In the late 1970s, Jim Barnes and his partner, Mark, lived with their book-eating basset, Sammy, in a second-floor walkup on Chestnut Street. I had recently left my parents’ barren suburb, and I loved everything about Jim’s old house under old trees — even the outside stairs that were so slippery in winter. I loved that Sammy was still allowed in the house despite his depredations. I loved the Christmas decorations of a few silver balls strewn over a glass pane laid across two cinder blocks. In my parents’ house, Christmas ornaments were hung under my mother’s rigid direction, each strand of tinsel draped, not tossed. For me, the scattered silver balls represented joy, freedom, an openness to beauty everywhere. They meant welcome.
Jim created communities, mainly through celebrations. Our motley group of students, artists and workers gathered for parties he called Tube Tours (a reference to reefers and perhaps something more … .) We smoked weed and sometimes did mushrooms as Pink Floyd exhorted us crazy diamonds to shine on. I looked at the posters of Patti Smith and David Bowie, tried to read their faraway gazes and poised hands, and wondered what message they might hold for me. The guys would spend days on role-playing games like Consensus or Risk. I was too earnest for games, but would pick up an acid “trip book” — line drawings, lines of insight, the occasional reminder that I could always, if I chose, see the whole thing as a “Cosmic Joke.” Once, Jim passed me as I was staring into space, observed that I had “littleorphanannieeyes.” But his house was a safe place for waifs and strays.
In the summer I worked alongside Jim at a group home for adults with mental disabilities. Breaking away from the regular staff (aka “House Mothers”), we took the residents kite-flying, organized a new-wave dance. After a visit to the State Fair, a middle-aged resident sketched a field of ovals. “What’s that, Charlie?” asked Jim. “A picture of all the people whose faces you’ve forgotten?” He was sharing, I think, the universal human dread of oblivion.
In 1981, I left for California and then for Europe. Jim sprouted a lumberjack beard and moved Up North. He grew leaner, changed his name to Moksha and finally disappeared altogether. Remembering him, I see Charlie’s page of faces, filled in and shining like silver ornaments. Each seen, named, valued: as I was. None forgotten.
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