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black book

Dia de los Muertos 2012

Bill Brent's Memorial, Dia de los Muertos 2012

I arrived at Garfield Park at noon to check in and claim a space for my altar for Bill Brent, my former boss and friend who died in August and that you're probably all sick of hearing about by now.

There was a lot of disorganization initially -- I had to move my altar twice, and that was *after* asking volunteers in charge where I should set up. Three different volunteers told me different things at different times. I got a little testy. Apparently I should have gotten a reserved space earlier in October, only the Web site wasn't very clear about the process for that and I met several other people who were also confused. But after firmly stating I would not be moved a third time, a volunteer set me up right next to her, against a tree on the west side of the park building. I should also note that both times I had help moving my stuff, which was nice.

My altar consisted of a black tablecloth (couldn't find flannel in time, Bill, sorry) draped over several shoe boxes of various sizes to provide some flat space to set things on. On these I placed three large pictures of Bill, two haikus from his blog, a small picture of his cat Judy (also deceased) and an even smaller postcard photo of the Golden Gate Bridge. I scattered marigold petals and M&Ms all over the tablecloth and placed a small bowl of candy and another small bowl of mixed nuts. The nuts and M&Ms were both inspired by certain ubiquitous sex party catering supplies. After dark I also scattered condoms on the altar. Finally I put down candles to light up the pictures. All very simple, really.

I chose not to put any explanatory text about who Bill was -- or even his name, really. It made it feel a little art-gallery-ish to me and I wanted to keep a sense of this altar as less of an installation and more of a personal altar. Of course, this was challenging given my next-door neighbors and their giant blue kiddie pools, symbolizing endangered waterways of San Francisco if I got my story straight. But that's OK.

The most common question I got that night was "why did you put M&Ms everywhere?" Most of these questions came from kids. Also frequent: comments that my altar was "fun." I guess that would be the M&Ms and condoms and pic of Bill biting a latex glove speaking.

I got less questions after dark, and more chances to overhear odd comments like "I wonder what this guy's story is" (you could ask!) or "maybe it's for that man and his partner" (um, what?).

I had a lot of time to think about why I felt compelled to do this and why I did it the way I did. It was important to me to make a public altar and a personal statement of my grief. An altar in my study, say, would not have sufficed. But I guess the portion of the day that involved building the altar turned out to be the most meaningful. When it was just altar-builders and volunteers in the park, give or take a couple of school groups being encouraged by their teachers to help out, it felt good. It felt like a community. We were admiring and supporting each other. I lent my extra marigolds to the anti-circumcision people; the kiddie pool folks checked in with me a couple times. We walked around and watched each other's progress. We told each other our stories and our inspirations. Even early in the evening, the visitors would stop and talk for a while and really try to take things in and that felt fine.

I felt weird about the photographs, though. I can't put my finger on why except to say that all these people didn't know Bill, my altar wasn't arty or conceptual (on purpose), so...why? It was just a little niggle, but a little niggle that hit over and over.

After the procession came into the park the tenor shifted noticeably and I started getting grumpy with party people in skull makeup stumbling through the park. One very drunk and high young woman plopped herself dangerously close to two of my candles, smoked a clove and dropped the butt on my tablecloth, then took out a pipe and put it on the altar. Then she took it away again. Then she put it back, and at that point I stepped in and said, "take it back. Leave my altar alone. Be a good neighbor." She wandered off shortly after that, no surprise -- as soon as she could stand up again, I suspect. So if you see someone with pink hair bitching about how meeeeaaan people in the park were, that would be me.

The family came and joined me around 6 o'clock and stayed until 8:30. The kids had a great time playing on the playground in the dark. April also walked around and looked at some of the altars with me. I stayed until the SFPD came and told us to clear out shortly after 11.

I was surprised, I admit, that I didn't run into more people who had been to Black Sheets. I did see ginoushka and Liz Highleyman and postmaudlin as well as other folks from my life. Liz thanked me for my efforts, which was nice to hear.

Favorite altar made by someone else: the Ronnie James Dio altar on the same side of the park as I was. (Runner-up: the Neal Armstrong moon lander. Most striking: those kiddie pools.) This year the smaller personal altars were the one that moved me most, however. Unsurprising, really.

Anything else I can say here will sound both hokey and inadequate. But yes, the process helped settle some things inside my hed and my heart, and I'm glad I did it. It was also a very strong lesson in the process versus the result.


I'm not at all sick of hearing about Bill.
Thanks for telling us about it. It sounds like a powerful experience.