In the late 1990’s, I and my friends Mathieu and Randy befriended an elderly gentleman named Richard Gale Kelley, also known as Irish Rich, Wild Red Kelley, or more simply, Old Richard. Mathieu, Randy and I all worked in downtown Sacramento, where there was a kind of run-down coffee house called Espresso Metro on the corner of 11th and K Streets. The cafe was staffed with great people and it had good service, but they didn’t have the heart to kick out winos, they let people smoke cigarettes on the patio, and they didn’t care if cheap-ass state workers like us brought sack lunches from home to eat at their outdoor tables. We ate, smoked cigarettes, soaked up Northern California’s amazing weather, and watched people go by for an hour a day. Eventually we became acquainted with an elderly patron of the coffee house who also came each day to have a cup, smoke a pipe, and watch the world go by.
Rich was about five foot six or seven and had a very decent head of hair for a seventy-something-year-old. It must have been red at some point, but now it was a kind of bronzed silver, combed back sharply with Brylcream. He wore Dickies pants and tucked, short-sleeved, button-up shirts of solid colors. His clothes were none too clean, but they didn’t smell, and neither were they tattered like a homeless person’s. He seemed to be rather barrel-chested, but we found out later he wore a kind of old man girdle: a soft back brace that had the effect of sucking in one’s gut. He looked like a short, retired wrestler, and that was not far from the truth.
We first noticed Rich passing time at the coffee house with some punk rock guys. He would sit there quietly while the punk rock guys would smoke cigarettes and have their own conversations. Eventually the punk rock guys stopped coming around so much, but Rich Kelley remained, sitting at the same table, drinking his coffee, smoking his pipe and watching the seasons change. I don’t remember how we first started talking to him. Maybe someone needed a light, maybe something in the always-interesting Cathedral Plaza required comment, such as Happy the Child Molester wandering by to grin at us, or crazy Orlando with his crown of laurels and toga shouting to the heavens with his Pep Boys calendar, or Buff Betty strutting by, or the Raining Men.
Or maybe we, or he, were just being friendly. Our light conversation with Rich became a ritual. One day one of us was bold enough to ask Rich if he would like to join us at our table, since we ended up shouting across the cafe patio at one another anyway. Rich said “Sure,” and after that we had a daily lunch date with “Wild Red” Kelley: a moniker, he informed us, that came from his showmanship wrestling days. He had the cauliflower ears to prove it.
We asked him once where the punk rock guys went off to, and he said “Who?” The guys with the funny hair and the leather jackets with the little silver spikes on them, we reminded him. “Oh, those guys. I have no idea, I never knew their names,” he replied dismissively. What do you mean you didn’t know their names? You used to hang out with them every single day. “Well, I don’t know, fellas, they just started sitting with me. It’s not like we were friends or anything.” Oh, well, do you know our names? Do we meet your high-falutin’ friendship criteria, or do you want us to go back our own table? We don’t want to impose on your highness like those commoners did. “Oh, fellas, you’re funnin’ with me. That’s what I love about you guys,” as he rattled off our names, proving he knew them. Rich was really fun to fuck with, because we always did it very gently and he got a big kick out of it.
(Although once, years later, I was teasing Rich about the state of his underpants, having just done a couple loads of his laundry when he was unwell. Rich was outraged that I’d disparage his smallclothes, and began to disrobe right there at Espresso Metro to prove that his nether garments were in good repair. Rich! Rich! we screamed, knock it off! Buckle your belt and keep your pants on…literally! It was the only time I saw him truly angry, and I was quite ashamed of myself. He was offended. It wasn’t the first or last time I took a joke too far, but it was the last time I did with Rich.)
He didn’t dominate conversations, but he wasn’t shy about putting his two cents in. When we talked about the Sacramento Kings, Rich would chime in with one of the few things he knew about basketball. “The thing about Michael Jordan is he makes it look so easy!” Yes, Rich, yes he does. Anyway, any thoughts on who the Kings should draft? “What’s that?” You know, where they try to pick the best player coming out of college or high school? “Aw, fellas, I don’t know about any of that. I’ll tell you though, that Michael Jordan, my goodness, what a talent. He makes it look so easy!”
If we discussed literature, Rich would never fail to contribute. “Fellas, you know what book I like? The Carpetbaggers, by Harold Robbins.” All I knew about Harold Robbins was that his books seemed to be beach reading, according to the song Pulling Mussels (From The Shell) by Squeeze. Likewise, Rich’s favorite film was Up The Creek, an 80’s comedy that looked truly horrible, but the title song was a minor hit by Cheap Trick, so it had that going for it. None of us had ever read Harold Robbins or seen Up The Creek, but that didn’t stop Rich from talking endlessly about them.
We had a friend at work named Alison, a mildly butch-looking lesbian, who stopped by to chat with the four of us at the cafe one day. After she left Rich said “What was his name again?” We said Alison. “Alan?” No, Al-i-son! “Alison…Alison…that’s a funny name for a man.” That’s not a man, we said, that was a woman. “What? You fellas are foolin’ me again. Seriously, what was his name?” Alison! That was a woman, Rich. Alison wasn’t even all that butch, she just had short spiky hair and didn’t wear dresses or makeup. Rich couldn’t get over it, and he never really believed we weren’t pulling his leg. “Alison,” he said, shaking his head. “Hummph!”
It got to where we started to worry about Rich if we skipped a couple of days at Espresso Metro, such as if we were on vacation or otherwise tied up. If we missed some time at the coffee house, I wanted him to know we were not abandoning him like the punk rock guys did. Irish Rich Kelley was not among the world’s great intellects. He did not have cultured tastes or nuanced views of complex issues. He had not lived a grand – or really even a good – life. But he showed us these things by example, sometimes his, sometimes ours: friendship, commitment, how to find a measure of happiness in this world despite circumstances where others might feel broken and alone. These are not minor lessons.
