to be kind, caring, and respectful, which I had thought far beyond his reach. Not that I had any high hopes for J or his future potential, but just that there was something there which I hadn’t seen, something Frank had gently dragged out of him.

Every day at the center teaches me something, opens my heart a titch more.

One of the volunteers suggested we sing a song to close the ceremony. When no one else had a suggestion, he started I’ll Fly Away, a spiritual I only know through Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and which I had just listened to for the first time in years on our road trip last week.

I sang for Frank, wherever he flew, whatever culturally appropriate song accompanied him there. I felt honored beyond description just to be there and listen to this tribute. No one denied he was a drunk, no one judged him for it, and no one gave it any more weight than it deserved – as a part of his human identity. A part he tried and perhaps failed to let go of, but a piece of the funny, kind, creative, generous, beloved man he was.

Memorializing

holocaust walk
Holocaust Memorial in Germany

I don’t have a problem with the annual memorializing of 9/11. But last month marked the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in the US, acknowledged only by some segments of the press and small memorials here and there. It would have been easy to miss it entirely. It makes me wonder what we commemorate and why.

I’ve been listening to the White Lies podcast, which is ostensibly an investigation into the murder of the Reverend James Reeb, beaten to death after joining the movement for voting rights in Alabama. But really it’s an examination of the South, and culpability, and how we lie to ourselves in order to absolve ourselves of responsibility. It’s not just the South that excels at this. Our country loves to forget the horrors we’ve committed. Unless we’re turning our crimes into victories, which is a specialty of the South. As is the “memorial as fuck you.” Not just Confederate statues deep into the 20th Century, but a statue of the Klan’s first Grand Wizard a week into the term of Selma’s first Black mayor. In 2000.

Perhaps this makes sense to you. A country doesn’t want to rest on its mistakes and crimes, it wants to celebrate its achievements. It wants to encourage pride and patriotism. So we remember “good” things we’ve done and times when we were victimized, but not anything for which we were responsible, in which we fucked up. But I keep thinking of Germany and the ubiquitous reminders of the Holocaust. There is another way to do things. It might help our understanding of history and mitigate our arrogance if we acknowledged African slavery and Indian genocide in the same way.

Of course, Germany made reparations to Jews. I don’t know if they could memorialize if they hadn’t. How would we feel in this US if we were constantly reminded of those crimes against humanity, while simultaneously recognizing that the structural racism and oppression continue. Someone might want to do something about it. Who knows where that could lead.

Then again, right wing racists are on the rise in Germany, too, so maybe nothing does any good.

Now I’m in a bad mood.