by Robin Grearson
On July 10, 2013, around 5:30 PM, an old friend of mine, Teddy Days, was sitting or maybe laying down inside an old hearse he owned that was parked on the side of his small house in Yucca Valley, California. It was about 100 degrees. That kind of heat was probably bearable to Teddy, who had lived in the desert for about nine years. But sitting or laying in this white hearse with the doors closed and the windows rolled up like he was doing—well, anyone might have been heat-crazy. That is probably why he kept opening and closing the hearse’s back doors in those hours he spent trying to decide whether or not to shoot himself like he’d planned to do before his friend called the police, who were now present.
At the same time on July 10, it was 8:30 PM where I was, at a bar on Broome Street in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood. I was sitting in a red booth drinking fancy cocktails with three friends and preparing to read a couple essays. The host was about to introduce the first reader of the monthly series he curated at this bar.
The tenth wasn’t a particularly hot New York day, but July generally speaking was a motherfucker and I had been listening for the return of the locusts every day as a distraction from complaining about the lead-apron weight of the wet heat. I stopped listening when my roommate reminded me that I never heard any because there are no trees for the cicadas (not locusts) to eat in the vicinity of our apartment in Bed-Stuy. A week earlier there had been talk about this kind of heat driving people crazy.
In early July the MTA rotated the posters in my local subway station to promote the summer movies. Many underground ads are TV or movie posters, often hostile—either sexually toxic, or using guns and violence to make movies look cool, or both. Stuck underground with nothing to do, subway riders are a particularly captive audience, which is the point. I’m not saying I can’t ignore a movie poster, I’m saying that advertising exists to influence, to push. And underground, my ability to ignore and push back is limited. Hollywood has known the power of the poster since at least the 1970s. For instance, when The Warriors was released, several violent incidents broke out at theaters. Paramount responded by creating a text-only poster.
Fresh from Hollywood via the MTA for Summer 2013: An R.I.P.D. poster featured Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds back to back holding giant handguns, two macho dudes. A 2 Guns poster featured Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. Also in a classic back to back pose but with knees bent, the two lean against each other for support, as coiled springs. Denzel and Mark are pointing guns at unseen enemies beyond the edges of the poster. Money rains down on them and a helicopter flies overhead. Of the four, Denzel is the only one wearing sunglasses. I decide this is because he feels guilty about the gun.
R.I.P.D. is a comedy, but the poster is just big weapons and dudes. In 2 Guns, the men ready to kill are “the good guys.” I have to Google this; the ads only offer four men trying to looking manly by pointing weapons. On posters sized 40 by 60 inches, they are near life-size. Because I can’t shoo them away, I imagine all the men naked, holding their dicks instead.
Antoinette Tuff disarmed a heavily armed wannabe-school shooter in Georgia last year using just words, but she had not yet made national headlines.
Compassion probably looks stupid on a poster.
I left my apartment on the morning of July 7 to walk across the Williamsburg Bridge. A few blocks from home, I saw a 13-year-old boy’s fresh blood on the sidewalk. A news van was parked at the curb. A story I found later reported that a drive-by had occurred the day before, but the blood in my memory is red and wet in places where it was not just splattery drops. I looked inquisitively at a police officer who stood next to the blood, as though guarding it. He waited until I asked him out loud what happened and then he said a boy was running to the hospital and collapsed there, holding his neck. No, wait, that’s wrong. He said a boy was shot and passed out on the street, that a stranger picked him up, put him into a car and drove to the hospital, just a few blocks away. Smart boy, getting shot and taking off running.
I don’t want to say more about this boy, because I see I am conflating the facts the police officer told me with the story I read later about all four teenage boys who were shot while watching a basketball tournament.
When I got home I looked up the details and learned that when the driver arrived at Woodhull Hospital, the boy jumped up, suddenly alert again, and ran inside. He lived at least that long, his father recounted to a NY1 reporter. I hesitate to say, “the boy is fine now,” in communicating what was reported, because I don’t know that he’s fine.
I remember the officer saying “gangs” with a shrug as I looked at the blood, and that I stammered when I asked him about it. It’s possible that “gangs” and the shrug were meant to give me comfort: like, “this only happens if you’re in a gang and, lady, you’re obviously not.” But it was not a shrug like he didn’t care about the blood or the boy or all of the boys. I got the impression that the shrug he shrugged while standing next to the blood meant, “it’s a damn shame.” Like, all of it. Look at what people do, and isn’t it a shame.
When I moved to Brooklyn, I pushed Teddy out of my mind. The friendship became inert like boxes of memorabilia I kept from the ‘80s, nostalgia that could sit on a shelf indefinitely, maybe forever. The mental box for Teddy I marked “flake.” I tried to see him before I left Los Angeles in 2010, but our tentative plans did not convert into actual plans, and I held him responsible. I’d come to the desert with a friend for Coachella’s music festival on a Friday night, and early the next afternoon I found myself whining into my phone outside a coffee shop in Indio. “But I’m here now and I am moving next month,” I said. And my blackmail line: “When will you ever get to see me again?”
