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(Oct. 28, 2009)

                                                    illustration by Nancy Twinem

          In keeping with the spirit of El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the Mexican holiday in which deceased friends, relatives and ancestors are celebrated (Nov. 1, 2), I hereby take a very deep breath. . .and pay tribute to a few souls I have been fortunate enough to know.
          JAN HLINKA---Jan (pronounced Yahn) was principal violist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for about 150 years. I wish I had details of his life at hand, but he is one of the lucky few to have almost no information on the Internet. I can tell you something more important, perhaps, than the usual dry tombstone-carve of events and accomplishments. Jan was a pixie, a cherub, a minx and a mensch. He was a sweet guy who loved and cared about people, seemingly as much as music. Nobody in human history had a merrier twinkle in the eye, not even Santa Claus, or Jerry Garcia. He had a disarming dash of down-to-earth that was, to my young self, a shock to discover in a fine, august musician who played all those fine, august works with that fine, august orchestra. I met him during intermission at an L.A. Phil concert sometime in the early 70’s, as he strolled around on stage, quietly practicing passages on his beloved (Guarnieri?) viola. It was Jan’s habit, you see, to stay on stage, there at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and talk to anyone who wandered over to say hello or ask a question. Amazing, eh? So one night my pals and I found ourselves looking up in awe at the fine, august musician, and answering many questions about. . .ourselves: were we students, what did we think of the concert (imagine being asked that!), were we musicians (my pals were), and so on. We timidly asked a few questions about the performance, and received winking, humble answers that made us laugh. And this became a habit. “Let’s go and say hi to Jan” was a sort of automatic suggestion at intermissions through the years. Once he invited us all backstage after a concert---this was, shall we say, not unthrilling---and challenged us to a vigorous game of ping-pong. (He wiped me out quickly, and was said to be the orchestra champ.) A one-time pupil (and ardent admirer) of the composer, Paul Hindemith, Jan soloed with the Phil one memorable night on Hindemith’s “Trauermusik,” written on the death of King George V (good score for Dia de los Muertos.) It was a big moment for him, and for us, his personal fan club, and we made our hands sore with applause. In short, it was a very splendid and magical thing for young people to have an actual member of an orchestra take an interest in them, welcome them, make them feel at home, encourage them (one of us went on to chair the music department at the University of Pennsylvania, another to play flute and piccolo with the Duluth Symphony.) You know, much ballyhoo is made about Disney Hall being “L.A.’s Living Room,” as L.A. Phil GM Deborah Borda says, but you don’t see orchestra members hanging around on stage, talking to young people there---partly because tickets are far more expensive than they were in the Pavilion, and partly because Borda did away with student tickets when Disney Hall opened. (Jan would have rolled his eyes.) Jan helped make the Pavilion feel like, if not a living room, an extension of home. He was not only a superb musician, but a fine metallurgist and jewelry maker, with a relentlessly active mind, easy grace, and real kindness. I found a Youtube clip of the L.A. Phil from 1977 under the great Zubin Mehta (that orchestra really sounds burnished, rich), and there’s good old Jan in the front of the viola section, with his handsome gray hair, playing emphatically (check 4:56 into the clip.) Seeing him again after so many years brings tears, and warmth, and gratitude.