Capitol Park Cafe
You could set your watch by Rich’s schedule. If you asked him how he spent his days he’d say “Well, fellas, right about ten o’clock or so I walk down to La Bo* and get my morning coffee. After a while I head down to see Mindy to get my dinner.** After that I walk over here [to Espresso Metro] to have my afternoon coffee and smoke my pipe. Eventually I make my way back home to watch a little TV or a movie, or listen to some music, make some supper and go to bed.
* He pronounced La Bou “La Bo,” and to this day, I can’t but refer to the chain the same way.
So dinner meant lunch, and Mindy worked at the Capitol Park Cafe in downtown Sacramento. Rich talked about Mindy all the time, her comings and goings, how her daughter was doing, and what she’d been up to – which never seemed to be too much. You could tell he loved this waitress with all of his heart. One time we decided to join him for “dinner” at the cafe, so we could meet Mindy and see what all the fuss was about.
The cafe remains a bit of a Sacramento institution. If you look on Yelp you will see dozens of glowing reviews, which surprises me somewhat. To me, the Capitol Park Cafe epitomized a 60’s or 70’s diner, with none of the quirk and all of the mediocre food. When we walked in, a woman in her mid-forties with long dark hair just starting to give over to gray broke out in a huge smile and said “Well, Small Milky, you brought some friends today!” Mindy was an extremely kind, patient, competent waitress. She was pretty, though she seemed like she might have spent a few years on the back of a motorcycle. She wore blue jeans, an apron, a handful of tattoos, and seemed to approach each task with a “Let’s get this shit done” attitude. No one grows up dreaming of being a waitress at the Capitol Park Cafe, but I got the sense this was maybe the most secure Mindy’s life had ever been.
Small Milky? we replied. “Yeah, Milky,” Mindy said, “Why don’t you let your friends know why we call you that!” Rich stammered and claimed he had no idea, while Mindy gave him an accusing look, hands on her hips. Rich confessed, “Oh, well, fellas, I guess one time I ordered a small milk…” “He ALWAYS orders a small milk!” Mindy interrupted. “…And, well, she thought I said ‘milky‘ instead of milk.” Rich was flustered and embarrassed, while Mindy cracked up. “He did, he did! He ordered a ‘small milky,’ so that’s been his name ever since!” Rich wasn’t really upset. He loved Mindy, and didn’t mind a little fun getting poked as his expense.
The cafe adjoined a dive bar called Henry’s. Every downtown down-and-outer I’d ever seen was sitting in that bar drinking at eleven in the morning. As we sat down to a cheap and somewhat unmemorable meal at the cafe, Mindy leaned in and said “I’ve heard a lot about you guys,” which sidelined me for a minute. It was then, several months into our friendship with Rich, that I realized we were his entire world: Mindy and us.
And Jesse. There was another old timer we’d see around Espresso Metro and Capitol Park Cafe, not quite as old as Rich, and in better shape. Rich always called him Jesse or Jess, but the man introduced himself to us as James. Oh, is Jesse a nickname? we asked him. “No, I don’t know why Rich calls me that.” So we always addressed James as James, while Rich continued to refer to him as Jesse. Rich, why do you call him Jesse? He says his name is James. “No, it’s Jesse.” No, Rich, it’s James. “Wait, Jesse James, you say, like the outlaw?” Yeah, Rich, that’s what it is (sigh).
Rich had no family, no children, and no siblings. He had only been married once, well over a half century distant. “Fellas, she run off after six months, left me with a broken-down Plymouth and a case of the clap.” He had had no romance in his life for many years. “Now I don’t want to go into too much detail, but that business downstairs doesn’t really work anymore, if you know what I mean.” His mother had been killed in a car crash when he was a boy, and although his estranged father took him in briefly, soon afterwards his stepmother kicked him right back out. Rich never had much in the way of people. We had heard so much about Mindy, and when I learned how much she in turn had heard about us, it hit me that although we had wives, kids, in-laws, friends, and jobs, Rich had only us: Mathieu, Randy, me, and Mindy at the Capitol Park Cafe. Maybe a couple of baristas at Espresso Metro who would come and go, maybe Jesse James, sometimes our friends Joel and Angus would come around, but that was it. Now that I look over the list, it’s not a bad group, or even too small a number; one could do worse. Nevertheless, Richard had no family to speak of.
I had never been in an everyday relationship with an older person before. At one time I had grandparents who were fond of me, but the relationship was never very close, due to the geographies of space or time. It became clear we were important to Rich, though, and that was a pretty heavy responsibility. You couldn’t just drift away from a guy like Rich like you could people your own age if they started to wear on you. You couldn’t just bail out like the punk rockers did.
Fortunately, Rich was likable and easy to get along with. Mindy knew it, and we knew it, and before long we had a true, bosom friend. We also became regulars at the Capitol Park Cafe. Not every day, like Rich, but once every two or three weeks we’d stop in and surprise Small Milky and Mindy, take a long lunch break, and enjoy their company. Mindy had a teenage daughter she worried about. A few months later, the daughter also started waiting tables at the cafe, and a few months after that Mindy told us the girl was expecting. Unmarried, pregnant, and waiting tables in a diner. The circle continues.
Rich hailed from Denver, Colorado. He wore a Broncos Back-to-Back Super Bowl Champs cap in the summer to keep the sun out of his face. All we really knew about him was he had spent his life drifting around the western United States. Besides his supposed fame as the showmanship wrestler “Wild Red” Kelley, he also said he rode rails, worked dude ranches, and washed dishes. He was a drunk and a fighter, but by the time he turned sixty-five and made his way to Sacramento he became a reformed man. Did he find religion, or Alcoholics Anonymous? No, he simply started getting his minimal federal benefit payments, a meager few hundred dollars a month. But it was more, steadier, income than Rich had ever received in his life. It was like he had won the lottery. According to Rich he quit drinking the day he received his first check, determined not to guzzle his newfound fortune away. He never touched a drop afterward.
We knew Rich had cancer, but as far as we knew it was in check, and apparently not moving too quickly. Rich didn’t seem to be declining, but when you’re seventy-something with cancer, and a lifetime of hard living behind you, one knows one is not immortal. One day Rich told us “Fellas, I’ve been all over this land [not really] but one thing I wish I had seen was the ocean.” Really? we replied. You’ve never seen the ocean? “No sirs, not with my own two eyes. That must really be a sight.” Well, Rich, the ocean is about two hours from here. Why don’t we go take a look at it one of these weekends?
