I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of death. Maybe because by the time I was 20 I had already had loaded guns put up to my head, and knives up to my throat, and had come within a flick of the wrist of dying. So death was like a daily companion to me. It wasn’t just an intellectual concept I played around with. I don’t know if it gave me a certain gravitas. But it made me aware at a young age that death could come at any moment, in a blink of an eye. So you might as well start preparing for it. I think a lot of people, they kind of block out and repress the subject of death. Then, when they’re old and on their death bed, it suddenly hits them all at once.
I remember the first time I really experienced death. The first time you experience death, it’s kind of like losing your virginity. Popping your death cherry. Going through all that for the first (but by no means the last) time. My friend David McCord committed suicide right before Christmas of 1994. 29 years old, he jumped in front of a train. David was one of those guys who was born depressed, seemingly. He lived in a constant state of depression. When I first met him in 1982 he was this baby-faced high school punker with a mohawk. 12 short years later he was dead. When we got the word of David’s suicide we were all stunned. “Shocked but not surprised,” is how one friend put it. In retrospect it seemed almost inevitable.
Anyways, a couple of weeks after David’s death I was going through a big pile of mail. I used to get 200 letters a month back then, so it would often pile up for a month before I got around to opening it. So I was stunned when I came across a letter from David in the pile. I opened it up with trepidation. He had mailed the letter a couple weeks before he died. It was a fairly mundane letter. “How you doing? Send me a copy of your latest newsletter when you get a chance. Nothing much happening here in Chico, etc. . . ” He had even enclosed an SASE so I could easily write him back. But I sure couldn’t write him back now. I stared at that letter for a long time. It was eerie. Like getting a communique from the Other Side. Like David was calling out to me from some twilight zone where departed souls passed through.
I wouldn’t say I’m superstitious. But I believe all that stuff about the After Life, and ghosts, and spirits, and haunted houses, and sacred spots, and netherworlds.
Shortly after David’s death, Mary and I decided to go out and get drunk and have our own private eulogy for our departed friend David. Sort of an Irish wake (David was half-Irish, half-Jewish). The weather that night was gray and drizzly and foggy. Like the setting for a cheesy horror movie or something. You half expected Jack the Ripper to jump out of an alley-way at any moment. We decided to go to the Bison Brewery, this legendary pub on Telegraph Avenue, to pound a few. As we walked down the Ave we passed this grizzled-looking street person in a ratty trenchcoat who was panhandling in the drizzle.
“Spare any leftovers?” he said as we passed.
“Sure,” I said. I handed him the leftover to-go Chinese food I was carrying.
“Thanks,” he said. “I just got into town. I just got off a train.”
Mary and I continued walking towards the Bison Brewery. But after about a half a block, I stopped and looked at Mary and said: “That’s weird. Did you hear what that guy said? ‘I just got off a train.'”
“Yeah, that’s a weird coincidence,” said Mary, “considering David just got killed by a train.”
“You don’t suppose . . . ” I said.
We both turned and looked back towards the street person. But he had disappeared. He had seemingly disappeared into the mist. Or maybe he had went off to eat his Chinese food. But it was eerie. Like we had just seen a ghost. Like the spirit of David had come back to earth to say good-bye to us one last time before his soul went off to wherever souls go off to after they die. And a shiver went up both of our spines.
And throughout the evening, as we drank and talked about David, we’d periodically think back to that street person in the trenchcoat who had just got off a train. And that shiver would go up our spines again.