On A Bird Singing In Its Sleep

We met at where the cable cars turn around on California at Market, Hibbs and Paul and Anina, Graeme and myself. As it turned out, we ended up talking and leaning against the small monument built there for Robert Frost, the poet who so famously wrote about roads not taken and miles to go before you sleep, and etc., etc. An hour earlier, I'd sat by myself behind the ferry building, staring at the Bay Bridge, and tried very hard to think about Rory Root being dead at fifty.

I've lived long enough to know I don't process death in anything like an efficient way: I've looked down at the dead bodies of close friends and death is still an abstraction to me, something I understand intermittently. It's like two thrashing sides of a severed power line that only occasionally touch and connect and when they do, I realize this thing that has haunted me through my life--the idea I shall end--is something that has happened to people I know and I'll never see them again. But mostly, the idea is too large for my simplistic worldview, and while I'm not happy with that, the experience of losing people close to me has forced me to accept it. I grieve when those wires connect and the realization comes through, and when they don't connect I think of that person just as someone I haven't seen in a while, out there about in the world, talking, laughing.

It seemed important, though, on that beautiful summer day to look at the Bay Bridge and think of Rory Root being dead, to try and measure and see if it was a weight against which I could judge the fairness and unfairness of things in the world. It seemed unfair, for example, that Rory could be dead on such an impossibly lovely day--a day where San Francisco weather had called in sick, and Texas weather had shown up to fill in, the clouds vertiginously high and the breeze as warm on one's neck as a lover's breath. It seemed outrageous to the point of blasphemy that Rory would not see this day. And because the wires weren't connecting, I thought about the outrageousness of all the people who had died who would never see a San Francisco day like this, and how I, out of some odd parsing of the lots, could, and could also sit on a bench and think about exactly that because for some reason I was still alive.

At the cable car turnaround, we went underground and caught BART over to Berkeley. Although the platform where we waited was cool and breezy, BART itself felt like someone stoked a fire under us with the intention of slow-roasting alive everyone inside. We sweated and swayed as the train wavered on the tracks like a heat mirage, and Graeme and Brian talked about what might happen with Dan Didio and DC.

As we came out into the pungent Berkeley afternoon, Graeme said to me, "You know, I never make it over to Berkeley as much as I should. And when I do, I can never decide if Berkeley is great or skeevy. Or both." The man with four teeth in his head and the piss-yellow beard went on to underscore Graeme's point by insisting we give him money. And the more I thought about what Graeme had said, the more I realized how much that point resonated with me. I didn't make it over to Berkeley as much I meant to, either, and it wasn't just the convenience of living in San Francisco, that roguishly charming impersonator of a world-class city. Something about Berkeley set me on edge, but I couldn't say what it was. So I thought about it as we moved up to the entrance of Comic Relief, where people stood out on the walk, talking and drinking and smoking. The memorial had begun at 5, the testimonial for Rory's at 6, and we had shown up a little after 7, to see all these people on the sidewalk, making pleasant small talk and shaking hands and hugging one another. Hibbs stepped up to immediate greetings. Graeme and I stood to the side of the doors, looked at everyone and then went in to hear people talk about Rory.

The store had trapped the heat of the day, as well as all the people inside, and it felt even hotter than the BART ride over. A woman wearing Rory attire (black hat, black t-shirt) with Scandinavian features stood behind the back issue counter and talked--not quite loudly enough--about Rory and his love of Swedish meatballs. I assumed at the time but never confirmed that it was Rory's sister, and this is something you should keep in mind about my recounting of this night: my mind still refuses to confirm or deny the identities I assigned to each person. I can't say for certain it was Bob Wayne who talked travel benefits with Anina Bennett, or Shaenon Garrity, heart-stoppingly elegant in a gorgeous green dress, who walked quickly out of Comic Relief with tears in her eyes. But my mind continues to tell me it must've been, there was no one else it could be. Mortality had rendered everyone at Rory's memorial important and mysterious and fragile and powerful, and I guess some part of me refuses to negate any part of that with something so trivial as knowledge. The very obvious (but no less true for that) analogy would be picking up a superhero comic for the first time, and trying to infer how all the colorful characters related by what they said to one another, how they reacted, and even with the occasional assistance of a blatant bit of introduction. Even people I knew seemed somehow strange and new, and so I can make no true claims for people's identity that night, not even my own: I wandered about, watchful and sweaty and silent, not quite sure I recognized myself.

