Rest in peace, Lew Gardner
Lew! Lew is dead. I can’t believe I’m writing that, but it’s true, Lew Gardner, the Beat poet of Chico, went peacefully in his home on Oct. 13, surrounded by his many loved ones. He was 86. I knew him for more than 20 years, and with his signature funky hats, shaggy white beard and shuffling demeanor, he always seemed to me to be 100 years old. But appearances were deceiving. Lew was more spry than he let on, always riding his bike around Chico, making appearances at various downtown hangouts—cafes, bookstores, farmers’ markets—to read poetry (the dude on the soapbox) and talk about theater (he was a regular on local stages, always playing the really old guy), music (jazz and classical were his faves), literature, film or the S.F. Giants.
Lew grew up in San Francisco, studied theater and writing at SF State and was a regular in the North Beach Beat scene. He came to Chico in 1989, following daughters Mary and Siobhan and followed by his wife, Florence, and three more (of their nine!) children, Liz, Mike and Katie. I moved here the same year as Lew, but we didn’t meet until I started working at the Upper Crust Bakery & Cafe a few years later. I worked there alongside one of Lew’s (and Arts DEVO’s) good friends, one-time local thespian/Germanophile Bryce Allemann, and Lew would regularly come in for lively visits with us.
In 2003, Lew’s main hangout naturally became Cafe Flo, the former neighborhood joint on Sixth Street opened by Mary and Katie and named for their mother/his wife, and he became recognized for his regular presence there as well as his soapbox appearances. In the summer of 2015, local activist and radio host Guillermo Mash recorded an interview with the man on his box at the farmers’ market, during which Lew read “The Waking,” a poem by Theodore Roethke with a fitting sentiment for one whose life was spent wide awake: Great Nature has another thing to do/To you and me; so take the lively air,/And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
A memorial is in the works. Search the “Lew Gardner Memorial Page” on Facebook for updates.
Review/preview First: A few words on Devotion, Chikoko’s fashion/variety show that drew a crowd of approximately 1,500 people to the cavernous commercial building at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds last Saturday (Oct. 21). As much as the group’s annual blowout is a runway-style fashion event, it’s also a moving art show, with the models as canvases for the collective’s four designers—Nel Adams, Muir Hughes, Christina Seashore and Sara Rose Testman Bonetti. There were an astonishing number of original works (around 100 total), with so many wildly creative—and focused and meticulously composed—pieces on display that it was almost overwhelming. The most original art show and the social event of the season? I can’t think of what would beat it on either count. Also, an inspiring message of hope (underlined by host Dicky LaRoka, aka Betty Burns) in its example of humans creating their own beauty and sharing it with the world.
Second: The picture here of one of the Devotion models, Christine Wilson, is by local artist Sarah Campbell, whose tile work and other crafts will be available at another local art extravaganza, the Black Cat Bazaar at Mim’s Bakery, this Sunday, Oct. 29, noon-4 p.m. In addition to craft vendors, there will be live music, a piñata and other games, food and a bearded lady!
Death poetry jam In the spirit of this week’s issue, I had to dig up one of my favorite poems on the subject of dying, one I first heard read live by its author, local poet/RN Mark H. Clarke, about two decades ago.Postmortem Care
Usually the window is already open
so, if they’ve been “Pronounced,”
and they are not a “Coroner’s case,”
that is, if their death is not too unexpected,
I start right in, removing tubes and tape,
cleaning, changing linens,
making them look as nice as I can.
We do not put pennies on the eyes,
we use the eyelashes to pull the eyelids closed.
They look peaceful then,
but not quite right:
the color is all wrong,
the utter stillness all wrong.
Of course none of that is begun
until after I have marked off the territory:
the rectangle of the hospital room,
as sacred ground;
until after I have imagined
my own other lighted half
rising out of the top of my head
like a candle, a torch,
flaring for the dead to navigate by,
for the living to be shielded by.
While I work, I speak to the body,
softly, with respect, treat them
with the same kindness, gentleness
as I do the living;
the flesh is still warm,
and all the rest not too far gone.
