Family remains


The first time Barney looked in a mirror after having his head shaved, he saw his dad.

(I think we left off with us in Oaklawn Cemetery, in Baltimore. There’s one more post about Barney and Baltimore after this, then we’ll move on to a different topic.)

We took turns scattering Barney’s ashes on the grave. I brought along a little rake to sift them to the earth; keep the wind from catching his sails and carrying him off. We talked for awhile and went off in search of the grave of his Aunt Agnes. He’d mentioned her plenty of times, how good she was to him and how she seemed to understand the combination of addiction and depression that consumed him. She filled the hole his mother left and expected nothing in return. And got it. We were unable to determine the exact location of her grave as her family had provided no marker. Eventually, after skirting the area, following a map the cemetery provided and standing on several unmarked plots, we returned to our cars and said goodbye. I forgot to tell them that despite his behavior, he always loved them. He wanted to be the “good” dad but alcohol prevented it. Those aren’t his words, they’re mine. He never blamed anyone but himself. Subtract the disease, and (as usual) there was a really nice person under there.

As many times as he’d told me about it, Baltimore seemed a familiar place. I wanted to spend more time cruising around the blocks that sidled up to Eastern Avenue. South Ann St., where Barney grew up was on the way back to the hotel and again, I ran upon it without realizing where I was. As a kid he was just a few blocks from the water. I wondered if his love of lighthouses grew from that place, a place he was trying to get back to. I would’ve never asked Barney to quit drinking and he didn’t shine to those who did, but I did ask him once if there had been a pill he could take that would cure him of it, would take it? I expected his usual resistance but got none. “Yeah,” he said resolutely, “if I could go back and fix it I would. A few seconds lapsed. On the television, Detective Bobby Goren solved yet another murder. “But it’s too late now,” added Barney, “I’m goin’ outta’ here feet first.”

“You could go see Fort McHenry,” he said one day, out of the blue. “That’s where that guy wrote The Star Spangled Banner you know? José Can You See? Or there’s a church, it’s pretty famous, the steeples or whatever you call those things, fill up with birds every night,” he said, “thousands of ’em”. Of all the places Barney mentioned, that’s the one I didn’t get to; the church with the birds. I had forgotten to find out the name of it, thinking I could always Google it and find out once I got there. Once there, I had sensory overload not to mention a dog in tow, and forgot all about it.

One day after I got back, I turned on iTunes and put it on shuffle. My player has a ton of sound clips from interviews that I’ve saved so anytime I put it on shuffle, it’s a party. I never know which old friend is going to start talking next. It can be a little unnerving at times but it’s never dull. So it was turned up pretty loud and I was downstairs putting clothes in the dryer when suddenly I heard Barney’s voice coming from my speakers. “Holy Rosary Chruch” he said. “That’s where the birds fly in every night, or used to. It looks like a tornado. You should see it.”

Turns out, I did see it Barney, when I stopped to walk Stella at Patterson Park. I just didn’t know that was it.

Holy Rosary Church
Holy Rosary Catholic Church, Archdiocesan Shrine of Divine Mercy, Baltimore, MD
(on Flickr)
Mother Teresa relics visit Baltimore chapel (old news but interesting)

Documentary Valet

I’ve had some extraordinary dreams of late (must be the organic produce). Recently, I posted one about a lion in my bathtub named Taffy although those of you who visit here may not have seen it. The details were sketchy but it was one of the funniest dreams I’ve ever had. Here’s another:

I dreamed I went to the home of David Lynch. The doorknob on his front door by the way, was also the door bell. I’m not sure how I knew this but I pushed it, the bell rang, and he opened the door. Smiling just a little, he looked into my eyes, all the way to my solar plexus and said “Hello Susan”. I was surprised that he remembered my name. In the dream, he used to visit Barney at his apartment sometimes and I had come to let him know that I had delivered Barney’s ashes to Baltimore and decided to invite him to a memorial service (?) of some sort. He said he would come and that he would be happy to “take care of everything.” I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant.

On the way out, I asked if by any chance he had a job for me, on some one of his projects or the (now finished) documentary Interview Project.

He thought it over for a second and asked if I knew how to park cars.

The Trip Back Home


Barney wanted to be cremated and on the Tuesday after he died, I went to a little place near the fairgrounds and watched as they boxed him up and slid his body into a 1650 degree oven. I remember sitting outside for a while and watching the heat from the smoke stack rise to the early spring sky. It was a strange but comforting experience. I’ve told a number of people since then (and I had no idea when this started how I would deal with it personally) that when you bury someone and leave them in the cemetery, leaving that person always feels bad. At least it always has for me. I’m sure it’s a separation thing. Often you have three days or so to say goodbye and then that person in in the ground under a stone. This experience taught me that being able to take the remains of the deceased home with you is much more bearable. I knew in my head that Barney was gone but I was able to sit the box on my kitchen table and we hung out all summer together. That was a gift. My grief was tempered by having him around.

The other thing he wanted was to be brought back to Baltimore, returned to the arms of his mother who, died in 1978. This brings us to today and the odd but wonderful experience of meeting two women and a little boy in a cemetery on Eastern Avenue. They were Barney’s daughters, and a grandson he loved but never met. Their pictures used to be stuck on the side of his refrigerator with magnets and he told me once that he wanted them there so he could see them from his bed whenever he looked up. He used to tell them goodnight before he went to sleep, “like the Waltons” he said.