It was a big moment. It was the first time, after a couple years of hanging out, that we proposed seeing each other outside of our normal routine. Kind of like that work friend you think is really cool, and with whom you get along famously, but neither of you ever quite pulls the trigger on getting together after hours. But finally the shore was breached. We made a plan for Mathieu, Randy, and I – and another friend Angus, who sometimes joined us for lunch and knew Rich a bit – to drive down to Santa Cruz in my van and spend the day showing Irish Rich Kelley the ocean.
I told Rich to meet me in front of his apartment on 14th and E Streets at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday. From there we planned to pick up the others, then make our way down to Santa Cruz. When I pulled up in front of Rich’s apartment he was on his hands and knees on the sidewalk. I ran out of my car to see what was going on. “Oh, Chip, I’m so stupid. I was waiting here for you [I was on time] and I saw this fancy little black car, and I thought I’d go take a closer look at it, and durnit, I stumbled on the curb and fell down like an old fool. Oh boy, I sure feel like a dope.” He had a hole in his Dickies pants, a bloody knee, and raw, red scrapes and torn skin on his hands and forearms. I didn’t panic, but I also didn’t really know what the hell to do. Although I had young kids and have cleaned up plenty of scrapes, I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with the same scenario for an old man.
Um, do you have any, like, first aid stuff in your apartment? “Sure, I might.” Well, let’s go take a look. I admit I was freaked by Rich’s fall; you hear so many horror stories about elderly people breaking their hips and that being the beginning of the end. He seemed mostly OK, more embarrassed than anything, but I knew I at least had to clean him up.
His apartment was a sight. We would get to know it extremely well later on, but at first I didn’t know how to react to the sixth floor, one-bedroom flat with the million dollar view, through filthy windows, of the tree-lined Midtown streets and the Sierra Nevada mountains off to the east. The place was semi-tidy, but a thick layer of dust blanketed almost everything. There was the paint set and model train parts that hadn’t been used in years, neatly arrayed at one of the chairs around his small Formica kitchen table. He had given up the hobby years ago, but couldn’t seem to part with the paints or the models, so they gathered dust around a section of the table where literally no human being had sat in years. The chair and place where Rich ate breakfast lacked dust, but was none too clean. The apartment stank of must and old man and not enough fresh air. His toilet didn’t have anything nasty in it, but it had perhaps never been scrubbed. The second-hand plaid sofa was dusty and a bit greasy, like old furniture gets.
He had lived in this place for about fifteen years, and when something would break, like a TV, video cassette player, or a tape recorder on which he listened to music, he would buy a new one and stack it atop the old, then let the previous device gather dust. When we eventually cleaned out his apartment years later, we couldn’t count the number of TVs and VCRs left behind like artifacts from an ancient civilization. The tape recorder from the 80’s was stacked beneath the tape recorder from the 90’s, which was slightly less dusty, and was stacked beneath the working tape recorder from the 2000’s, on which he’d play his Marty Robbins or Patsy Cline cassettes. The windows had seemingly never been cleaned on the inside, and he kept the curtains shut most of the time. It was an incredible view for $187 a month in subsidized rent in the county apartment complex for the infirm, yet the place was dark as a tomb. If it were me I’d have those curtains removed altogether, but what did I know as a thirty year old?
Rich had some meager first aid supplies, so I cleaned him up from his fall the best I could, but he still looked like a crime victim. I finagled Rich into a seat belt – which was harder to accomplish than you’d think – and we picked up Mathieu and Angus, then Randy, and I explained to them the situation. I hadn’t actually attacked Rich Kelley; he’d done it to himself.
But I learned something valuable about Rich that morning, and it was a lesson we never stopped having to learn. Rich lived and died by his routine. He went to La Bo, Capitol Park Cafe, and Espresso Metro, then came back. That was it. That was all he did. He didn’t own a phone, he didn’t have any other friends, he didn’t socialize, he wasn’t invited places – especially to the ocean – he simply went to his three restaurants every day and was content with that. Truly content.
He confessed that he had been extremely worried about meeting me on the sidewalk that Saturday at 9:00 a.m. He was sure he would forget. His county-managed apartment complex was a secure facility; we had no way of contacting him to let him know we had arrived. He didn’t have a phone for the front gate buzzer to ring, so it was imperative that he meet me on the street. (We would become very familiar with the apartment’s security in the coming years, including how to slip in the front gate when someone else was coming or going, and how to charm your way past the guard, then up to the sixth floor where Rich’s apartment was.) Rich said he had hardly slept the night before our trip to Santa Cruz, and had set a special alarm clock that he knew would remind him he’d have to break his routine on that fateful Saturday. When he ended up standing on the sidewalk, rather than shuffling off to the west down E Street per his routine, he was compelled to simply stand around and wait for me (even though, I must repeat, I was dead-on time). During this standing around he didn’t know what to do. His routine was broken, so his attention was distracted by a fancy car, and in wandering over to look at it he tripped on the curb. I felt directly responsible. We later realized Rich would have suffered a thousand bumps, bruises, and indignities for our friendship. It was worth it for him, and although it was hard, it was worth it for us too.
We arrived in Santa Cruz, parked, and walked through the Boardwalk to the beach. If we expected a momentous, spiritual moment when the lifelong Westerner finally set his pale blue eyes on the magnificence of the Pacific Ocean, we were disappointed. He saw the ocean, turned around, and said “Well, it’s almost time for dinner, fellas.” We spent some time at the Boardwalk, then found a cheap Mexican lunch spot across the street, ordered a few burritos, and watched an NBA game while we ate. In all the times we lunched with Rich at the Capitol Park Cafe, and drank coffee with him at Espresso Metro, there was never an issue about who paid for what. At the cafe, Rich always had his own tab going, knowing exactly how much his supper and small milky cost, and coffee at Espresso Metro was order-on-your-own. But at that diner in Santa Cruz we all ordered together, for the first time ever. We told Rich: Hey, we got this. We bought his lunch, a six dollar burrito, and he was flabbergasted. “Well, fellas, that is very kind of you. I’ll tell you what, I’ll spring for supper tonight. In fact, let’s have a steak supper, my treat!” It wasn’t exactly a fair return on his end, but he seemed determined.
