May 22, 1950-October 13, 2018
I first met Jim over the phone. We had just bought our house, and I was looking for a fence guy. We had three dogs at the time, and no fences, and life was pretty chaotic. There were moving boxes everywhere, and when I had to take the dogs out they had to be on leashes. This resulted in dogs moving in multiple directions with me at the center of the maelstrom. Our neighbor up by Dodger Stadium recommended Jim, and I was eager to meet him. Our first conversation, however, was brief. “I’m pretty booked up right now,” he told me, “And my partner likes me to be off on the weekends, so it will be a few weeks before I can even start.” This was not what I wanted to hear. Even at the time, I registered something about him. Maybe it was his voice. For those who knew him, Jim had an amazing voice. People always say he sounded like Sam Elliott, and I know he was once scouted as a voice actor and even went so far as to look into the work, but it is hard to describe his voice. It was deep, and gravely, and resonate, kind of the way I imagine a benign God would sound.
Then came the fence guy who never showed up, and then the suicidal fence guy (“Nice place you got here. I had a house, once, and a wife. But she took it all. She took everything. But I can run a chain link for two grand.”) In desperation, I called Jim back, asking if there was any way he could help me out. I must have been pretty hysterical because I clearly remember what he said: “Lady, you got to calm the fuck down! You need to chill!” I explained to him that I couldn’t chill because I had three dogs and I needed to do yoga and I couldn’t with all the dogs on leashes or barking at me, and he agreed to come meet me.
I can still remember our first meeting, his rig parked in front of our garage, me coming down to meet him. I noticed the Oregon plates and the Free Tibet bumper sticker, so I told him I was from Oregon, too. Jim was nonplussed, but then, Jim was often nonplussed. He was a tall man, thin, with the leathery skin of a man who spent his life outdoors and chain-smoked. I recognized Jim as a type, although to reduce Jim to a mere type would not capture who he was, but I knew him immediately as an Old Hippie. That first day, I also commented on his other bumper sticker, which read “No God” with a circle and line through the God. “Nice sticker”, I said. Jim hemmed and hawed, as I was later to discover was his way, then told me he was dyslexic. “I thought it said No Dogs,” he said, which is how I first learned that Jim was funny.
Jim didn’t take a shine to my dogs, initially. My crazy Pit Bull, Buddy did not impress him, and the Chow Chow, Maggie, he would later name “Resident Evil” after she shut off the gas when he was house sitting, but he liked my Jack Russell, Pebbles, immediately. “That’s a Zen dog,” he said, watching her sunning herself. He was right; she was a Zen dog. And a pain in the butt, but I liked that Jim liked her.
So, Jim built our fences, and we talked a bit about Oregon and the commune he came from. He seemed at ease with me, and when Robert ended up at home one Saturday when Jim was working, Robert later confessed that all he’d done was talk to Jim. We felt easy together in a way that strangers only sometimes feel, and I was sorry when the work was finished. Of course, Jim left his signature Tibetan prayer flags hanging from the completed front gate, and if the nails in the fences were sometimes uneven once it passed Beer-Thirty, I didn’t mind. It was and is a good, solid fence.
My mother was excited that we were working on our house, and she asked if Jim might be available to build some trellises in her garden, so I gave her his number. I didn’t recall until after he died that I sent him a Christmas card that first year, but I found it in his stuff. For such a seemingly gruff man, Jim was surprisingly sentimental. But Mom did call Jim, and before I knew it, he was working on her house, first the trellises, and then her front porch. I used to mediate on them together, for it seemed Jim sparked something in my Mom, not a woman given to dating or leaving the house, so I was only sort of surprised when he started hanging out with her.
At the time, Jim was in a relationship—his aforementioned partner who didn’t like him working on the weekends—but soon he was living with my mother. One day he showed up with all his stuff, and for a time it seemed this was an answer to something. I know that the first trip they took to Harlan, the commune in Oregon, was fun for both of them. This was about eight years ago, and I used to joke that my mother never even had to leave the house to find a man.
That said, the early period turned to something different, and in all honesty, I can’t say my mother was happy with Jim, nor can I say he was happy with her. They developed a sort of angry, symbiotic relationship that fed the worst parts of both of them, but it must have had some reward. It was hard to see, and Jim talked to me about it at length, but none of us had any solution. But Jim cared for my mother, and her garden, and got to be friends with all her neighbors and the teachers at the school across the street. He found his own place in South Pasadena, different than his place in Oregon, but similar all the same. He got up at 4 a.m. claiming that years of working the land and working for the forestry service conditioned him. “I like to watch the dawn,” he told me, and I knew what he meant. Often I’d sit on my porch, just about a mile from Mom’s house, drinking my coffee and listening to the first bird song, and I’d think of Jim sitting on his porch, doing the same thing. In fact, I still imagine Jim as I watch the sky gradually grow light, and I miss him at that time we were connected but not connected.