          WILLIAM D. LOCKRIDGE---Well, it was “Mr. Lockridge,” to me, for this tall, stern looking man was the principal of my elementary school. In fact, he was principal of my elementary school for several years before my elementary school was even built. The district assigned students to him when they were still housed at other schools, so little did we all know that in 2nd and 3rd grade, Mr. Lockridge was watching over us, getting to know us. And when our school---Meadows School in Thousand Oaks---was completed in 1962, he knew our names, grades, potential, deficiencies. Bill Lockridge got his teaching credential from USC, and he was one of those people who brought extraordinary investment of self to his job. Far from being just an administrator, he was the pater familias of our little school. We were all frightened of him, of course, and we should have been, given that we were squirrelly little savages given to foul deeds that he was tasked to correct. I “got in trouble” a couple of times, and Mr. Lockridge adjudicated things with exemplary fairness. Once, when I teased a classmate about his troubled older brother, the classmate valiantly took a poke at me, which I reciprocated, and we both wound up in “the office.” By the time Lockridge finished with us, we were tearfully shaking hands and vowing to be friends (a vow we kept.) In fact, when I was whacked in the head with a baseball bat in the 8th grade (ah, that explains it, you exclaim), that same classmate placed his baseball mitt under my head, and Mr. Lockridge put me in the back of his secretary’s station wagon and rushed me to the doctor’s office for stitches. Years later, this dedicated and selfless man stood up to a parent who tried to muscle a student away from one teacher and into another class (apparently because the desired teacher shared her religion), and for that was removed from his job by the cowardly school board. Never mind---he got to teach math again, and did such a good job that former students attended his funeral last spring---almost 40 years after the fact! Bill was blessed with a grand, long life, a great many friends, and eventually, new hips and knees. We kept in touch a bit in recent years---he was very supportive of my work---and I was one of hundreds of people lucky to receive his annual homemade Christmas cards, and occasional phone call. The thing I liked best about him, though, was that he was an independent thinker and straight-shooter, never fooled by fraudulence, never one to subscribe to doctrine or dogma. And his sense of humor was ever-abiding. Get this: a loyal USC football fan to the end---and beyond---Bill’s ashes were placed inside of a football at his own request(!) The corny old adage holds: he was a prince who was a pal.
          CAROLE BAILEY---I didn’t know Carole the longtime, much-loved administrative assistant at the UCLA Library School. I just knew Carole who lived a couple blocks away, Carole who gave my Annie a little black kitten, B.C., that wound up staying with her for almost 20 years. Carole was a gentle, giving person who adored cats and flowers and home-baked cookies and cakes and reading. She did yoga, and bestowed Christmas goodies on many a friend, and lived with cats on her couches, mourning doves on her balcony, and books on her shelves. She was ardent about political causes, with various posters denouncing Bush and the Iraq invasion in the windows of her well lived in one-bedroom apartment, and she was ardent about being kind. She was in her ‘60’s, and looked it, yet did not seem at all old---like a college student in old woman disguise. Carole wound up fighting one of those hideous chemotherapy battles with ovarian cancer, and she did so with resolve and hope. Her mind stayed sharp, inquisitive, and her spirit generous. She worked at being a note of goodness in a generally disturbing human cacophony. One of her parting messages: “Remember the cookies and smile.”
          PAUL "P.J." CORKERY---I wrote a column about Paul when he passed away last year, and frankly, I think he deserves a column a week. Just an extraordinary person, Corkery was first of all, absolutely brilliant, possessed of an acuity marked by Herculean memory, Renaissance Man erudition, facile analysis, sense of humor inherited from leprechauns. One-time editor of the Boston Phoenix (where he gave breaks to two now rather well-known film critics, Peter Rainer and Michael Sragow), he went on to various newspapers before landing in San Francisco as a diabetes outpatient in the late 1980’s. As he fought an unimaginably painful and heartbreaking battle to keep his right leg, which he gradually lost, year by year, Corkery never once complained. Not once. Instead, he lost himself in San Francisco history and lore, ultimately establishing contacts and expertise that begged comparisons to the legendary SF columnist, Herb Caen. In fact, P.J. aimed to step in for the late Caen at the Chronicle, and was at one time promised the job, but it fell apart as did the paper’s editorial hierarchy at the time. Never one to be daunted (“Onward” was his motto), he wound up writing the column anyhow for the remains of the San Francisco Examiner. Paul so ingratiated himself with The City---from the recovering addicts of Delancey Street (where he frequently went for coffee) to the power-elite---that his enormous public funeral drew a comment from Mayor Gavin Newsom: “He knew the heart and soul of this city. He knew what made it great and he believed in the nobility of good reporting.” God, who is certainly anything but merciful, decided that diabetes was not punishment enough for this good fellow, and saddled him with a two-year fight against lymphoma.Yet P.J. did not let this stop him from ghost-writing Willie Brown’s critically favored best-seller, “Basic Brown,” or from general indefatigability. Ever a realist, I heard that when his body began to shut down, the man went on-line to look up “signs that you could be dying.” How unapologetic is life, to subject humans to such preposterous horror! I am proud to have been Paul’s friend for many years, humbled that he thought well of me, and privileged to have been the recipient of much encouragement from him. His picture has a place on my desk, and his spirit a place in my day. Onward.