Later, long after the burritos, after we were finally beached out, we were getting hungry for supper. I suggested we head south four miles to Capitola Village, where my family vacationed frequently, and hit one of the fun restaurants on the Esplanade. Rich insisted again this would be his treat. Traffic was terrible getting down Highway 1 to Capitola, and even worse when we got off the highway and headed into the village. When we finally parked and made our way to Restaurant Row, it had been a good ninety minutes since we made the decision to leave Santa Cruz, only four miles behind us. We were pretty hungry, but the Esplanade was jam-packed on a summer Saturday night, and the only restaurant that would give us the time of day said it would be an hour and a half wait. Hell no, we were not down for that. Also, Rich said he wanted steak anyway, not Margaritaville. So I suggested, foolishly in retrospect, The Shadowbrook. After a half hour of searching for, finding, utilizing, then ultimately abandoning parking in Capitola Village, we left and headed up the hill.
The Shadowbrook is a very nice restaurant on Soquel Creek. The parking lot at that time was dirt, and on a slant, and Rich in his cowboy boots and old age was pretty shaky making his way with us across the street to the main entrance. To get to the restaurant proper you needed to walk down about three hundred stairs or take the funicular…yes, the restaurant’s funicular. But before we got that far we studied the posted menu. Although Rich had been talking for hours about how he was going to buy us dinner, when push came to shove, and the Shadowbrook’s menu revealed twenty to forty dollar entrees, Rich balked. “Oh, my goodness, fellas! That’s way too much to pay for a steak. Why, in Cheyenne you could get a steak at Sal’s for a dollar fifty!” OK, Rich, we understand, let’s get out of here. My stomach grumbled, but sometimes you need to suck it up.
We jumped on the freeway and kept our eyes peeled for somewhere else to eat, but after you’re done with Capitola and Santa Cruz, there’s not much until you hit San Jose. (This is pre-iPhone, remember. You couldn’t just Yelp “good, inexpensive restaurants near me.”) So that’s how we ended up at Coco’s in San Jose at 9:45 in the evening, so many hours past when I normally eat dinner I was about to go postal, regardless of who was paying for it. Coco’s is either a step up or a step down from Denny’s, depending on your perspective. Although we told Rich it was not necessary for him to pay the bill, he did anyway, and we thanked him. I got some kind of shitty, overdone hamburger, but it was fuel, and within an hour we were finished and heading back to Sacramento after a VERY long day, showing an old man the ocean for the first time, which, honestly, he hadn’t seemed to care too much about.
In the van on the way back, Randy, Mathieu and I got to singing (Angus, God bless him, did not fancy himself a singer): Tracy Chapman, The Smiths, The Cure, lots of great 80’s bands to choose from, being the era in which we youngsters came of age. Rich was incredibly impressed by our singing – too impressed. But we knew all the words to all the songs, and we were having a fine time. Rich piped up and said “You fellas should start a singing group. You’re really good, I tell ya, you’re really good! You could call yourselves the…the…the three…the three…” He racked his brain trying to think of what we all had in common. What brought us together. What made us tick. All he knew was that we met him because we worked nearby Espresso Metro, and he vaguely understood that we all had something to do with computers. “You could call yourselves…THE THREE COMPUTERS!”
I imagined Mathieu, Randy, and myself, circa 1962, gray suits, skinny ties, crew cuts, singing on American Bandstand as “The Three Computers.” If there was a lamer name for a singing group, I don’t know what it was. But it worked. Irish Rich Kelley and The Three Computers. That was us.
The only other out-of-town adventure we had with Wild Red Kelley was the time we took him camping. One day, sitting around Espresso Metro, smoking our cigarettes while Rich smoked his pipe, we asked him if he’d like to come camping with us some time. He said “Oh, sure, fellas. I’ve got a sleeping bag and all the camping gear. Why, I used to camp all over the west. One time I was in the Moab Desert sleeping out under the stars, and…” he went into a somewhat uninteresting tale – sleeping under the stars being the climax – but we loved his conversation anyway. We decided the camping trip was a go.
We planned to stay at Wench Creek, up Ice House Road in the Sierra Nevada range, and we figured it would be a hoot to bring Rich with us. Since he assured us he was an experienced outdoorsman with all the appropriate gear, we assumed he would be an easy and unobtrusive guest. Wrong!
Thankfully, when I went to pick Rich up the morning of the camping trip, I did not find him face down on the sidewalk. I somehow got through the front gate, past the security guard and up to his sixth floor apartment, knocked on his door, and found that he had absolutely zero in the way of camping gear. The sleeping bag he once had was in tatters, just a pile of Holofill fiber and shredded fabric, completely unusable. His tent was nowhere to be found, but he assured us he preferred sleeping under the stars anyway, as he had in the Moab Desert and other places in his murky past. I had planned somewhat for this, and told him he could borrow one of my sleeping bags, and that I had a tent for him as well. I didn’t let this little fantasy of his – the hallucination that he was fully equipped with operable camping gear – hold up our trip.
After we arrived at Wench Creek and set up camp we decided to go fishing. It was a bit of a hike to get down to the river, but Rich made it admirably. He set up his camp chair, his tackle box, and his two fishing poles as he cast a couple lines and settled in. Randy, Mathieu, Angus and I, and our children (My oldest, Vincent, at five, was the senior child of several little ones on the trip) brought our poles and started wandering down the river looking for good spots to cast. Eventually the kids started complaining about mosquito bites, and as the sun dropped I thought it best to get my little guy back to the campsite.
The sun was down, dusky light filled the campground, and Vincent and I were prepping dinner and getting into nighttime clothes when Randy, Mathieu, and their mosquito-devoured children, along with Angus, all wandered wearily back into camp. I looked around and said, Where’s Rich?