I raise the head of the bed a little
and place a pillow carefully
so the mouth won’t gape.
Then I wait with them,
torch still flaring
finishing my notes, arranging paperwork.
I watch for the family,
the spouse, the children, sister, brother,
or the one remaining friend to arrive.
I greet them outside the sacred space,
fill them in if they had hoped to arrive “in time.”
I provide them an opportunity to set aside their flurry,
for they are entering a special moment,
separate from regular time and space,
where everything opens, everything matters.
With my hand on the body,
to show them touching is safe and is acceptable,
I tell them what I know fo this particular death:
how hard they tried to hold on, if that is true,
how willingly they let go, if that is true.
How they had told me earlier, when they still had the power,
that it might be nearly time to let go, if that is true.
If their death was horror
of pounding on their chest, of forcing tubes into them,
of pink foam pouring from their mouth and nose,
of blood and spit, urine and feces,
of me and my colleagues urgently working, cold and callous,
pretending not to be intimidated at the edge of the abyss,
I leave out those details, even if those details are true.
I substitute what I knew of the person, what I saw to appreciate,
what they had said about those now present,
or I simply ask what the living can tell me of the one now gone.
If I sense regret at arriving too late,
I ask if their loved one was inclined to “not be a bother,”
and tell them how often I have seen the dying sneak away
when no one they cared for was th ere to be worried,
for that is true.
Sometimes, all I have to offer is the plain fact
that they were not alone when death came,
when that is true.
Sometimes..no on comes.
If it wasn’t an easy death,
if the family had the misfortune to make it “in time”
to witness the pounding, the frenzy, the foam,
the leaking away of life.,
I am able to assure them
that everything was done that could be done,
and answer question – provide the rationale
behind the apparent brutality they saw.
At this point, Kleenex becomes useful, a whole box,
some for everyone, sometimes even the nurse.
When I see the mourning begin,
when I see their own lighted bodies
like candles, torches, emerging
from the tops of their heads and begin to swirl and sway,
melding into each other,
flaring for the dead to navigate by,
for the living to be shielded by,
I retreat with mine, use my light to guard the door.
Then I give them time, all they want
there is no need to hurry now.
They will let me know when they are done.
When they do, I offer coffee, cold water, answers…
to their last questions, the ones I can answer.
I have a few questions for them:
which funeral home? tissue donation?
Belongings to sign for.
When everyone has gone,
I retrieve the cart from the Anatomy room.
It has a special drape so that no one will have to see
the unsettling specter of a human form gliding by in the night,
familiar, but covered face and all;
hidden for fear the sight might suck away every hope in its wake.
It comes with a packet containing a cloth strip, some string,
two paper tags, and a waterproof plastic shroud.
After unclothing the body, the cloth strip ties the jaw closed,
strings tie the hands over the abdomen, the feet together,
preserving against stiffening to come, that human form
broadening to the shoulder,
narrowing more slowly toward the feet.
One tag is filled out, name, number,
and ties to the right, great toe.
At least three people are needed
to roll a body with any respect,
side to side as the shroud is wrapped,
then taped, covering all, everything.
The second tag is taped outside,
the body shifted to the cart,
the drape put in place.
Then the slow trip back to the Anatomy room
where a small electric hoist allows the body
to be lifted from the cart and placed gently
on a shelf that rolls out from a refrigerated cabinet.
As I slide the drawer back in, I address them by name, tell them:
“Everything is all right,
everything is taken care of, you can rest now.”
Then I close the cabinet and leave them
to their first practice at being along in cold darkness.
In most cases, everything does seem right then,
but I worry about those for whom no one came.
By whose light will they navigate?
Who will intervene on their behalf?
Is there anyone on the other side to show the way?
We don’t put coins on people’s eyes anymore.
The policy states:
“grasping the eyelashes to pull the eyelids down is sufficient
to close them without bruising.”
Without those coins, how eill they pay Charon’s toll at the river
when the funeral home comes to gather someone in,
they are found on their private shelf in the chilled cabinet
with a nickel,
or a dime,
or maybe just two pennies
on the shelf beside them.