         DELMAR CONLEY---Now, explaining Conley in one long paragraph is like trying to explain string theory in twenty words or less. The Conley story is as strange as all the roles of Dwight Frye and John Malkovich combined. I’ve never written about it, at least factually, because it is just too damned weird. But here’s a thumbnail. Conley was nutty as a fruitcake, dealing without a deck, bathing without a tub, whistling without Dixie. He looked like the offspring of Walter Brennan and Bela Lugosi, grizzled. How I came to know him has to do with his letters to the editor of the Valley News, back in the ‘70’s when I worked there, and my youthful taste for the oh, arcane---well shared by some journalism chums at the time. At first, Conley seemed nothing but a garden variety crazy old coot who wrote crazy old coot letters to newspapers. Endless ramblings about, oh, the symbolic intersections of Greek mythology, sex, American politics, sex, world religions, and sex. But it seems that Conley was well known by the newspaper librarian, who kept files of his letters (apparently because they were so amazing), and I came to piece together the story of a man who once earned a degree in philosophy and became a bonafide minister. Somewhere along the line, wiring frayed, or circuit boards burned out. I learned from newspaper clippings that Conley’s only son had been mortally injured in a high school football game, and that as the boy lay in a coma, Conley went madder and madder, charging doctors with all sorts of wrongdoing that might or might not have had a basis in reality. This was when I stopped finding his rantings entirely comedic, and began seeing traces of something reminiscent of logic in them. As my pals and I pored over the letters, and eventually began having highly amusing phone chats with Delmar (“My name means ‘of the sea!’” he was wont to declare), we came to realize that Conley was a deeply broken man who reviled all authority and had manufactured an astonishing alternate universe which he inhabited as the “Shaman-Pope of the Spiritual Kingdom of God, domiciles spiritus et sexualis.” There was some kindness hidden away in his insanity, and definitely some humor, and over time this ridiculous, bawdy figure gradually incurred our sympathies and affection. We even went to visit his broken down house in a remote, largely deserted part of the San Fernando Valley, and joined him in on a chorus of “My Old Kentucky Home” as he accompanied on off-key fiddle. (We asked before going to meet him what his favorite beer was, to which he jauntily declared, “Beer!”) So in this improbable way did a prankish bunch of semi-stoner young reporters come to befriend a solitary old madman, and Conley got a real kick out of the company (especially his friend, the Hindu seer Raj Bavnani.) I’ll never forget the high school senior class photo of his son, faded and framed on the mantelpiece of his crummy, chocked-full-of-junk living room. And I’ll never forget one of his little quasi-religious leitmotivs: “You are your own reincarnating ancestor!” Perish the thought.
          SARAI RIBICOFF---This brilliant, effervescent girl was executed by a gang punk after dining at a Venice restaurant in 1980. She was only 23, and it seems impossible that she has been gone almost thirty years. The story of her murder is well known, and was covered nationally, as she was the niece of U.S. Senator Abraham Ribicoff. She was also a reporter at the L.A. Herald-Examiner under the late Jim Bellows, and eventually an impassioned and precocious editorial writer there. I often think of her, and I know that this is partly because of the despicable way that she was denied the life before her---but it is also because of just who she was. It’s funny, I can picture her exactly, and that is not the case with various other ex-colleagues. She had an earnest and unabashed way of smiling, her face essentially taken over by affection, joy, with an unrestrained, musical laugh. I can see her curls, and her curvy figure, and I can hear her voice. But here’s a little story about her that perhaps best tells who she was. Thanksgiving was coming up---it would be her last---and she wanted to attend this ritzy sit-down dinner in Beverly Hills with friends, so she was asking staffer after staffer to trade shifts (she worked four to one.) There were no takers. At last she came to me, Mr. Anthropia, and hit the jackpot. I liked nothing better than to work holidays, as it took my mind off my lousy family situation, and having to spend Thanksgiving at home with the “Twilight Zone” marathon, a Van Kamp’s pumpkin pie, and a joint (and if I was lucky, my friend John Rogers showing up late), and having to turn down sympathy invitations for holiday wallflowers. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll work your shift.” Sarai was shocked, and thanked me profusely and repeatedly. I tried to explain to her that it was no big deal, and that I liked the camaraderie of a holiday newsroom skeleton crew. I could see that she found this a bit hard to believe, but I assured her it was true. You can guess what happened next, I’m sure. At about 11:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving, as I sat with four or five other quietly working reporters and editors, Sarai showed up at the office. She had left her party and driven downtown with a full turkey dinner for me, and goodies for everyone else. She was a real sweetheart.