The porch is the place in our house that reminds me of Jim, perhaps because I know he slept there when he took care of our gardens and critters, but there are so many places on our property that have Jim’s touch. He built all the fences, and one deck, and remodeled our bathroom, and closed up all the spots where squirrels could get in. And I have so many things Jim gave us: a hummingbird’s nest, beautiful pottery his sister made, an old geologic slide from Ellin, his “former old lady” up in Oregon, carvings, skulls, rocks, R. Crumb Mr. Natural postcards, a crescent hand chopper for the kitchen, some petrified poop, and a very old lathe—all things he knew we would treasure, and we did and we do.
What we never somehow expected was that we would lose Jim. I mean, we aren’t stupid, so we knew that chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes on top of sawdust, forest fires, and a life time of drywall dust was a bad combination, not to mention the beer, but I always thought we had more time. What I regret now is that I never sat Jim down and told him how much he meant to me. In a way, thought, perhaps I did. My mother was fighting with Jim about a riddle he’s posed her, what was the Paul Simon song that described Jim. She guessed the obvious ones, but couldn’t get to the one he as thinking of. I could hear him in the background on the phone saying “ I am a rock; I am an island! C’mon, Kathy—get it!” I didn’t say anything to my mom, but I did print our John Donne’s poem (No man is an island unto himself…) and I wrote him a note about how we were all connected, that we were all part of each other. It wasn’t enough, but that’s just a reminder to tell people how I feel about them.
Certainly I told Jim many times that I saw him as family, and in truth, Jim was and is part of my family. One of my dearest friends always reminds me that you can’t pick your family, but you can choose your friends, and they can be your family. That’s how I felt about Jim. He wasn’t my father, for I have a father. He wasn’t my husband, for I have a husband. He was, simply, my Jim. This became clear when I won the Distinguished Woman award at school. There was a big hoopla planned, and I invited my mom and Jim. My mother didn’t come, but Jim was there. In fact, he dressed up: he wore his cleanest Converse sneakers. It was a fancy event, and at some point a Very Important Person, probably a dean, came over to congratulate me. I was introducing everyone, my husband, my mother-in-law, and when I came to Jim, I paused. “This is my Jim,” I said, and somehow that is always the way I think of him, my Jim.
In the last year, Jim’s health declined, and when he crashed his rig on the way to Harlan this summer, he never really recovered, but I couldn’t face what I knew was staring at me. I saw him the day before he died, and he told me he was fine. He told Robert that day that he was OK, but I was worried. Still, he looked so beautiful the last time I saw him, like a painting of a saint. My mother offered to drive him to the hospital, but he laughed. “That would definitely give me a heart attack!” my mother’s driving being a topic of some concern. It rained the day he died, and it rained today, too, but that was a gentle rain. I like to think he heard it and was reminded of Oregon, for I know he never completely left Oregon, not in his heart or soul.
After he died, I tried to comfort myself by cleaning. I packed up Jim’s stuff, and tried to get everything ready for his son, Milo, who was driving down to get it. I tried to talk to him because I felt like he was almost still there. Most of all, I tried to comforted myself by imagining Jim driving his VW bus. When Jim first found out that we were buying my father’s bus, he was so happy. “A bus! Wow! What year?” We found out that Jim had owned several busses, most notably a blue bus with Saturn painted on the front. He was about the fourth person who told us we needed to get The Compleat Idiot’s Guide to VW’s book. After Jim was gone, I liked to think of him driving that bus into the sky, sailing out into the cosmos, looking at the stars and the galaxies and saying “Holy Shit! Look at THIS!” I still think of him that way, and I still mark the mornings by noticing what he would notice, the weather and the critters and the birds and the seedlings, and the evenings by burning some Palo Santo and filling him in on my day.
Before Jim’s son Milo came, we had his ashes on the mantle. “Jim, “ I said, “You look like shit.” “I’m dead, ain’t I?” I could almost hear him reply. But it was a great boon to us that Milo came down—he is like a version of Jim in some ways, but his father’s hidden sweetness is so clear, as is his father’s strength. With Milo, I felt just as I had felt with Jim: family. But there is no way to say goodbye to Jim, for I hope he will always be with me. Just tonight I updated him on the sweet pea seeds he kept to plant. “Soaking them now, Jim,” I told him. I’m a little late, but it’s a wet time, and I think they will grow, and that’s how I will keep Jim alive: by tending his garden, caring for the things and people he cared for, and remembering him. Jim loved the Day of the Dead, and always gave me muertos, knowing it was my birthday. In that tradition, the first death is when you breathe your last breath. The second is when you are buried. The third and final death is when you are forgotten. I will never forget Jim, nor will I forget all that he gave me and meant to me.Post Script: We plan on taking the Bus to the Central Valley on a road trip, leaving Christmas day, for my Aunt Martha’s Memorial Service, barring rain and and mudslides and California weather. If we do, that post should complete The Year of the Bus.