Time stopped. Everyone looked around, did a mental count of his own loved ones, and realized the seventy-something year old man was unaccounted for. Where’s Rich? I started yelling at these fuckers. Where’s Rich? WHERE’S RICH? I left an hour ago…who was looking after Rich?
Angus broke into a run, and covered several miles as dusk turned to twilight turned to night. Randy and Mathieu ran back down to the creek where we last saw Rich fishing with his two poles. I stayed at the campsite with all the kids, to hold down the fort and meet Rich if he found his way back to us. These words could possibly have been screamed: YOU go look for him! YOU left him down there as YOU moved farther and farther away from him down the creek in search of better fishing spots, while YOUR kids were getting eaten alive by mosquitos! I’m not going to say who screamed this, but it could have been me.
By now the sky had barely enough light to see by without a flashlight, and I was certain I’d be driving to the ranger station in about five minutes, to tell them we’d lost an elderly gentleman, and could they please send helicopters, and a search and rescue crew, and a SWAT team, and the National Guard to help us find Irish Rich Kelley. I was frantic. I was so angry at my friends I could hardly see straight. I was scared shitless. I had left an old man to wander, lose himself, and die in the woods, because my buddies and I were too self-absorbed to appoint someone, anyone, to stay with him and take care of him.
Randy came back. “Nothing, no sign.” Mathieu came back. “Nada.” Finally, in the pitch black, after an eternity, Angus (not one of the Three Computers, remember) marched back into the campsite with Wild Red Kelley hobbling behind him, wheezing and limping. “Oh, fellas, I’m about as dumb as a box of rocks. I was done fishing about sunset, and I could’ve sworn the campsite was just yonder through that grove of trees.” (It wasn’t, it was the exact opposite direction.) Angus, God bless him again, had found Rich. He was the only childless one of us. He ran top speed through hill and dale, covering miles of landscape in the surrounding foothills and mountains, shouting Rich’s name, until he found the old man, just as the last light of day winked out. Angus found Rich huffing and puffing, struggling with his camp chair, two fishing rods, and tackle box, staggering in the entirely wrong direction, a mile from our campsite.
Rich, thank God you’re OK! Come sit down, have some food, drink some water. He did, and although he wheezed and suffered for the next couple hours, he was safe, and whole, and found. I had never been, and have still never been, all these years later, so scared – so absolutely terrified. It was the stuff of nightmares, but this was real life, and thankfully the nightmare had a happy ending. Not everyone in this world is so lucky.
I had brought an extra tent, but Rich insisted on sleeping under the stars, as he had in the Moab Desert and other times during his life as a Westerner. In the morning when we asked how he had slept, Rich admitted “Well, I guess OK, but it was pretty durn cold, fellas.” No shit, Sherlock, you’re up in the mountains. This trip was seriously starting to feel like a bad idea. It’s hard enough to bring little kids camping, as I’d done since Vincent was a baby, but throw in a half-demented, crotchety old man who thinks he’s thirty again? The next night I set up my spare tent for him and he didn’t fight me on it. He admitted he was warmer and slept a little better. He was achy and slow-moving the entire weekend, but he never got lost again, and we made it home safely on Sunday. But never again, I said to myself, never again.
The Christmas Card
Slowly, sparingly, we began to bring Rich into our lives with our families, but it was always a little awkward. I thought Rich might like to come watch my oldest son’s baseball game. Vincent was eight years old by this time, and played in a picturesque ballpark in Sacramento called Ciavarella Field. It had green, shaded, wooden bleachers for spectators, a snack shack with snow cones and hot dogs, and cute little kids in white pants running around the diamond emulating Albert Pujols, Randy Johnson, and Derek Jeter. I asked Rich if he wanted to come to a game, he agreed, and I thought it would be a memorable day full of apple pie and Americana. But Rich looked bored, and he was uncomfortable on the bleachers. After fifteen minutes he asked if he could just wait in my car.
He went over to Mathieu’s house for a couple of Thanksgivings and Christmases. These were mostly uneventful events, Rich not having much in the way of commonality with other adults. He did get along swimmingly, however, with a woman with Down Syndrome cared for by Mathieu’s wife at the time. Rich and Sharon became fast friends, talking and laughing together all night, being maybe not too far apart in the intellectual ability department.
We gave Rich a birthday card once, an inappropriate card full of ribald comments. We were horrified to discover that he stuck it to his refrigerator with a magnet for all the world to see. But before long we realized, sadly, that no one else was ever going to see the inside of his apartment besides us. Not Mindy, not the baristas as Espresso Metro, not Jesse James, just us.
The jokes on our card stemmed from a “dream” Rich made the great mistake of telling us about. “Fellas, I probably shouldn’t mention it, but I had the strangest dream yesterday. Well, it wasn’t so much a dream, but did you ever drift off in the middle of the day, where you’re not really asleep, but you’re not really awake either?” Sure, Rich, like a daydream. “No, not a daydream! Oh shoot, I don’t know what you call it. Anyway, I dreamed that the three of you fellas were trying to, well, have your way with me, if you know what I mean. Everyone except Mathieu, that is.” Rich, what are you talking about? “Ol’ Mathieu here, well, he couldn’t get it up!” We laughed ourselves silly. We applauded him for coming out to us. “Oh, come on fellas, quit teasing me. I’m not one of those…” he made a fruity gesture with a limp wrist and his head thrown back. But Rich, why do you think we would do that to you? Do you feel like we’re trying to take advantage of you in real life? “No, of course not.” Well, then why are you fantasizing about us having sex with you? It’s OK to be gay, Rich. If you were half awake, that’s not a dream, that’s what they call a fantasy. “Oh, shucks, I knew I shouldn’t have told you about my dream.” We didn’t let Rich forget about that, and we reminded him when we got him that birthday card.