The end of Law and Order

Barney, sitting on the bed in his new apartment. circa 1997

I wasn’t with Barney when he died. His nurse called my house early in the morning when I was out walking Stella. Instead of leaving a message she called my cell phone, which I had mistakenly left in the car. I probably wouldn’t have made it there in time but I was sorry it took them an hour to get me on the phone. His nurse was distressed and tearful by then. I had always been afraid that he’d be robbed by some one of his so-called friends when he died and of course, he was – but I never dreamed that the guy who did it would be the one. Took the money right out of Barney’s shirt pocket and then denied it in front of me and an entire team of hospice workers. He then went next door to the bar and bought everyone a round of drinks. Barney might have approved of that but I found it repulsive that people who never even knew Barney were rewarded with the very thing that killed him.

We sent him off that day in a big white Cadillac hearse. A Puerto Rican man kissed the window of it just before it pulled away. I packed up his apartment over the weekend and by Monday afternoon, twelve years of hard living evaporated into space. People that hadn’t seen Barney in forever stopped by to say how sorry they were. They asked for things and I didn’t mind them asking. Most of them loved Barney too. Just not enough to stop by and help him get to the bathroom when he needed it. There were only a couple of those sorts of friends and they could’ve asked me for anything. On the last day, before I locked the door, when the only things left were his bulletin boards, a folding chair and an echo, Stella and I brought lunch over and had ourselves a little picnic. It was so quiet in there. That was the first thing I noticed when I got there the morning he died. Someone turned off the television. First time in twelve years. I remembered Barney saying once that wherever he ended up, they better have cable.

(This is the first photo I took of Barney when he moved into his apartment. I think it was 1997. He had a bed, a dresser, and a bag of second hand clothes.)

junkyard dog

Barney always made friends with whatever junkyard dog happened to live next door.

Slick City (continued)

Part 2

I’m not sure what part of a person’s brain is responsible for it but Walter’s sense of humor is completely intact. He’s pretty good on an escalator too but watching him can make a person nervous. Earlier that morning during our bank visit, I insisted (much against his gentlemanly nature) on riding the escalator behind him. We were going up.

He said, “If I fall down this thing and take you with me, who’s going to call the ambulance?”

“It’s Regions Bank Walter,” I said, “they probably have an EMT and a lawyer on standby.”

“Neat,” he said.

We successfully navigated the two escalators that took us to the library but getting there wasn’t free of challenges.

Between the parking garage and the check out desk we were nearly run over half a dozen times. By people. Each time it was like trying to dodge a cannon ball. Four people were talking on cell phones. They glanced in his direction just long enough to convey their irritation. One person visibly relaxed after seeing him from the front but not a single person slowed down. Twice, someone stopped to hold the door for Walt but when it came to walking patiently then behind him, only one meditative soul was able to jump into a different groove for the fifteen seconds it took him to get through the lobby door. Fifteen seconds doesn’t seem like a long time until there’s someone behind you huffing their aggravation. It was nice that one person was able to resist. Of course, Walter was apologizing at every turn; even when a child (maybe three or four years old) ran between him and the walking stick to get by.

The people working at the library interact with a wide variety of people so nothing much takes them by surprise. I steered Walter to the counter where he was given his new library card and then across the lobby to a doorway that led to the latest fiction. I breathed a sigh of relief once we made it to the carpet.

He walked into the room, picked up a book and with little in the way of deliberation announced, “I’ll take it!” and headed for the door.

“That’s it?” I said “You don’t want to look around or sit down or anything?”

He looked back over his shoulder at me, amused. “Nope.”

He checked out the book and we headed for the coffee shop.

I knew from that bank visit that Walter had ten dollars. Whenever we go to the bank he withdraws either five or ten dollars which charms the socks right off the tellers every time. Walter had decided he was going to buy me lunch for bringing him to the library but when he lumbered up to the refrigerated case he reevaluated this decision. Salads were six dollars. Sandwiches were nearly eight.

“What else do you get with that?” he said to me, pointing at the shelf.

“I don’t know Walter,” I said “maybe you should ask that gentleman behind the counter.”

Knowing full well this was a set-up I redirected his attention, “Soup is three dollars, what if you buy that and I’ll get us something to drink?”


He agreed and we sat at a table facing the windows. I could tell he was happy just being out of his usual surroundings. He slid the new book over in front of him and reached in his pocket to retrieve a hard shelled case. He gingerly removed a pair of reading glasses and at that point I was forced to suppress a giggle. “Where did you get those glasses Walter?” I asked him. They were trimmed with rhinestones. Before he could answer one of the lenses popped out onto the table. He removed the glasses, carefully replaced it and returned them to his nose whereupon the other lens fell out. Suddenly, I felt like we were in a cartoon.

“Jesus Walter,” I said “I think maybe you could use a new pair of glasses.”

“But the problem is:” he said, “I never have any money leftover, or any way to get to a store that sells glasses.”

“Well,” I said, “after we eat, I say we run by the Family Dollar and get a pair. They’ll be like six dollars or something. We’ll call it a birthday present.”

“My birthday isn’t until December,”

“Okay, then it’s just a gift.”

“I can’t promise you rhinestones though.”

“All right,” he said sipping his coffee.

“Slick City.”