October is here, when thoughts of ghosts and the afterlife are among the pillars of a very popular and fun-filled celebration that’s especially omnipresent in San Francisco. But it ain’t so jocular when you have to deal with people you actually know dying.
Death is so final (at least on this plane of being) — except for those left behind. Then, it has a way of lingering. Friends and admirers of the departed are living with the loss, and have to buck up in any way they can. You can find succor writing obituaries or participating in memorial services and celebrations. When you can’t do one, you can sometimes do another — whatever you can do to get through the grief. And even if you can’t get to a funeral and deliver a eulogy, you can certainly mourn in your own way, wherever you might be.
The longer you hang around on the planet, the more you see and learn and embrace. At least that’s what we hope. But the more longevity you display, the more people you can lose in your circle. Owing to my vocation, I have had the questionable benefit of meeting and getting to know a number of celebrities — some talented, some not so much. But famous or not, we all must go. I was particularly stung by comedian-actor Robin Williams’s death, having been personally acquainted with the man over the course of his years as a San Francisco resident. Even though we were not particularly close, I may have taken his passing a little harder than the average Joe, due to that personal connection.
Being at work in Los Angeles when Williams went off into the ether, I had no way to toast and remember him alongside some of his San Francisco colleagues.
I did have a chance to co-produce and participate in an on-air tribute to him over a Bay Area radio station the day after he died — although I was broadcasting from a studio in Los Angeles. And I wrote an appreciation of Williams in last month’s Marina Times, which also helped me process the idea of such a dynamo being switched off forever.
It hadn’t been more than a handful of days later when the death of another talented San Francisco luminary knocked me for a loop. I got word of the tragic demise of the endlessly clever, multi-talented actor, singer and variety artist Arturo Galster. The information reached me via Facebook, as I scrolled through my news feed in the air-conditioned comfort of a favorite Los Angeles cafe. A different sort of chill immediately overwhelmed me.
A genuine friend of mine, Arturo first made a public splash as a performer at the old 181 Club in the Tenderloin with his loving and hilarious impression of classic country and western songstress Patsy Cline. His dryly witty, sweetly musical show (done with the support of his back-up band the Memphis G-Spots) gave Cline’s life and repertoire a lot of hip cachet in San Francisco underground circles from the 1980s forward — not to mention giving Arturo an ideal showcase that delighted audiences wherever he and his band played Cline’s songs.
His stage work in and out of drag brought sass, snark and charm to every legit or experimental project lucky enough to have him on board. And his life force was fierce and powerful, making his death all the more unbelievable and intolerable.
As I stood in the crowd at the DNA last month and watched a slice of earnestly provocative performance art play out, I was suddenly shocked and a little pissed by someone in the crowd goosing me. I turned to see Arturo, buff and grinning. After my now-mock outrage subsided, we hugged and caught up on one another’s lives for a few minutes until our respective agendas and the tides of people in the club separated us.
That was the first time I’d seen him in about a year, and, it turns out, the last while he was with us. Due to various logistical circumstances, I was unable to break away and come north for the extravaganza to celebrate Arturo that recently went down at the Castro. But I will always be able to conjure his visage, unadorned and in a cavalcade of guises, and be grateful for his boisterous and engaging personality, his endless capacity to entertain, and especially, his friendship. Somewhere on the astral plane, I expect that he’s laughing, even as I try to cope with his death by writing this.
The bottom line: It comes for all of us, and we the living must plow on.