Have you ever heard the rock song “People Who Died” by The Jim Carroll Band? I was in the mood today to listen to that and miss, mourn, and lament the people I’ve known who have died. We all have folks and pets who brought a lot of meaning and joy to our lives. Mine are my dad, John Alexander Marshall, J.J., my grandmother Esther, and Gil Haimson. Let me tell you about Johnny “Ringo” Marshall, as I called him. Go ahead and listen to the song in the background!
Let me tell you about John Alexander Marshall. He was born in 1941 and died at 66 (in 2007). He is buried at Shiloh Cemetery, Shiloh Road, Jefferson, Texas, I believe. John was born in New York, and you could tell. He hung out with the wrong crowd in the Bronx and Brooklyn and such. He lived life much faster and recklessly than most when he was younger. Booze, women, drugs, fights, crime, etc. Like many rough and tumble guys, he began to peter out as he reached his late 50’s. I met him when he was probably 59 or 60. By then, he and I were able to find things in common. I am glad I met him when I did.
I was working at a mental health center, and he was my first client. He was depressed. He was sort of amazed that he lived this long (I mean, he lived the fast life in NY and San Francisco; grass never grew under his feet for sure). In fact, John once presented himself for treatment at a mental hospital in his 30s because he didn’t know what to make of the fact that he had always fully expected to be dead by then. It was the weirdest crisis of meaning I have heard of (and his psychiatrist felt the same way).
John was slowed down, less able, facing loneliness (most of his friends had long since passed away). He kind of needed a friend and more excitement in his life. He was searching desperately for meaning. I found him to be absolutely fascinating. We were really kind of kindred spirits and loved each other very much. We had about six good years before, as he would have put it, “the Grim Reaper finally caught up with my ass.” He really envisioned his continued existence, despite living in a worn-out body, as a game: beat the Grim Reaper as long as possible.
John was very intelligent, despite his marginal work history and never having graduated. When he spent time in prison, he would read and try to memorize poetry. He knew “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by heart. And in a group therapy session, we were all awed and surprised to hear him bust this Leigh Hunt poem out on Jennifer for her birthday (from memory of course):
Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add
Jenny kiss’d me.
Gosh, remembering him recite that to Jennifer brings a tear to my eye. That and so many other memories are just rife with meaning for me now that I have lost him.
I saw John two days before he died in a rehab facility. The life had been drained out of him and he wasn’t really with it. If he were with it, I know he would have said “Life is a motherfucker, man. Live while you can because the Grim Reaper is after us all.” We had a lot of fun and I still hold many memories very dear. I have to strain to find the meaning in our relationship and in his death. It causes me a sense of regret and sadness and depression to reflect on the relationship I have lost.
I employed him both to find quotes for me for my nascent pursuit, Values of the Wise (this was 2003 or so), as well as to walk my dog (at one point in his late 60s, he became more physically incapacitated, but he loved hanging out with my dog Evan). He said, “When I am talking to him, he looks at me like I’m in my right mind.” Vintage John right there. He found meaning in the few relationships he had, including with me, Evan, and his caretaker, Monica. He was always a fan of liberal conceptions of government; he was a petty thief and never held down much of a job, and yet the City and County of San Diego were offering him a subsidized apartment and a helper a couple hours a day. He was appreciative and we talked about progressive politics often.
One day he said something very valuable to me. You see, we both loved the movie Tombstone. In it, John “Doc” Holliday’s character was played by a then-young and healthy Val Kilmer. One of his lines was directed toward his true friend, Wyatt Earp (played memorably by Kurt Russell). Doc was dying in a sanitorium, and Wyatt faithfully came every few days to play cards and make Doc feel loved. Here is the dialogue:
Wyatt Earp: How many cards do you want?
Doc Holliday: I don’t want to play anymore.
Wyatt Earp: How many?
Doc Holliday: Damn it, you’re the most fallible, stubborn, self-deluded, bullheaded man I’ve ever known in my entire life.
Wyatt Earp: I call. [looks at Doc’s cards] You win.
Doc Holliday: You’re the only human being in my entire life that ever gave me hope…
It’s a very touching scene rife with meaning because Doc is trying to give up on life, and Wyatt is trying to keep Doc’s spirits up. I felt like John and I were sometimes akin to those characters because I did a lot for John. Instrumental stuff. I pretty much doubled his $750 in SSI disability income by giving him work. I included him in our mutual love, Values of the Wise. I was a friend to him until the end.
