|Chris and Mike at Brian's grave. Click to embiggen.|
It's a cold, raw afternoon in Loomis Hill Cemetery outside Syracuse. A middle-aged woman parks a dark blue SUV near a tin-roofed gazebo and approaches the two men standing by a casket.
"Are you family?" she asks. "I saw the hearse pulling into the cemetery with no cars following it, and I said to myself, 'Nobody should be buried alone."
"We're just friends," I say. "His name was Brian. Brian Edwards." I offer her my hand. "John."
"Sheila, thank you so much for stopping." At this point, I had to turn away; I had something in my eye.
Death is disorienting. There's always that moment where you scan the subject line in the e-mail, see the caller ID from a friend at an odd hour, and suddenly your timeline bifurcates into pre- and post. I don't think it's the dying who see their lives flash before their eyes. That's just projection. It's those left behind who begin to wander mentally, like Billy Pilgrim or Dr. Manhattan, through an ensemble of flickering moments, emerging from the rubble of Dresden, remembering a cold glass of beer amid the strangeness and charm...
Brian Edwards died "at home" on November 16. Having no fixed address and no living relatives, the Onondaga County Medical Examiner did their best to find someone to contact. Finally, they put a death notice in the Post Standard and scheduled interment at the Loomis Hill Cemetery, the burial place of last resort. The process is documented thoroughly and clinically on the Department of Social Services web site.
It is just before 11am on Tuesday, December 6, and I'm standing in the cemetery with Chris Doherty. This is clearly an indigent facility; no gate, no office. No staff. We have to call the funeral home to be sure we’re in the right place. The whole north end has no headstones, only tiny metal name plaques, flush with the ground. The last row is freshly turned earth dotted with green plastic frames, each containing a name. There's a tin-roof rectangular gazebo with a church truck partly unfolded beneath. Next to the road sits an uncovered outer interment receptacle with its lid on the ground a few feet away. An empty concrete shoe box. Two roller bars span the open shell.
Funeral director Matt Klinger from the Frazier-Shepardson funeral home pulls up in a late-model hearse, climbs out, approaches us.
"Are either of you Brian Edwards' brother?" he asks.
We tell him we're not, just friends. He offers condolences, retreats back to the hearse where four of the guys from the cemetery crew have appeared to hoist out the pale blue fiberboard coffin.
"Over there?" one of the guys indicates the gazebo.
"No, just here." Klinger points to the concrete liner where they roll the casket to a stop.
It is May 9, 1981, and I'm sitting with Brian and Tom Boyce outside the Carrier Dome, yelling "US guns killed US nuns" as Secretary of State Al Haig is given an honorary doctorate at commencement. We had just busted our knuckles raw hauling a keg of beer down from the house many of us shared on Clarendon Street to support the protesters. We set up at the back of the physics building and began pumping. It being the 1980s, the police were remarkably restrained, simply telling us to stay out of the way of foot traffic. Brian had to run down to M Street to resupply cups when we ran low. We sat on the ledge at the back of the building, chanting and dispensing refreshment until now-Doctor Haig was bundled up in his limo and whisked off.
It is sometime in 1980, and I'm with Brian and a gang of our friends in the front row of Gifford Auditorium, watching the all-night Ape-A-Rama. In the days before Netflix, DVDs, or VHS, the University Union Film Series was the way you could see movies, and we were part of the crowd that hung out and watched them. All of them. The programming was wildly eclectic, with Syracuse debuts of foreign features cheek-to-jowl with Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Head, and The Stunt Man. On this evening, we had settled into the front row with a carefully concealed case of Schmidts to watch all five of the original Planet of the Apes films. It was about three in the morning when someone got on the stage to sheepishly announce that the distributor had sent the wrong film. Instead of "Battle for the Planet of the Apes," the film cases contained a print of "Rabbit Test." I remember watching Brian laugh hysterically at things that I don't think the filmmakers intended.
It's the night before the burial, and Chris and I are at Mike Schafer's house north of Syracuse, on a soggy isthmus between a lake and a swamp. Mike is a musician and one of the founders of the post-punk/grunge/noise band "Mechanical Sterility." Brian used to do lead vocals (and I sat in occasionally) back in the early 80s. His house is pleasantly stuffed with books, toys, 20,000 records, and an enormous range of musical instruments (there are entire milk crates of "untuned" and "tuned" toy instruments, something Spike Jones would appreciate.) We sit in his living room, jam desultorily on our old standards, and talk about Brian. Mike hadn't seen him in a while. He'd been trying to keep Brian connected, picking him up for a weekend so that he could shower, sleep in a bed, and have a couple of square meals every few weeks. The rest of the time he was living behind stores, on benches, in a nest where the reporters from Syracuse.com found him, or sometimes in a crack house with street friends. Not a situation that seemed to have any future to it.
