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“When in Crete …”
A eulogy for George Christopher Chester
born May 14, 1951, died April 17, 2007
Did you ever play pool with Chris? I did, and it sucked. It was No Fun at All. Back when I was a kid, there was a commercial for Good and Plenty candy. Two boys are sitting in a movie theatre, as I recall, and the one kid is dividing up the candy. “One for you, five for me. One for you, twelve for me”, he says. And it goes on like that. Well, that’s what it was like playing pool with Chris. He’d sink an entire rack, and then maybe I’d get one shot. And miss. Then I’d get so bored waiting for my next turn that I’d even miss the easy ones. He used to make a few bucks hustling in bars that way.
Once I got over the initial shock and disbelief of Chris’ passing, I remembered a story he told me last year. I later wondered why I first recalled this of all stories. It’s not particularly characteristic of Chris, but like his death the incident was violent and unexpected.
One day a couple years ago while Chris was driving around Portland, a disgruntled bike messenger decided Chris was his problem and started hassling him. He cursed at him and yelled at him and even went so far as to punch his car. He let all that go. But then this hapless fool spit in Chris’ face. Oops. That turned out to be a mistake. Chris got out of the car, and I guess the guy figured this would be a cakewalk -- he’d just punch out the grey-haired old fart. But Chris was a decent boxer in his day, and he still knew how to throw a punch. In fact, last time I saw him, he was still built like a boxer: trim waist, quick on his feet, with short legs and a barrel chest he got from his father. Not only that, he was full of fury and regret about his failing marriage. On that day, the macho urban bike messenger had really picked the wrong guy.
By Chris’ account, it took only one punch and it wasn’t a pokey little jab. He reached down for this one, pulled it from his shoulders and his broad back, and gave this jerk-off a real haymaker, right to the snout. Broke his nose, most likely. The guy looked shocked, then pained, then spouted some blood and went down. Chris just drove away, and as he later told me, “left the little fucker there to re-consider his approach”.
Several years ago, Chris was in the Bay Area giving a reading from his new book, Providence of a Sparrow. He’d been making the circuit. This was at a bookstore in a so-so area of San Francisco called the Tenderloin, and Susie and I went and brought the kids along. It was a smallish store, but the kids section had some open space, as they often do, and that’s where they’d set up a few rows of chairs and a lectern. As you entered the store, there was a narrow aisle that led to the kids’ section. On the right side of this aisle, there was a five or six-foot long magazine rack that came up to eye level. As we walked single file, I looked at the magazines we were passing. They were all gay porn publications, all men. Men strapped into leather harnesses, surrounded by arcane-looking machinery, were being reamed from behind by their partners, grimacing as they received their just rewards for a hard day of submission. That sort of thing.
Invariably, my two young boys took notice of this, an alarming and unfortunate development before the reading had even begun. I placed a hand over their eyes and marched them a few feet away, into the relative safety of Captain Underpants andArtemis Fowl.
I pointed out this situation to Chris, who, of course, began laughing. As you might imagine, the more he thought about it, the funnier it got. Soon he was laughing so hard he could barely breathe (a trait, by the way, he shared with his sister, Lola.) It wasn’t just the situation he found so hilarious – it was the stunning idiocy of the store management to have not noticed the situation. The uncanny ability of humans to make truly poor decisions seemed to endlessly amuse and terrify Chris.
Chris also loved a good old-fashioned joke. He was one of the last keepers of the flame of that fine tradition. Since childhood, it had been a habit of ours to share any new jokes we’d heard. If it was a good one, we’d treasure it and tell it again and again over time. How many of you heard the one about the chocolate-covered almonds and the old lady on the bus? He liked that one. Or the loin-clothed cannibals in search of a canoe? A classic. Or the man with the voice-activated bionic arm, for whom an ill-advised attempt at self-gratification goes horribly awry? One of Chris' absolute favorites. After god know how many tellings over the years, I could still bring tears to his eyes with that one.
Having buried his mother, his father and his sister, Chris was no stranger to death. Nonetheless, he was very queasy about it, and about mortal affairs in general. I can only imagine his shock -- and probably fear -- at the sight of so much of his own blood. Some ten years ago, when his sister Lola became so ill that it was time to circle the wagons, Chris resisted. Not because he didn’t love Lola, but because he dreaded having to be up close and personal with the mundane and hideous details of a body disintegrating; a body that housed a spirit he deeply loved. Although Chris was a professed agnostic, he seemed to harbor a grim certainty about the nothingness that awaited him on the other side. It was almost as if he had, at some point, peered over the edge and seen nothing at all. Still, he refused to be an atheist. That, I believe, would have required a bit more faith in the unknowable than he could muster.
In 1979, I was living in Portland and seeing quite a bit of Chris. One night we went out to the movies. I believe it was Chris, Mark and me. We arrived in my 1967 Chevy van, which I had parked in an empty Safeway lot near the movie house.When we came back, the car had been towed. We tracked it down to a police impound lot, and walked there in the rain. When we arrived at the impound lot, wet, tired and pissed off, we were too late. A big swinging gate made of cyclone fence, chained and locked in the middle, stated the obvious: the lot was closed for the night.
But both gates were on hinges and the whole shooting match, Chris observed,could, theoretically, if one were so inclined,be lifted off the hinges and set aside. A small grin crossed my lips at the notion, and not for the first time in nearly 50 years with my uncle I thought, “How subversive! Truly a man after my own heart”. We wondered what would happen if we got caught. In his inimitable fashion, Chris reasoned, “Hey, fuck ‘em. It’s your car.” We cogitated for only a few seconds before agreeing on the excellence of Chris’ idea. And it worked! No fees to pay, no waiting … we just removed the gate, jumped in the Chevy and drove away, laughing and cheering. God, those were the days.
There are so many stories, some probably best left untold. But left here with just a few physical remains of a life gone to the birds, what I remember best is a young man not much older than myself, with whom I would slip away from family functions where the two of us would make wicked jokes at the expense of others, and cackle with glee at our own good humor.