But on his refrigerator was another card, a Christmas card, and we also found the strange envelope it had arrived in. The envelope had been sent about five years previously, addressed to someone named Emile Loumibos in Sacramento, and the return address was Richard E. Kelley at his E Street apartment. So Rich had sent Ms. Loumibos a Christmas card, apparently. Very nice, but why would he be in possession of the envelope that he himself had mailed? Then we noticed that someone, presumably Ms. Loumibos, had crossed out her own address on the envelope and written Rich’s full name and address again in the to section. No new stamp, no return to sender note. But it got weirder. The card was a standard, cheapy, Rite-Aid card that must have been forty for a dollar. The inside of the card was printed, blandly, with “Sending you wishes for a wonderful Holiday Season & a very Happy New Year!” It was signed, simply, Richard. Lovely, you might say, and you might think Ms. Loumibos would say so too. But here’s what she did instead.
She wrote at the bottom of his card, the card he had sent to her: “I went to heaven. I had the last Rites on Thanksgiving Day at 10:20 A.M. I missed dinner. I died on that time. Hope I see you there.”
I missed dinner.
I MISSED DINNER!!!
This apparently is the chief concern of the afterlife. She kicked the bucket at 10:20 in the morning, too early to even have some deviled eggs and baby pickles, not to mention turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. She died before that and missed dinner. Oh the humanity!
This spirit then placed the card back in the same envelope, crossed out her own name and wrote Rich’s in, and used her powers from beyond to get the post office to send the card back to Rich at the E Street apartment without even a new stamp. And Rich dutifully hung it on his fridge without comment.
What the fuck?
Eventually Rich started telling us about his health troubles. He had prostate cancer at some point, but for now it was in check. He had come down with shingles recently, recovered, and over the years before and during the time we knew him, numerous other issues and maladies too. He didn’t complain, and he was never down, but we soon began to realize he needed to be taking better care of himself in terms of seeing the doctor and managing medication. We knew his diet and exercise habits weren’t going to change.
One concerning issue was our utter inability to contact him. It was always a challenge getting into his apartment. The high rise on E Street between 13th and 14th was nothing to look at architecturally, and most folks just walk on by, sensing maybe that hundreds of destitute souls lived inside the county-built and county-run complex, all with stories too sad to consider. (They performed a major remodel on the building a few years ago. It looks much better now.) You had to be elderly or disabled to live there, and the entire place just smelled plain bad. Sometimes there was a security guard, but when county funds ran low the security guard would vanish for weeks at a time. There was no way of contacting Rich from the front gate buzzer, so we would wait until someone else was coming in or out and then slide on in behind them. Eventually, with Rich’s permission, we got his key copied by a locksmith who didn’t seem to mind the “Do Not Duplicate” stamp, and that helped to relieve the stress of feeling like a criminal just to help an old man out. Once we had the key we were golden. We’d strut right in, check Rich’s mail, say hi to the guard and head on up to the sixth floor. But before the key it was rough.
These years were also tough on our families. We all had young marriages and kids. Money was tight for all of us, and time was precious. While our wives were home taking care of small children, babies even, we were taking care of an old man who was essentially a stranger. Many of our responsibilities for Richard happened during the work day, so our bosses had to forgive us as much as our wives. It was not an ideal situation. Is it ever? Although we loved Rich and considered him a good friend, we felt somewhat trapped; we couldn’t abandon him now. Maybe the mistake was inviting him over to our table at Espresso Metro that first time, all those years ago. But it didn’t feel like a mistake then, and it doesn’t now, years later. Not by a longshot.
One day, before we had the key to his apartment’s front gate, Rich was absent from Espresso Metro for a couple days. We went to the Capitol Park Cafe to talk to Mindy, but she hadn’t seen him either. Mathieu decided we needed to go to his apartment and check on him. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t want to do it. I don’t who I thought would help Rich if he needed it, but Mathieu is the type of person who rises to the occasion when something difficult has to be done. Mathieu called us that night to say he had found Rich in very bad shape, having extreme difficulty breathing, and that he had called an ambulance for the old man.
The details of the medical part of Rich’s story, which was the key feature of the last couple years that we – or anyone – knew him, are fuzzy to me now, almost fifteen years later. We realized then that we were living in a fantasy world where this old man, with no family, a faltering memory, and a slavish daily routine would be able to navigate his own personal health management. So I, having some small measure of organizational skills, started managing his drugs, his health insurance, his doctor’s appointments, and his treatment plans. This was one of the most difficult projects I’ve undertaken in my life, and anyone who’s taken care of a sick or elderly person can relate. We lost my mom to cancer in her fifties, and it was hard, but she went quickly. My dad didn’t go quickly, but he was in his seventies, and he had a much younger wife who did a remarkable job taking care of him. But I’ve never had to take care of a sick person like we had to take care of Rich.
He had several medications: some twice daily, some once daily, in different denominations. Since we didn’t live with Rich, we had no way of making sure he was taking his meds. We bought him a weekly pill case and staged all his meds for him, but he couldn’t keep track of what day it was, and he’d either take several days at once or skip many days altogether. So we bought him a calendar and stuck it to his fridge with magnets, and told him every night when he went to bed, to please cross off a day, but he couldn’t remember to do that. We tried to get him a landline telephone, but Pacific Bell wouldn’t give him one because he had no credit, no financial history of any kind. I fought with them for a long time, and eventually they gave him a phone line, but Rich unplugged the phone when he got a telemarketing call one day. “Fellas, that thing rang so loud it nearly knocked me down [we had set the ring volume on the lowest setting], and some strange person was asking me about solar panels so I unplugged the durn thing and put it in the closet.” Maddeningly, I had fought with the phone company for weeks, only for Rich to get one call and then put the phone in his closet. We knew one of those cell phones for the elderly was absolutely out of the question. It would be like trying to teach Esperanto to your cat.