While the people outdoors laughed and smoked, the people with the too-quiet voices continued to stand and speak about Rory (underneath a poster of The Inifinity Man, Jack Kirby's strangely impassive hero, the one who resembles an Aztec Warrior crossed with a '56 Chrysler) and all the things Rory loved: Swedish meatballs, military histories, his customers, comic books, bad puns, talking. "He loved, well, he loved just about everyone," one speaker said, and the way she said "everyone" caused a surprisingly fresh wound of anguish in my heart.

For a moment, those interior power lines snapped together before slicing apart and putting me outside myself again, making me again someone sweaty and uneasy and out of place. And yet I was filled for whatever reason with the hubris that if I got up and spoke, I could say what none of the speakers had yet to say. I could say something that could put everything in context, that could be notable for its candor but without cruelty, forthright and yet gentle.

Because this is the other thing I've learned about myself in seeing friends and family and casual acquaintances die over the years: I've come less and less to care about the love. It is well and fine, of course, and it is in fact very, very important for us to talk about how we love the person who is gone and how that person loved us. But for the most part, talking only about love and laughter and bravery and success renders the person who has passed as flat as a pop song. The older I get, what makes people alive for me is everything we usually don't talk about at a memorial--a person's failures, the prickly edges of their angers and resentments, the resonant tones of their shortcomings and pains. And this is what kept me from standing up and saying anything at Rory's service and what makes me feel uncomfortable and creepy as I sit here typing this, because one of the things that makes Rory Root most alive to me in my mind--both as he lived and now that he's dead--can be summed up in this question: why did someone so kind and loving and prominent in his field seem so lonely and in such terrible health?

Later, outside in the night, watching Joe Field hold his two daughters close and smile and nod, I saw a woman march determinedly through the crowd, her eyes on the ground in front of her. She was about Rory's age--fifty--and she clutched to her chest two hardcover books so throroughly marked with blue post-it notes they seemed feathered. Watching her pass, I finally figured out the discomfort I felt in Berkeley.

If you live in San Francisco, you deal with a lot of people who went to U.C. Berkeley. Frequently, they are people who seem to command a certain amount of money and prestige and seem entirely comfortable with it. And even if they don't take that path, they have both a knowledge and a network--whether they want it or not--that seems to keep them from, say, attending a political fundraiser without bumping into someone with whom they went to school.

But Berkeley is like a low-grade singularity--objects of sufficient speed can hurtle right by with only the most minor change in trajectory, but some objects get caught and swept in, and the last you see of them is right at the point of an event horizon from which they'll never return. These are the people who stick in your mind when you go to Berkeley, people who went there and never escaped, who found some passion that overwhelmed them, outweighed their trajectory. You see them dressed in second-hand clothes, clutching a rare edition of Goethe's letters in which they've made notes in three languages. You spot them sitting at cafes, one leg jiggling like a telegram key while they pick out their change with unwashed hands, calculating the cost of a refill. Their teeth are a mess. They have an impressively substantial mole or perhaps a single long white hair that juts from their eyebrows and sways in the corner of their vision.

I have no reason to fear these people. I don't even have any reason to pity them--who am I to say that their life, empty but for a dizzily powerful passion, is worse than mine? Isn't it just as likely that whatever wild passions and commitments they carry make their lives better, richer? But, with a childish superstition, I fear staying too long in Berkeley because there's not nearly enough distance between myself and those men and women, their tiny apartments stacked with sour-smelling books, as I would like. I fear staying in Berkeley because of the fear that I am them already, and just haven't realized it yet.

