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The Longest Walk: “Memwars” of No One in Particular
Katrina made landfall August 29, 2005, Rita followed on September 23rd. Roughly 9 months later, I’m boogying down the road to a devastated New Orleans in a tore-down little econo car in the passenger’s seat next to Mr. Congdon. Tim doesn’t look the way I imagined. His sandy hair is unusually thin, his ruddy complexion rather flushed, his body small as in diminished with eyes that are gray at some moments, brown at others, and then strangely blue. He explains — it’s the lymphoma. He has a rare form of it and up at Stanford they’re thinking of naming it after him. He smiles as he says that rather proudly, acutely aware of the irony. I’m amazed that he’d bother to pick me up at the airport, given his condition. He had been in a hospital bed days earlier. He apologized for his initial failure to keep up communications, but was pleased that things seemed to be working out. Amiri Baraka had already arrived, Kalamu ya Salaam was on his way. The only remaining kink was actor Sean Penn.
Why, I asked myself, am I doing another benefit fund-raiser? Hell yes, the cause was certainly worthy. Uncounted hundreds had died in the events and aftermaths of Katrina-Rita. But a poetry reading? They rarely covered honoraria for the poets, let alone the expenses of the organizers. What had possessed this man?
Beyond a great love for poetry and the spoken word, which extended itself backwards beyond The Beats, this midwestern poet was not only eager to establish himself and the kinds of poets he thought most worthy, but he was hell-bent to make his mark before dying. More than that, he had a 17-year-old son named Zach. He regretted that his life had not worked out according to dreams, but he wanted to, at minimum, leave some kind of legacy for Zach. The relief effort I was about to participate in on behalf of the city of New Orleans was the core part of that legacy.
The target of our benevolence was the volunteer-based Common Ground Relief (www.commongroundrelief.org). Described as a grassroots non-profit, it had sprung up on September 5, 2005 around a kitchen table immediately in Katrina’s wake. Less than a dozen ordinary residents of New Orleans had gone into their pockets, some with as little as ten dollars, to begin the first organization following the destruction. It had grown with the help of over ten thousand volunteers. But, as with too many well-intentioned groups, money was the perpetual difficulty.
It was also Tim’s primary difficulty, although he clutched his optimism deeply despite the obvious prognosis.
While visiting poets were treated to a tour of the work Common Ground had accomplished, and the places it had established: a crash house for single mothers, a community computer lab, a food and clothing distribution depot, etc., Tim sweated the sketchy details of the event. No word from Sean Penn or his people. That had been the name that had drawn many of the others to Tim’s project. Penn was supposed to be the main attraction. The rest of us were mainly African-American writers, poets and performance artists, with a couple of loose radicals tossed into the mix. For the performance, Tim had secured a space that would seat eighteen hundred. That night, a meager audience of two-hundred listeners rattled around in that cold auditorium. Word had come earlier from one of Tim’s legworkers: Penn could not be reached. The money we were supposed to have made on behalf of Common Ground had not materialized.
Walking the French Quarter the morning before my plane flight home, I wondered about Tim. His eyes and his desperation seemed bigger than his ability to overcome them. But it was not my problem. Yet.
As I was about to board my flight, Tim rushed up out of nowhere. He was asking the poets he had flown in to help him on various projects he had in mind. I could not say no and volunteered to help in any way I could. That became largely a matter of periodic consultations over the 18 months that followed. Tim would email or call me with an idea, and I would provide feedback and advice. Batting around ideas soon gave way to Tim’s updates on his battles with lymphoma, a pending transplant, and reports on his travels from medical center to medical center, hope to hope.
Last contact was in February 2008. Then, after a long while, all contact ceased.
“Memwars” is one of Tim’s funny words.
I listened for the inevitable as I busily worried the aftermath of my own private Katrinas.
Contact resumed in February of 2009. But this time, the email came from Wies van Leuken at Cornell University. It informed me that Tim had died on December 20th, 2008. But good news: the work that he had begun with Common Ground was now a DVD project continued by filmmaker Laki Vazakas, who apparently has an affinity for The Beats. Van Leuken asked for my brief contribution to Tim’s last project. Of course I said yes.