I was thinking of one of my last interactions with Duncan. Must have been the summer of 2009. This guy was working on a documentary about the Naked Guy and he had used a bunch of the photos Duncan and I had taken in 1993. So Duncan was screening a rough edit upstairs at Christeen’s apartment. Duncan was in terrible health by this point. It was agonizing watching him creaking up and down Telegraph. His body had betrayed him. He was locked into that descending spiral that I had seen some of my other elderly friends get locked into: his stays at the hospital kept getting longer, and his stays out of the hospital kept getting shorter.
Anyways, it was night time. I was across the street working my vending table on Haste and Telegraph. The spot of so many past triumphs for Duncan and me over the years. Could it have really been 30 years? Remembering when Duncan had lived across the street at the Berkeley Inn. Before it burned to the ground in an arson fire in 1986. The barren, vacant lot being sort of a sad symbol of what had once been, and what our lives were becoming.
Duncan came out of Christeen’s apartment building and waited for a cab. He had been living in a motel for the last week. Some welfare agency had set him up with an apartment in downtown Oakland, but it was on the second floor and his legs were so bad he could no longer climb the stairs. So they had temporarily set him up in a Berkeley motel. And his life was like that now. Like a relentless regression. His situation getting narrower and narrower.
I could tell he was in bad shape, so I went across the street to see if there’s anything I could do. Duncan had his back to the apartment building as he waited for the taxi, leaning against the wall for support. The dark shadows and shifting street lights played across his face adding an eerie and urgent intensity to his facial expression. As Duncan broke down for one of the few times that I knew him, broke through his usual stoney reserve and English stoicism. “I’m scared!” he blurted out in a jumble of words Almost on the verge of panic. “I’m really scared that I’m not going to be able to make it!” He seemed almost hysterical. Like he was being driven to madness by his suffering. And I could tell it wasn’t just the fear of death (which is heavy enough) that really scared him. But the fear of dying. The fear of losing control of his life, and all the terrifying uncertainty that went with that.
I ran across the street and fetched an extra folding chair for Duncan to sit on while he waited. The taxi drove by and I ran out into the street to flag it down. As Duncan was staggering into the backseat of the cab I slipped him a $20 in case he needed anything. My attempts at “help” seemed so futile in the face of the hopelessness of Duncan’s situation.
It’s weird how my memory works when I think back on it now. I remember things like a vivid snapshot in my mind. Duncan leaning against the wall of that apartment building. The look on his face. I can still see it clearly in my mind.
But there was an amusing epilogue to the story. The next morning I was still worrying like crazy about Duncan. Had he made it to his motel room in one piece? Was he dead or alive? What new and terrible crisis was he in the midst of? So I popped my head into the Café Med to see if he was around. And there he was, sitting at a table with his friend Richard, heartily eating away at this huge breakfast. A typical Duncan breakfast. Ten sausages, four eggs, toast, orange juice, plenty of coffee. Not a care in the world. Or at least temporarily oblivious. As if the whole scene last night had just been a bad dream. It was so Duncan. That was one of the last times I saw him on Telegraph. And that’s how I like to remember him.