Rich had an incredible health plan: MediCal, courtesy of the state of California. He never paid so much as a nickel for a co-pay, not even for prescriptions or ER visits. I picked up his medications every couple weeks, and we tried our best to make sure he took them, but we knew it was mostly a losing battle. We set him up with a local senior services program, where a nurse would come to his house every single day to check in on him, give him a sandwich, and make sure he took his medication. But the first day the nurse came he threatened her with a stun gun, and that was the end of that. There was another service that would pick him up in a van every day and take him to a senior center to do arts and crafts and by-the-way give him his medicine. Rich grudgingly agreed to visit the facility with us, and he didn’t have much to say about it after the tour, but the first day they came to pick him up he did not meet them at the curb, and they had no way of contacting him inside his apartment. He was dropped from the program before he ever went a single time.
Rich’s monthly bills were about four hundred dollars, and he received about seven hundred dollars in monthly benefits. The extra three hundred remained in his bank account each month. It didn’t take long for this to pile up, so he got in trouble with the government for having too much money in the bank, and he was threatened with losing his benefits altogether. We made an appointment with the proper authorities, accompanied Rich to his interview, and we assured the caseworker the problem would be solved that very day. His bank would no longer show an excess of the maximum allowable two thousand dollars.
I suppose we should have told the case worker he didn’t need seven hundred dollars a month, that he only needed four hundred. But it doesn’t work that way. Although seven hundred dollars was the minimum they’d even pay for someone like Rich, you are simply not allowed to save money. You get in trouble, and are threatened with being cut off completely. Even if they would have agreed to give him four hundred dollars each month, who knew what Rich would need in the future? We Three Computers were all gainfully employed, but also with young families and we weren’t rolling in dough. We wanted to make sure Rich had his own meager nest egg if it might be needed someday.
So I became a frequent user of Rich’s ATM card, and we socked his spare cash away in an envelope. We’d eventually use it for things like paying certain bills of Rich’s, buying him clothes, nutrition drinks, bedding, taxi rides, and the few medical necessities his health plan didn’t cover. Sometimes when we’d take him to the doctor, we took ourselves to Blimpie’s Sandwiches on his dime while we waited for his appointment. Nothing makes you feel more like an elder abuser than taking money out of an old man’s ATM and sticking it in an envelope. Having the cash around made Rich nervous. He didn’t understand why it was there. So eventually we kept it for him, which then made me nervous. If the cops followed me from his ATM to an envelope stuffed with money, how on earth could I prove we weren’t ripping Rich off? Rich had given me power of attorney, but still.
I know it sounds like horrible false modesty, but one of the most difficult things for me was the praise some people would give us about how “wonderful” we were for taking care of this old man, and what “good people” we were for taking him to his appointments and whatnot. One old woman in the waiting room at his doctor’s office called us “angels.” A man in his apartment complex told us Rich was lucky, and asked if we’d take care of him too. These compliments stung; I couldn’t accept them. It’s hard to explain why, but here’s the best I can do:
Rich was a friend, that’s what he was. He was a good friend. Rich wasn’t lucky to have us, we were lucky to have each other. He wasn’t especially kind, or wise, or clever, but he was our friend. We enjoyed his company, and he enjoyed ours. We spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours together. We sacrificed our work and our families to take care of him, but it was because we loved him, and that’s what you do for people you love. I can’t claim to be a good person, or kind, or generous, or loving, but we took care of our friend because it needed doing, and no one else would have done it. And yes, I literally step over destitute souls downtown every single day who could use my help, but they are not my friends. Rich was.
It only got worse. Rich eventually had triple bypass heart surgery. They sent him home from Sutter Memorial Hospital in a taxi two days later to his apartment with no family and no one to care for him. This is when we started visiting him at his apartment once or twice a day. He would just lie in bed, doing nothing, too wiped out and fatigued from one of the most invasive medical procedures you can have. He couldn’t eat, he could barely get to the toilet, and we figured he would be dead in three days if we weren’t around. He was eighty years old at this point. We came by all the time to pour Ensure down his throat, to do his laundry, to get him to drink a glass of water, to use the can. He hated the attention. He hated feeling helpless. He would start to cry, he felt so miserable and weak. We told him it was OK. We told him we were here for him. He would cry harder, “Fellas, I don’t know what I ever did to deserve friends like you.” We’d tell him Rich, you didn’t do anything to deserve us, and we’re very far from perfect, but you have us, and we care about you.
But it became too much. Despite our daily care, his health deteriorated. He went back to the ER, stayed several days in the hospital, and eventually moved into a skilled nursing facility. That place was the fucking worst. The staff was fine, but it was by nature an ugly place. The oldest, the sickest, the loneliest people – that’s where they ended up. We visited him there every day, and I’m ashamed to say as soon as I got there to visit I couldn’t wait to leave again.
He made it out of that facility, miraculously, and back to his E Street apartment for a while. He shuffled down to Capitol Park Cafe and Espresso Metro once in a while, but not often. Things were not getting any better and we knew it. What part of it was cancer, what part was the heart surgery, and what part was being eighty years of a life not taking care of oneself, I don’t know. But eventually Rich took his last trip, to an even more intense old folks facility in the south area. This place I only visited a couple times. It was so sad, and Rich was by now out of it most of the time. One of the only times when I was there, they had to weigh Rich. Why they had to weigh him was beyond me, and if I had more balls, or if I knew then what I know now about patients’ rights I would have told them to fuck off. He was about 120 pounds at this point, but who gave a shit? He was obviously on his way out. But they clumsily fitted him into a man-sized sling, hoisted him into the air, accidentally bonked him on the head with a piece of this torturous apparatus, took his measurements and changed his sheets while they were at it, and then lowered him back down. Rich looked like a confused zoo animal, completely out of his element and having no clue why he was suspended in midair and getting conked on the head at eighty years of age. I comforted him as best I could, tried to joke about it, but it didn’t seem to help.
A couple days after that, Mathieu called at about six in the morning. When the phone rang I knew what the news would be, and I answered with trepidation. Mathieu told me Rich had died that morning. I breathed a big sigh, stunned, heartbroken, and relieved all at once. Mathieu said he was on his way down to the facility, and did I want to meet him there. No, I said, I didn’t. I’m not one for dead bodies. My stepmom asked me last year what I wanted to do when my dad finally died, as we knew was imminent. No, I said then, too. I don’t need to see the body. I saw him a lot in life. I saw him a lot when he was near death (both my dad and Rich, and my stepdad – also a Richard, hence my oldest son’s middle name – and my mom.) I saw them all in their last days. I don’t want to see an empty, lifeless shell who someone I loved used to be. Maybe I’m a coward, I don’t know. It just makes me sad and sick, and I know the person is not there, and the act is mainly for me. And if it’s really for me, then fuck it, I don’t want to do it.
