Shiva for Bob

I am not sure how to add it all up, the slow turbulence that has followed the death of my cousin Bob. But whatever can be said, I have uncharacteristically grown to accept my moods. And even learned a thing or two.

When I met him, I was 22 years old and only six months out of protracted hospitalization. It was summer, my stamina still low, and I was shellshocked and implausibly visiting Britain for a few months. I vaguely knew of these London relatives. I had the phone number of one of them, Lotte Bendix, and phoned her from a red coin box. Two large English pennies went in slot #1, the call connected, and a protruding metal button got pushed. The coins dropped, the conversation began, and after an unsuitable interval, insistent beeps signaled the need for new coins. I’m not sure I had ever made one of these calls before. But there I was hearing Lotte’s German Jewish voice from the Essex suburbs. She may even have explained to me what to do when the phone started beeping. It was an awkward conversation. And it was almost over when she threw me a curve. Would I like to visit her? I hadn’t reckoned on this. How? Why not?

I spent several days in the company of an old woman, slightly going crazy, until Sunday afternoon’s high tea brought in hordes of extended family. I didn’t know who these people were. I didn’t even know they existed. Certainly not in such numbers. One of them was Bob. He and his twin sister Caroline were exactly my age, and if we shared anything, it was a certain sense of humor. In retrospect this seems odd. Their lives had been so different, and humor arises from shared attitudes and experience. Whatever the source, there we were, laughing at things around us, principally the older generation. Soon I was staying with their parents. Then I was renting a room in their Holland Park neighborhood. Then I was there for years.

I saw Bob frequently. He had begun a corporate job and already didn’t like it. He was wrestling with what to do. And so was I, though on a much more basic level. We saw films together. We ate curries. We had tea. We laughed. And I had a friend. My arrival in London barely preceded that of Monty Python, a modest oddity of a show on BBC 1 that aired at 10:40 PM, Sunday nights. Bob watched it with religious devotion. Initially, I found much of it culturally incomprehensible. But not for long. The show’s humor, its irony and critique of class and erudition, seemed to strike similar notes in each of us. It popped up through coded references in conversation constantly. This month, while Bob lay dying near his Paris home, he asked his son Jesse to show him part of “Life of Brian,” the famous Python movie.

Slightly later in San Francisco, the fog parted just long enough for some neighbors from Sha’ar Zahav to wander by for a shiva, the customary Jewish death observance. Never having been observant myself, the whole event seemed somewhat foreign, but mostly welcome. We don’t have enough ritual in our lives, I say. There’s something about formal observance, even this very reform and makeshift version, that reminds us of our shared human experience, honors life and its events, puts a sort of frame around moments. In the Bay Area, Jews often refer to Sha’ar Zahav as the “gay synagogue,” which is certainly true of its roots. But everything is moving on, and the days when gays weren’t really welcome in local shuls, yes, even in this liberal city…well, that seems to have passed. Meanwhile, I like the people there, and being of the quadriplegic persuasion, I belong to my own minority.

And just days after Bob’s shiva, Jane and I were in Berkeley seeing this summer’s revival of “Angels in America.” Kushner’s play seems remarkable as ever. Not that I had ever seen the first half of the unabridged six-hour epic. But little of it seems dated. And the trenchant dialogue, the wildly imaginative piling up of philosophy, fantasy and almost documentary elements, adds up to remarkable theater. And only in retrospect do I put all this together, the fact that our national psychology is so naturally ahistorical, so focused on the now that a shortsighted view of everything naturally prevails. And yet people all around me in San Francisco know much about loss and death and the strange life of the survivor. There are local reminders, shrines and tributes, and I’m more aware of them these days.

And speaking of loss…. The Trump administration has installed a new head at Amtrak. Unfortunately, this means exactly what one would expect. An ex-airline exec, the guy has gone about the business of cutting and slashing with virtually no awareness of his job. Amtrak’s 1971 mandate was, and is, to improve passenger rail service for all Americans. I am barely paraphrasing here. Anderson, to speak his name, is trying to shut down the 15 long-distance trains Amtrak still operates. He wants to focus on the Boston-New York-Washington line exclusively. It’s too silly for words, and too infuriating to believe. But lots of people, me included, are at the barricades over this one. Already, Amtrak has announced plans to make passengers on its Southwest Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles get off the train in Kansas and ride buses to New Mexico. Anderson claims the line needs safety improvements, and the Federal Railroad Administration has assured him that these can wait, that once-a-day passenger trains on remote freight tracks are not its top priority. It’s a phony issue. But not a phony move. Stay tuned.

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