One night, I’ll never forget, he watched my dog until I got home (it was a long bus ride and a walk up a hill), and we shared an intimate moment, like we sometimes did. You know, deep conversation full of meaning and camaraderie. On his way out, he turned to me and said, “You know when Doc says to Wyatt in Tombstone that thing about Wyatt giving him hope? Well, you give me hope.” I can still see him turning and walking out the door.
Here are some of the witty things he wrote to me over the years. They hold a lot of meaning and his style was absolutely unvarnished. I have very little of his, despite his being a wonderful graphic artist. Here are some snippets of emails I still have:
I asked him what was wrong, if he was mad at me:
Whachoo mean dude? I just mean the bar looks like my turf. You’re mistaken about my lack of enthusiasm. I feel wonderful. Considering. And what would I be angry at you about? You’re one of the few people on the planet I honestly have affection for. I’m mad at my daughter I guess and Mama Nature, but not you. Don’t know what your feeling. I truly do not get it.
He was proud of his ability to look through books and find quotes about values and wisdom. John spent many, many hours in books trying to help Values of the Wise, and it was something we were really able to bond over. He found a quote he was wowed by, and noted VOW didn’t have that one in the database, and wrote:
Incredible that this quote eluded captivity. It’s mind-boggling when you think of the quotes I’ve read in the last 5 years.
Here is another:
Hanging Bro….just hanging. How are things in L.-fuckin-A.? Supposed to take a ride to Santa Monica for the day with Paul, if my thrice-damned legs will allow. They are as big as piano legs today and hurt so bad I can hardly note my Morphine doses.
Unless you tell me different I’m about to start adding the quotes to the doc. very soon. I’ve got almost 200 ready. It will be fun for me to put a thousand with the other thousand. I’m nearly certain I can get it done right around new years and then we’ll have 17,000 and before another New Years we’ll have 20,000 and the Baddest quotation sight online.!!!!
Let me know if you have any objections to me working that way. It won’t change how much I get done, it will just be a little more fun watching that document grow.
Glad your back in the ‘hood.
(we both shared the initials “JAM” which is literally about 12,000-to-1 odds on that occurring)
He loved wisdom and found great meaning in creating his own quotations. I am so proud to have pulled these out of him and to be the only person in the world who published his unique quotes about love, meaning, joy, sadness, irony, pain, wisdom, regret, triumph, and virtues: Here are a few:
“The wisest thing the wisest person has ever said is, I do not fucking know.”
“It may take one’s whole life to give proper meaning to the words, I love you.”
“I am proud that liberals claim: There is something wrong with our society and we need to fix it, because if there is a God, he/she hates greed and fear, and if there isn’t, it’s just our asses that are on the moral line.“
“Each experience we have, pleasant or otherwise, is a link in a chain. Like an anchor, one day that chain may hold you steady through a horrific storm. Don’t fear your experiences, as scary as some may seem at the time; they belong in the chain.”
“Obviously, we’ve got to make improvements in our economic system or we’ll continue to face heavy moral consequences. That is, if you agree that the nature of the system is immoral – and if you don’t agree with me, how do you describe a child dying because they didn’t receive proper medical care, in this country, in this day and age!? It’s priorities. And priorities reflect moral decision-making. Or shall I say, immoral.”
“Life is a longshot. We should embrace longshots; the payoff is startling and wondrous.”
John played cards professionally at one point, respected American Indian culture, hated hypocritical/selfish Republicans, lost his son to suicide, loved his ex-wife’s daughter as his own, once took on five bikers in a barfight, was once in excellent physical shape, loved Robin Williams and the beat poets, dug oogling girls, cruised around town on a motorized wheelchair, loved comics, and was a loyal friend.
I bought him this beautifully-framed and signed picture, and he was flabbergasted by it. Eventually, I was able to get it back, thank God. It would have been a terrible shame for his daughter in Texas or some mover or something to get it, since I gave it to him and we knew he had a “Doc-Holliday-esque” way about him.
I sometimes feel like I lost a friend and a grandfather in John. I hope he’s enjoying hell.
He would have laughed at that 🙂
There are well over 100 quotes by John A. Marshall in The Wisdom Archive, and since he has played such a role in Values of the Wise, I am proud to bring them to you.