          CRAIG SKINNER---Craig was a nice kid who grew up in the impossibly nice country town that Thousand Oaks was back in the 1960’s. He was a great softball player, and had a sort of soft way of speaking and carrying himself that made “the girls” crazy. He was handsome, with a kind of thick and flowing head of strawberry blond, and I’m pretty sure blue eyes. He and I were not close friends, and I sometimes had the impression that he didn’t like me too well. Yet one day when I was thrown out of my house into a driving rainstorm by my step-parental unit (because I had deigned to sit in my room and watch television), I was welcomed at Craig’s house. I remember it smelling of fried eggs, and being warm and pleasantly stuffy. We spent the afternoon watching a bad Abbott and Costello movie (I think) and "Wrestling From the Olympic" (Haystacks Calhoun!) until I reluctantly headed back home after dark. By 8th grade---Craig and I had been together since 3rd---we were friends. In fact, in our all-male production of “The Wizard of Oz,” Craig played---was it Glynda, the good witch?---and I played Dorothy. (Really.) He had matured into this genuinely nice guy who seemed to have malice toward no one, and I later learned that he spent a lot of introspective time writing poems for a girl he loved. Still, there was a kind of melancholy about him that I noticed deepening in high school. I think the guy felt things too much. He died in a car wreck before he graduated.
          MA RENSE---I never knew my grandmother, an immigrant from the Tyrol area of Austria and northern Italy. Her maiden name was Rose Luther, and I’m told she spoke German and Hungarian, as they were the languages of her village. Relatives “introduced” her, by long distance, to one Joseph Rense (sometimes spelled “Rensi”), who lived in Ohio in America and was said to have a successful business. So off she went on a boat to Ellis Island, and eventually a new life as the mother of seven children (not counting several who did not survive.) By all accounts, Rose was nothing short of heroic in her dedication to her six boys and one girl. My father, the youngest of the lot, idolized her. Why he never bothered to take me to Ohio to meet her before her death in 1964, I have no idea. I would have loved that. She was downright beautiful in her youth, and very much a stout matriarch in maturity. I have a fuzzy, out-of-focus photo of my father with his arm around her, taken in the mid-40’s, on my bookshelf, and I like to think she might have liked me. One of my late uncles did present me with a most treasured keepsake: Ma Rense’s German cookbook, now frayed and crumbly, from which she apparently served a household for decades. Not long ago, I met one of my cousins for the first time, Will, and he passed on an anecdote about our grandmother. When he was a boy, he went to have dinner with her and the son with whom she lived, and elderly Ma went to great lengths to bake a cake for the occasion. But something went wrong, and the cake did not turn out right. As Will told me, “She cried and cried. She was just the ultimate German hausfrau.”
          BOBBY---He weighed about 16 pounds, had a huge head, and what is known as a “bullseye” stripe pattern, in bright orange. I suppose he was a classic American tabby, but his personality seemed much too large to be contained in a cat. As my father used to remark, “That goddamn cat is almost human.” He had a loud, musical voice, and a very extensive vocabulary of meows. You could almost have conversations. I found him while out hiking in the hills one day after a rain, took him home, put him in our garage, and meowed loudly. Yes, me---I meowed loudly. Then I hid and watched my step-parental unit open the door and exclaim, “A kitty!” and I knew I had secured Bobby a home. (Clever, I was.) The cat was a great hunter, and I once watched him consider going after a large hawk that was repeatedly swooping at him (he wisely thought better of it.) I did see him actually charge a large boxer dog that had invaded his territory, and wrap his arms around the dumbfounded dog’s neck, driving him away.  He was my great friend for many years of my childhood, until I heard while in college that neighborhood dobermans had taken advantage of his increasing slowness, and had just about torn him apart. (That pesky merciless God again.) Funny how you can miss someone more and more as you get older. Especially someone covered with fur.

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