And so it is for me with Rory Root, a man I could not have loved so much if I did not in some way fear, a man who I could not have respected so much if at some level he did not make me ashamed. Because Rory was in such poor health the entire time I knew him it never failed to tap a tuning fork of dread in my heart. Rory was in such poor health that one of the things that shocked me about his passing was that I was shocked, and this I think is one of the real reasons why, unlike in so many other memorials and testimonies about the deceased, talking about all the many ways Rory loved and was loved by people is not only necessary but vital: Rory's love and knowledge and compassion and generosity transcended every way in which his poor health terrified me. To say talking with Rory moved me from fear to compassion is both cheesy and, fortunately, untrue: the generosity with which Rory spoke, and the gentle, cheerful knowingness with which Rory spoke, moved me from fear to something like religious awe. It can take the power of being born to them to make our love for our parents conquer the frustrations we might have with them in later life, or transcend the horror of the agony with which their old age might bring. For me, all it took with Rory was about ninety seconds of conversation. It is a tremendously old cliche (and annoyingly new-agey) but I can think of no other way to say it: Rory Root was a lifeforce, someone who conveyed to me so much of what it meant to be alive, almost entirely (but not entirely) for the better. My memories of him seem more vivid to me than they do of other people, as if they were shot with a larger lens on better film. And the love he brought to his life was so all-encompassing, I knew whether I stood outside the shop ignoring the testimonials, or pilfering a few too many oreo cookies for the ride home, or idly straightening the comics on the new comics rack--it was all too easy to imagine him encouraging me to do so.

It's funny. That night I asked Charles Brownstein if he had given a testimonial and he shook his head. "Let's face it, those things are almost always either therapy for the speaker or just self-aggrandizement," he said, to which I agreed emphatically and with relief. But having reread what I have written until now, I cannot say I've done any better and may have done far worse. And I'll be honest: I started with the idea of linking the singularity of Berkeley to the singularity which is the comic field, in the hopes of finding some clear link between Rory's loneliness and poor health and some facet of the comics field I figured I would nail down in the course of writing. (The hard-knock life of retailers who've been in the field since near the beginning, maybe.) But I've reached the end here, and not only do I still not know what it is, I doubt I could fairly make that conclusion. It is very easy and satisfying to take the single context in which one knows a person and suggest that context is the reason for everything about what they do and will do and have done. It is also, I suspect, usually wrong.

Robert Frost wrote a sonnet entitled "On A Bird Singing In Its Sleep," in which the poet meditates on a bird that sings in the night. One interpretation of the poem is that Frost at first draws a comparison between a bird and its song (and its seeming frailty) and human beings and the poetry we create (and our frailty), but by the end of the poem he rejects that comparison ("It could not have come down to us so far/ Through the interstices of things ajar/ On the long bead chain of repeated birth/ To be a bird while we are men on earth / If singing out sleep and dream that way/ Had made it much more easily a prey.")

And so I reject my initial half-hearted thesis, easy and satisfying though it might have been to make it. At one point during the night, Brian looked the length of Comic Relief to the far end where Todd Martinez, the store manager who Rory had made owner, rang up customers. And Brian said, "I really want to talk to Todd about his plans for running this place. I think the best way we can honor Rory is to make sure Comic Relief always stays open." Although he only said it around Charles Brownstein and myself, I have no doubt nearly every retailer who'd made an appearance that night, having traveled from many distant cities--Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Missoula, among others--would've agreed with him.

And in fact, right before I left at around eleven or so, I saw Hibbs talking to Todd in the back by the coolers, flanked by Charles Brownstein and Larry Marder. Todd sat, exhausted, while Brian knelt next to him, and Charles and Larry flanked Todd's opposite side, their heads bowed. I wasn't fooled by the coolers, the sweat stains, the crenulated pans of aluminum and their cooling tides of barbecued beef: the positioning of the people was precisely that of a classical painting where the elders of a court advise a boyish new king on the kingdom he must run. The old king had passed, and now the new king held sway. And I saw in the postures of these men an imperative, a tradition, in which one can (I hope) find a solace that no bird singing in the night could ever begin to understand. Perhaps these traditions--these communities--can help all of us, by means large and small, as we make our way toward the dark destinations our hearts hold forth as inevitable.