We went to Rich’s apartment and took what we wanted. We took his little color TV, his only working tape recorder, his Denver Broncos Back-to-Back Super Bowl Champs cap. We took his pipe, his Zippo lighter, his wallet, and his ubiquitous sunglasses. That was it. There was nothing else in that apartment we needed. We used his money that we had socked away for an obituary and a cremation. At the crematorium, Mathieu earnestly asked the proprietor of this one-man show if the work was hard sometimes. I knew what Mathieu meant: is it hard to literally turn a human body, who had roamed the lengths and breadths of the land, experiencing all the loves and losses of human life, the full existential experience, to cinder and ash? “Sometimes,” the man replied, without a hint of humor or empathy, “When they’re really big. Like really big fat people. That’s hard.”
The hardworking gentleman asked where we were going to dispose of Rich’s ashes, for the official paperwork. Rich had told us that when he went, burn him up and dump his ashes off the I Street Bridge downtown. We told him sure. Sure thing Rich. This was long before his death was imminent. But we knew it was a big no-no, dumping human remains from a public roadway into the urban river that divided Sacramento and Yolo counties.
Santa Cruz, we replied. We’re going to take him out on a boat [none of us had a boat] and scatter him into the Pacific Ocean, several miles off shore. “OK,” said the sensitive crematorium proprietor, “Sounds good,” as he completed the paperwork.
Although we had the money, Rich’s money, for a nice little urn for the cremains, we figured we’d be scattering the ashes somewhere in the next few days, so the standard plastic, rectangular receptacle that came with the ashes was fine with us. There was a plastic pouch with Rich’s paperwork affixed to it. We figured we’d have some kind of little ceremony with Mindy, her daughter – the new mommy – who also worked at the cafe, maybe Joel and Angus, Jesse James, and a couple of the baristas at Espresso Metro. But it never happened. We just plain never fucking got around to it. Memorial services are for the living, not the dead, and we – the living – had had our fill of Rich Kelley. It sounds crass, I know. We loved him, we took care of him, we drove him to his doctor’s appointments and snuck into his apartment to feed him. We knew he was gone. We had our closure. Everyone else in his life, those few people who no doubt had fond feelings for him, well, they weren’t around when he needed them. And I don’t blame them. They were clerks and service workers. They very much liked some of their customers, and we appreciated that, and Rich loved them too. But in the shellshocked weeks following his death, as we dealt with his belongings, and the government benefits people, and the county who rented him his apartment, and the phone company, we had all the goddamn closure we needed. The waitresses and baristas could plan a memorial service if they wanted (they didn’t) but we had said goodbye to Rich. For fuck sake, I had his hat, pipe, and sunglasses propped up on a shelf at my house. Squint your eyes and you could see him right there, complaining about Happy the Child Molester or the City Guides in their yellow jackets who thought they were such hot shit, or waxing about the greatness of Harold Robbins, or Up The Creek, or Michael Jordan.
So no memorial service, and Rich’s ashes are in Mathieu’s closet to this day in that shitty plastic receptacle, although Mathieu has moved several times since then. After all the expenses were paid there was about $1,500 left over. We split it three ways, and I bought an iPod and a pair of Doc Martens. I don’t know what Randy and Mathieu did with their shares of the “inheritance.” I wrote Rich’s obituary, and after it was published in the Sacramento Bee a reporter called and left me a message. He was sorry for our loss, and Mr. Kelley sounded like an interesting character. He thought Rich’s story would make a good short feature for the paper’s Metro section. It took me a day or two to get back to the reporter, and I left him a voice mail of my own, but that was the end of it. Time had passed and I never heard back from him. Maybe that was for the best. There were only a handful of people in the world who cared about Rich Kelley, so to craft a folksy tale for strangers about a ramblin’ man seemed self-serving. Like what you’re reading right now. And who knew how much of Rich’s story was even true?
As a child of divorce and of stepparents, I had a number of grandfathers and grandfatherly figures over the course of my life, but they were all long gone even back in 2004 when we lost Rich. They were good men, but with none did I have any kind of special bond. I think I would have especially loved my mom’s father, Howard Taylor, who died when I was a toddler, whom I don’t remember at all, and about whom the only thing I really know is he much preferred strumming his guitar and writing memoirs of his wayward youth than working for a living. I get it.
But Rich was different. He wasn’t quite a grandfather, although that’s how I referred to him in a pinch to make it easy for people to understand the relationship. He was an old man who was also a friend. We hung out with Rich. Rich cared about us and we cared about him. We shot the breeze with Rich, just passed the day, drank coffee, smoked, and watched the world go by from the outdoor tables at 11th and K Streets in downtown Sacramento.
Several years into our friendship he told us that he had spent many years in jail. Decades, in fact. Oh, wow, we said, well that sucks. He was accused of something when he was very young, something he said he didn’t do. Once he was in the can, fighting and being generally incorrigible led to more and more jail time. This threw us, but not much more was said about it.
Rich had a past, being born in 1924, and we had a future. If we live to his age we’ll die around the late 2040’s. His past and our future will never meet, but there was an acknowledgement, a brief, few-year period in the 1990’s and 2000’s where our lives intersected. We were there for him. Maybe someone will be there for me someday, maybe not. I hope so; I have a family, and children whom I cherish. But regardless, it’s OK. Rich’s life had meaning. And my life will have had meaning. Taking care of Rich wasn’t our attempt to do something good; he was simply a friend. He wasn’t wise, or clever, but he was a friend, and we were lucky to have each other. We honored that to the end as best we could. That’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? Not for him, necessarily. I mean, for him too, of course. But for us. Love doesn’t come around for you every day. When it does, it’s worth doing something about.