Brian was one of those "nonstudents" who hang around a university, much more common I suspect in the late 1970s than these days. He came into our group through science fiction, frequenting a used bookstore that Chris ran on Geddes Street downtown. That plugged him into the campus sf group that used to get together and watch the original "Battlestar Galactica." I first recall meeting him in 78 or 79, probably at some sf film in Gifford, maybe "Dark Star" or "Silent Running." He was smart, funny, always carried a sketchbook (as many of us did in those days before smart phones) and liked the same stuff. Over the next few years, we hung out, jammed, wrote stories, used whiteout to repurpose comic books, recorded tapes, created weird art, listened to the Grateful Dead, lay in Thornden Park watching the stars rotate around the Earth, and generally did stuff which I'm glad is not recorded on social media.
But then there was a commencement and Al Haig, and some of us moved on.
Brian, well, did not.
I remember looking at a line he had copied down in a sketchbook, "I promised I would drown myself in mystic heated wine." It's from a Doors song, "Yes, The River Knows." Folks may think it's Jim Morrison, but was actually written by Robby Krieger, who admitted in an interview that he was channeling that dark, nihilist vibe that runs through Morrison's stuff. And while Brian was a wide-eyed optimist (his favorite song was Lennon's "Imagine") he was ill prepared for the grim meathook realities of the 1980s. He struggled with inner demons that he never spoke about but which showed up in his artwork. And I think it’s fair to say that he had a complicated relationship with alcohol and other substances. In many ways, he was both Jim Morrison and Syd Barrett. Inventive, clever, and wry, but somehow not quite a match for the rigged game where we all find ourselves, for better or worse, playing cards dealt by an invisible hand.
It is sometime in 1983. I am jamming with Brian and Mike in his apartment on 109th Street in New York. Most of our crew had moved to New York City, as one did in those days when one was young and looking for work in creative fields. We are riffing on Lennon's "Oh, Yoko" making up new lyrics about Ronald Reagan. Brian is side-splittingly funny. There may be a cassette tape somewhere. But as Mike says the day before the burial, "Man, we used to buy such cheap tapes. Four for a dollar. If we'd just spent more on the tapes, we could actually listen to them now." Such is time and technology and crisis of capital. Brian only has enough money to stay in New York for a few months. Bouncing around Manhattan filling out job applications. On the day he's already planned to move back to Syracuse, an offer at a video store finally comes through. But it's too late, he's already committed to leave.
Matt Klinger looks at his watch. It's 11am. He stands at the head of the casket and reads a committal service prayer from a small, stapled pamphlet, then looks significantly at us. I reach out, touch the cool blue cardboard and recite a bit from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. "Follow the Clear Light." Chris mumbles something that I don't catch. Then we both take a few steps back, looking away, not catching each other's eyes, which are leaking.
"This is as far as we can go," says Klinger. "The cemetery workers will take it from here."
And they do. Chris and I retreat to our cars, parked on a gravel swale just west of the gazebo, as the workers slide straps under the coffin and lower it into the concrete container. They bring in a backhoe, which picks up the lid and hoists it into position. Then they spread a sling around the vessel, two loops, one lowered over each end, secured only by friction, and pick up the entire ensemble for the short trip up the road to Section M, Row 1, Grave 25. The backhoe lowers Brian into the grave.
The years after Brian moved back to Syracuse had ups and downs. For a while, several of our gang would head up to Mike's house and jam. I was off in the world of full-time jobs, never had the time to get there. I'd listen to the tapes that Mike sent, full of weird music and Brian's infectious laugh. Then the first decade of the 21st century took its toll on the group. Our friend Tavis, who played kick-ass lead guitar, drowned in a rip current off a south Jersey beach. Was that an inflection point? It hit us all hard. Mike’s ex, Mary, also a vibrant, clever writer, passed away. It’s September 26, 2009, and I’m standing with our friends at the surfline of Coney Island. Mary loved the dilapidated charm of the boardwalk, the delightful dive vibe of Ruby’s, being in the Mermaid Parade. We are tossing roses into the ocean.
The backhoe has finished filling in the grave and now repositions to smooth out the fresh earth.
Mike drives up. He's had trouble finding the cemetery and couldn't reach us on our cell phones. He's wearing a long black coat. "I went through my closet trying to find something, and finally put this on," he said, "And when I looked in the mirror, I heard Brian saying, (imitates commercial announcer voice) 'What the well-dressed man is wearing to funerals this year.'"
It is, truly, exactly what Brian would have said.