Note: Written March 3, 2004.
Howard used to sit at the end of the bar in the old Albatross pub in Berkeley — alone usually, on the short leg of the bar’s L shape. He was old and craggy-faced twenty years ago. Charles, I think it was, once said that Howard looked like James Coburn’s grandfather. Sometimes Howard had a long scarf loosely wrapped and hanging down his front. He wore a dark beret, which was an article of attire Howard could wear without affectation. He worked intently, quietly, but not at all feverishly, on pages of paper inscribed with treble and bass clefs and rows of parallel lines. Among other talents, as Charles and I would later learn, Howard was a musician and a composer of orchestral music.
Now and then — infrequently really — Howard would mosey over to the small table where Charles and I were engaged in our weekly, Saturday night chess game. It was not, I suspect, that he liked chess particularly, nor even that he liked the looks of either Charles or me especially. My best guess is that it was the insularity of our chess game that somehow put our presence on a par with the insularity of his presence at the bar. Over long stretches of time — and Charles and I whiled away half a lifetime of Saturday nights over that chess board — even the stiffest insularities give way. Truth be told, Howard usually focused his attention and conversation on Charles. I think he detected in Charles the same sort of mild distaste for human interaction that Howard himself felt. Howard wouldn’t stand around and blabber or kibitz the game. He usually merely came over, exchanged a few remarks and went back to his stool and his work. Howard had gravity of person without the least touch of pridefulness or pomposity.
Then Charles noticed, one Saturday night, that Howard had not been at his post for some time. Charles asked Bob Johnson, who owned and kept the bar at the Albatross then, if he’d seen Howard lately; Bob said no. We asked around a little, and stopped in at a used furniture store down San Pablo Avenue a block or two from the Albatross; Julius, the proprietor, someone said, sometimes helped out Howard with transportation to doctor visits or shopping. Howard, we learned, lived only a block or so away, across the street. He was in pretty bad shape, housebound, and not drinking, doctor’s orders.
Charles and I started making periodic visits to Howard’s small, semi-squalid, and densely overcrowded apartment. At first we’d visit together but in due course we’d visit singly, to spread whatever aid we might be able to offer over more of the days. Howard was not particularly disposed one way or another about our help. He’d thank one or the other of us, but he was never beholden. Mostly, in fact, he was gruff, and usually more so with me than Charles. He liked to get his foodstuffs down at a liquor store run by a bunch of young, loud, and always-smiling Iranian brothers, about two blocks away. After a while, they knew I was shopping for Howard and told me what kinds of plastic-wrapped sandwiches he liked, what kind of chips, and even what kind of Pepperidge Farm cookies. They always asked after Howard’s condition and asked me to convey their good wishes to him. Now and then, and only when Howard asked me quietly and directly, I’d add a half-pint of brandy to the bag. Charles frowned on this, but hey.
I would try to stay with Howard for 20 minutes or a half-hour to do a little socializing with him. But more often than not he was not particularly interested in socializing. Sometimes there would be dishes to wash or bedsheets to change or garbage to take out. We’d conduct a haphazard conversation around these chores. Sometimes he wouldn’t bother. Howard almost always sat in an old-style oak swivel chair in the middle of his small living room. Around this chair, stretching nearly the full 360-degrees, was desk space, an old radio, an easel-like drawing surface, papers, books, a phonograph, notes, a music stand, a piano, and, in short, pretty much everything Howard needed to do his work and live his life. It was an entirely utilitarian design arrangement. Nothing was any less utilitarian in the middle of Howard’s living room than all the things within arm’s reach of a 747 pilot. Howard was what he did.
One day I arrived and Howard seemed in a particularly gruff mood. I asked him what he was working on. He answered, gruffly, with a request.
“Define ‘quintessence,'” Howard said.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, “the essence of something, I guess.”
“Okay, but what’s the ‘quint’ doing in ‘quintessence’? Why the reference to five?”
“I don’t know, Howard,” I said.
“Well, look it up,” Howard shot back, now a little gruffer still. Howard had a great collection of reference books and other books crammed around the perimeter of the room. He pointed to a fine dictionary and beckoned with his hand that I cure my ignorance as readily as possible. All that I, and everybody else, did not know, I think, frustrated Howard quite a lot.
I read. In the ancient system, the world was comprised of four material elements — earth, water, air, and fire. Yet there was also a fifth element as well, the spirit or essence of a thing. That fifth element, then, was its “quintessence.”
Only then, and still with a good measure of impatience, did Howard explain that he was writing a symphony with five movements — one each devoted to earth, water, air, fire, and, finally, quintessence. The fifth movement, which he was now at work upon, was built around a flute soloist.
This brief exchange had a profound impact on me. Somehow it had allowed me to see Howard at depth and I was moved by what I saw.
Howard’s condition wasn’t particularly good, and did not seem to be getting better. Charles would try to impress upon him the need to gain weight, to eat more and better, and so on. But Howard, though he had good days, seemed that he might be drifting downward.
One day I got a call at work. My wife said Howard needed to go to the hospital and that I needed to go down to his place right away.
Howard was moaning and very uncomfortable. At the hospital emergency room they tried to stick him with injections and IVs but the nurses, try as they could, could not find a vein to puncture on Howard’s sinewy arms and, then, legs. Finally, Howard simply begged that they stopped poking him; he explained that he wanted to die anyway.
I thought he was going to die. He lay on the gurney bed for hours drifting in and out of consciousness. Sometimes he would be moved to weep. He’d shout orders and utter laments. In due course I came to understand that he was reliving — or, more precisely, re-experiencing his regret — over a World War II tragedy that had killed many of the men in his charge. Howard, I learned, had been a glider pilot during the War. On a training mission, because of a bad tie to the tow-plane or some other unlikely circumstance, his glider had crashed. During periods of lucidity over the long afternoon and evening, Howard recounted this devastating experience with the intensity of something that had only just happened. Decades later, he still had not abandoned the guilt he felt for the men lost in that tragic event.
But Howard did not die. He survived the night; he went home, he survived the next week, and continued to survive and even improve a little. Before too long, though, Howard had to be relocated to a nursing home. To Charles’ and my surprise, Howard was not particularly resistant to the idea. At the weekend, a group of us more or less emptied and cleaned up Howard’s apartment. Most of the stuff went to the dump — the nursing home lacked room for Howard’s huge armada of books, art, sheet music, sculpture, and all the rest. I took the main loads to the Richmond dump and I felt, truly, like I was murdering the man to toss away so much stuff, some of which, I was sure, was also Howard’s work and product.
Meantime, I’d had something of a cooling of my commitment to Howard. I got tired of his gruffness and a seeming subtext of disrespectfulness toward me. Charles, however, kept up visits to the nursing home, which was in west Oakland. It was Charles who told me that Howard was not overly upset about losing so much of his stuff because of the move to the nursing home. Indeed, he rather liked it there, on good days at least.
When Maggie and I moved to North Idaho in 1997, the nagging question of whether to visit Howard became mooted. Two or three years later in Wallace, one day I got a package from Charles. It was a “books-on-tape” rendering of John Kennedy Toole’s book, A Confederacy of Dunces. Charles said it was a present from Howard, who thought I might like it. There were four tapes; the reading and the narrative were splendid. I liked it very much; Maggie and I listened on successive trips to Coeur d’Alene and back.
Charles kept up with Howard, visiting him in Oakland from time to time.
Today, March 2nd, 2004, Charles emailed that Howard Albert died on this past Sunday.
Howard did not know — and if he had, he would not have cared — how much I valued him as a model of a human being’s capacity for dignity.
He was 93.
Good-bye Howard. I valued you, you salty old son of a bitch.