Rory Root's Memorial

I haven't seen anyone else write about it (or, at least Tom 'n' Ace 'n' Dirk ain't linked to anything yet), so let me take a stab at saying something about the memorial for Rory Root at Comic Relief this past Saturday night.

I traveled to the Memorial with Jeff and Graeme, as well as Anina Bennett and Paul Guinan. We arrived right around 7 PM, while the event itself was scheduled to start at 5. I was told that the actual Stand-Up-And-Say-Something portion of it started about 6 (and it lasted until 10:30 or 11 or so, wow!)

When we showed up, the street in front of CR was packed, with probably 40-50 people milling about talking, reminiscing on the sidewalk. Immediately I recognized tons of people who came in from out of town -- oh, there's Diana Schutz, there's Larry Marder, there's Bob Wayne, it went on like that pretty much all night, every time I turned I saw someone in comics who'd flown in from out of town for this. To a certain extent, it might have been almost good that it happened the same weekend as Heroes Con, because otherwise maybe it would have shut down traffic, y'know?

Then there were all of the retailers. Wow, there were a lot of folks flying out-of-state for this -- Jim Hanley and Steve Gursky, Matt Lehman, Brad Bankston, Mike Malve, Hell Kelly Down came down all the way from Alberta - and I'm missing a couple of people there. Then there were at least 25, maybe 30 retailers from inside California. Honestly if you wanted to pull a string of comic book store heists up and down the left coast, last Saturday would have been the day to do it -- all of the owners were out of town!

I'm awful at eyeballing numbers in a crowd, and it's even harder in CR because the store is so ginormous it throws off my sense of scale, but I'm guessing that at certain points there were likely upwards of 125 people inside the store at one time. It was packed.

It was also kind of like walking into an oven. Thursday and Friday had been EVIL hot days in the Bay Area (at least by Bay Area standards), but Saturday had started to cool off. So, OUTside the store it was a wonderfully pleasant summer evening, with a nice breeze and all, but, wham 20 degrees hotter once you get two steps in, from the heat of the crowd, and lack of any real ventilation.

I heard a lot of great Rory stories, both delivered to the crowd, as well as shared in small groups, and we talked a lot about comics more generally, and saw people we might not have seen in a long time, and had lots of food and beer and just generally a good ass time. Which is pretty much what Rory would have loved.

I'm young enough that this kind of thing is really rare for me (and thank god for that), and I never really know what the etiquette of things should be. Everyone asks "how are you doing?" and I am sorta not sure if that's in the "What's up?" sense or the "How hard is the loss hitting you?" It is maybe even weirder now, because "enough" time has passed that most of his friends are just now starting to "get over it". I open with "my condolences" to a handful of people -- Rory's family, Todd, ex-Partner Mike, because I feel like they really deserve more than the "how are you doing?" but I still feel kind of awkward and strange with what to say and how to say it. Or how to respond, sometimes. Death is weird.

Heh, so I'm standing outside (AND NOT SMOKING A CIGARETTE, mind, so that's good)(though I got offered many from people who know me as a smoker, which is also nice, if no longer practical), and some girl walks by and asks "Wow, what's going on here?" and I tell her that it's a memorial for the owner of the store, and that he was a great man, and that there are people from all over the country here to pay their respects, and she smiles, and says quite innocently, "Wow! Sounds cool!" She didn't MEAN any harm, nor did I take any, but isn't that like exactly the wrong thing to say?

Berkeley, y'know?

I ended up leaving just before midnight (If I don't get on BART by then, I turn into a pumpkin... though I really timed my train right, I waited for less than 5 minutes, so was back in The City waiting for my Muni bus in under a half-hour... and that's WITH the transfer at McArthur), and I think I was among the last people who wasn't a CR employee, or past CR employee.

I left it to them, as it should be. (though I sorta pity whoever opened Sunday, heh)

I'll miss the big guy, and I didn't want to say goodbye, but this was an alright way to do so, if we have to.

