|In life, Cliff was the generous
ringleader of the regulars at a hole in the wall called
The Expansion. Was it possible to honor him in death while the casket was open?
|A friend of mine died last week. His heart simply stopped
and he was dead before he hit the floor.
Cliff was not a young man -- he
was 62 years old and had spent many years drinking too
much hard booze and smoking too many Marlboros. Still, he
was a lovely, caring human being -- softspoken and always
smiling pleasantly. He owned his own bar in San Francisco
called The Expansion -- a dark, old bar filled with old,
eccentric alcoholics who have been going there for 35
I literally stumbled across it 10 years
ago, pulled up a stool, and didn't leave for couple of
years. It was a safe place where everyone talked to
everyone, or yelled at everyone -- a place where people
acted themselves. No hip, black clothes. No blank stares.
No contrived sneers. No bands. No Haight Ashbury
pretensions. These people didn't judge me or rate me like
those my own age did. And so I left people my own age for
them. For a bunch of old, cantankerous, sweet, funny,
serious, smart and stupid drunks who accepted me, cared
about me and genuinely liked me under any circumstances.
A few years ago, a reporter for Rolling
Stone magazine noticed this almost invisible
hole-in-the-wall and wrote it up in an article about the
best bars to go to as "Home of the true
alcoholic." Cliff was so proud of that. It hangs
framed on the wall unashamed and admired.
What wasn't in that article was the
generosity of spirit that lit up that dark little hovel.
Cliff helped anyone who needed help. There was this one
old lady named Marilyn who once attacked the juke box
with her walker because she didn't like the song that was
playing. A frightening, frail, little woman with a
vicious, truth-piercing tongue of a caliber I had never
before witnessed. I fell victim to it once when I tried
to sit next to her and chat. Stupid me. Then one day I
whispered a filthy joke in her ear. She loved it and was
kind to me thereafter, even inviting me to sit next to
her when she was in the mood. One day she fell in her
home. It was Cliff who took notice of the fact that she
had not been into the bar in a few days and became
concerned. He went to her home where he found her
unconscious. He rushed her to the hospital. When she was
ready to be released, the hospital asked him and his
wife, Betty, if her family could come get her. She had no
family, she said. Cliff and Betty took her home. Six
years later, she stills lives in their home.
Twelve years ago, as a girl of 21
carrying around a giant sack of issues that I really had
no business having, I sat in his bar for hours
complaining that I couldn't find a job -- as I sipped on
my sixth scotch and water. I found $20 in my jacket
pocket when I got home. He was worried for me. The next
day, my effusive splutterings of gratitude made him
visibly embarrassed, but I knew that it genuinely made
him happy to help me.
Two years later, my aunt died and left
my family a little cottage on Cape Cod. Drifting around
San Francisco with my only occupation being extremely
popular as the youngest drunk at The Expansion, my
parents suggested I move away to the Cape.
And so I did.
A year later, in the middle of winter,
having lost my job and living in the cold loneliness of a
small town of people who thought I was very weird, I
called up the bar one night, crying drunkenly and
shouting with happiness to talk to all these old -- and I
really mean old -- friends of mine. One week later, I
received an airplane ticket from Cliff. He had taken a
collection -- and then used the rest of his own money --
to fly me back to San Francisco, telling me that I should
come back and return to college.
OK, I said. I promise.
I came back. And I broke my promise.
I never paid him back the money and I
did not return to college.
I stopped going to the bar, which was
good, but I never said anything. I simply disappeared and
started taking golf lessons and drinking fruit smoothies.
How could I tell them that?
Two years later, a friend of mine
called and told me that Cliff had died that morning. The
wake was scheduled for the following day from morning
until 8 at night.
I'm not that old -- 33. Old enough to
have known a few dead people, but not so close as to have
been formally invited to the funeral (I don't attend
funerals unless I've been formally invited. That's my
rule.). Not that any specific age defines when one is to
become intimately familiar with death. People my age lose
family and friends every day. But I have been one of the
fortunate, boring, middle-of-the-road 33-year-olds who so
far have only suffered from the fear of that
And here it was. I was formally
As the hours passed at work I became
more and more stressful. So reluctant was I to go see
Cliff-as-dead-body that every time I sniffled, I hoped I
was sick -- too sick to go. But it always turned out to
be just a need to sniffle a little at that moment. And
then, of course, I felt guilty wishing I was unhealthy
because, after all, if I should have learned anything
from Cliff's death it's that your health is all you
I really needed to talk about it. I
told my boss.
Boss, I said, my friend died and after
work I have to go look at his dead body and I'm scared.
My boss, Kay, was very sympathetic
about it as she had been through it herself before.
Why do they have to do it this way? I
asked. Why can't they just do this without the body being
Leslie, she said, I think people do
that because it's your chance to really say goodbye. And
you won't be scared when you see his body. You'll realize
he's not even in it.
What if I have to kiss him? I wondered
aloud in terror.
Kay laughed. Sorry, she said, I know
it's not funny. This is your friend.
But I had laughed too at that moment.
In spite of my deep sadness at the loss of this dear
friend, and in spite of the reality of these fears.
Perhaps that is why I laughed. It was all so very
uncomfortable. But it wasn't a lack of reverence that the
images in my head were so ridiculously comical. Images of
Cliff's painted mouth smiling like the Joker only for me
to see. Images of Cliff winking at me and I freak out in
the church, screaming and pointing and ruining the wake
for his suffering family. It was real fear for a real
thing mixed with the real childhood fears you have about
impossible things -- like your doll coming to life, or a
monster grabbing at your toes as you crawl into bed.
I continued my barrage of insecurities
to my boss as if she were my mother and I was five.
But isn't kissing them on the forehead
what they do at these things? What do I know? We would
never put our dead bodies on display in my family. I
would feel really weird being dead and everyone looking
You wouldn't notice, Leslie -- you
would be dead, Kay said.
Yeah, well....I still wouldn't want it.
But this was Cliff's moment, not mine, and I wanted to do the right thing in the right way.
|This way ahead|