Rory would have adored the party and all of the people and that they were all happy; but he would have been embarrassed as heck that they were actually SAYING all of the wonderful things they did.


A Titan Passes: RIP Rory Root

I feel like I've just been punched in the chest.

Rory Root, owner of Comic Relief in Berkeley, and a tremendously great friend of mine, just passed away following a brief coma after surgery for a ruptured hernia this weekend.

Rory and I had a lot of shared paths in comics retailing -- we both worked at the Best of Two Worlds chain in the Bay Area. He managed the Berkeley store, and I managed the SF one, before we each opened our own stores, he two years ahead of my own.

Rory was a confidant, a friend, a mentor, and always always ALWAYS, whether I wanted it or not, a sounding board.

There's many a time when the phone would ring after midnight. Nope, not an emergency or anything, just Rory wanting to gab about something relating to comics or retailing. He'd call so often and so late at times that Tzipora half-suspected I was having an affair. "Nope, just Rory calling," I say, and she'd roll over to sleep contented at that.

If Rory had a fault, it was that he was a talkaholic. Man, could the man talk! This is coming from, you understand, a veteran talker myself -- but Rory had me beat six ways to Sunday. The man never met a tangent he didn't like, never had a topic he couldn't opine upon. But it was all good -- because his gabbiness was tempered by wisdom and knowledge. The man (usually!) knew exactly wherefore he was speaking of, and on the few occasions he didn't, he was possessed of enough awareness to ask the questions that would make him MORE knowledgeable.

Comic Relief, once upon a time, had a second store in San Francisco, about eight blocks away from mine. He hadn't opened it on purpose, in fact, he was there to help out a friend who had gotten locked into a bad lease due to the actions of another. At no point we were enemies, however -- he used to call me "Mr. Macy", and I'd call him "Mr. Gimble" like we were out of A MIRACLE ON THIRTY-FOURTH ST., sending customers freely back and forth between the stores, knowing that making sure people got the book they want was infinitely more important than any kind of rivalry. When CR went in, sales actually INCREASED because there were now two excellent comics shops within walking distance of one another.

There are other retailers in my City who could have learned the lessons of camaraderie that Rory and I taught each other over those two or so years. I know Rory thought so too -- he told me so many times.

Rory was a generous man -- generous with his time and his attention, perhaps maybe generous to a fault because I can think of many people over the decades who took advantage of his trust and generosity, but it never made him bitter.

But there are few retailers, publishers or creators who spent any amount of time with the man and didn't walk away learning a dozen things about how comics work the way they do, and what things that could be done to make things better. It is the loss of that generosity of his knowledge (and it was truly encyclopedic and broad) that is going to be the loss that the comics industry is going to face over the next years. If only we had a few dozen Rory Roots, we could have utterly transformed the entire industry.

I've said more than a few times that Comic Relief was the best comic book store that I've ever been in in my life, and through his many illnesses over the last few years, he thought long and hard about making sure the store will outlast him. He told me on many different occasions that the store will fall to long-time manager Todd Martinez, and I really think it could not be in better hands. Todd's a very good guy, and I'm sure that the store will continue to thrive under his hands.

I owe Rory a lot, personally, professionally. He was always there for me with encouraging words, solid advice, and a wicked bad case of loving puns; I hope I was even half the friend to him that he was to me.

People used to mistake us for each other all of the time. I mean, not really, but in the sense that "they're two overweight bearded long-hair retailers from the Bay Area, who are deeply passionate about comics; so I've got a 50/50 chance of guessing right since I can't see his nametag clearly"

Here's how I most know I'm going to miss the big guy: if it was anyone else I was writing this for, I'd be calling Rory right now and reading it to him over the phone, and asking "what am I leaving out?" and he'd give me six great ideas of things that I really should have said.

Well, I don't have him now, and I'm sure I'm leaving out six things I really should have said, but I know this much: I'm going to really really miss my friend Rory Root.

May he rest in peace.