“I just drove home from town 30 minutes ago. Why didn’t you call me last night when you got in, like you said you would?” We repeated ourselves till we saw that we were bickering in circles and switched to small talk instead. I floated the idea that I could get him a pass to join me at the festival, though I wasn’t sure if that was true. He didn’t want to go anyway, he said. Sitting on the phone as he dug in his heels over making a short drive was irritating. He said he wasn’t just down the road but 30 miles away, but the desert was the desert was the desert to me. I focused on the 10 years that had passed and would pass before another opportunity came along. I felt like he was saying I wasn’t worth the trip. Like a princess, I snapped the Teddy box shut.
To be fair, each of us could be stubborn and flaky, each of us had egos that bruised easily. I could have kept the box open long enough to acknowledge this, but I didn’t. Fuck it, I was going to New York to start over. Besides, friendship with Teddy required me to navigate his moods and hypersensitivity, but I didn’t know how. He’d told me that his hypersensitivity wasn’t just a quirk; he said he’d been diagnosed with a DSM-level disorder.
Sometime in ’09, a girl I know pointed me to a MySpace account Teddy used under an alias for his band, Vessyl. Until then, I hadn’t spoken with him for maybe nine years. Teddy’s image as frontman Slade Sin was pure death-glam-rock icon. In theatrical videos and band photos he exuded confidence, mixing wigs, makeup and women’s clothing with fuck-you bravado, tattoos and piercings. Masks, religious and BDSM imagery completed Slade’s persona. Teddy had evolved from playing bass for rock bands, which he was doing when I met him, to owning everything: writing and producing the songs, directing the videos. I wasn’t into Vessyl’s darker, more industrial sound, but I respected the work he was putting in. The updated image and name surprised me, but what caught more of my attention was the distance between the aggressive new persona and the person on the phone.
The Teddy I used to know was cocky, funny, used to getting his way. The person who called was tentative, fragile and vulnerable…like he’d been broken. He wasn’t the only one of us who had changed. We began to confide in each other over long conversations, and his stories echoed losses I’d struggled with since I’d seen him last. The friendship felt like it was deepening. But then Teddy would abruptly withdraw and stop calling for a while, without explanation. While his timidity engaged my protective instincts, I sometimes felt manipulated by push-pull dynamics that left me cautiously measuring my words. On some days, hypersensitivity seemed to be a free pass for bad behavior. I wanted to look into his eyes, to get a reading. On the phone with him in Indio, when he demurred, I could have chased him into his rabbit hole, tried to coax him back out. I wrote him off as a diva instead.
On July 7, I had lived a couple blocks from Marcy Projects for just over a month. When I told my roommate about the blood and the shooting, he said that during the ‘90s, there were 2,000 shootings at Marcy Projects in one year (in 1990, 71 murders and 2,442 robberies were reported in the 79th precinct that includes Marcy Houses). That didn’t make anything okay, but I did feel naïve for being a little freaked out after just one murder. My roommate, or it may have been someone else, said the heat drives people outside and once they get out there, there’s just nothing to do but fight. A hot day feels like another kind of push.
Each time I passed those four actors in the subway lined up with their guns aimed at phantoms, I felt angrier than the time before. Without a story, they’re just four men ready to shoot, and this makes the violence trivial, lacking justification for pointing weapons as if ready to kill. The guns are only on the poster (in Bed-Stuy) because everyone (in Bed-Stuy) knows guns (in Bed-Stuy) are cool.
Except that’s bullshit.
Guns used to be terrifying. In fact, the consequences of just one shooting comprised the entire plot of the so-violent-it-caused-violence The Warriors. But instead of consequences, guns are now Hollywood shorthand for cool, like sneakers.
No wait, that’s bullshit, too. Guns are still terrifying.
I was angry at everyone in both movies and the people who made the posters and the people who attached them side by side to the walls of this subway station, on Myrtle Avenue, in the summer, where it was hot and I had seen enough violence already in just one month. But a job is a job. You can’t blame people who are just doing their job. Jeff Bridges can’t say no. Mark Wahlberg can’t say no. Ryan Reynolds can’t say no. But Denzel Washington? Denzel Washington.
He’s an Oscar winner. He’s an elder statesman. Doesn’t Denzel have a big enough voice to be heard? If Denzel Washington said, “I refuse to use weapons to promote movies,” wouldn’t people listen? If some actors refuse to smoke cigarettes in movies, why not refuse to appear with guns for still photographs? Whatever Hollywood does (not do), people will (not) copy.
While I am waiting to read my essay on July 10 drinking the fancy cocktail in the red booth at Happy Ending lounge and while my sensitive friend Teddy is wandering around his yard barefoot holding a shotgun to his chin so that the police will not arrest and/or shoot him, I consider writing an essay, something like a letter to Denzel. I feel inspired to do something.
I will ask Denzel to consider how confined it feels to wait for a summer train, hot and sweaty and agitated. I will ask him to accept some responsibility for making weapons look cool. I want to tell him about the boy running to the hospital and the shrug, and that posters don’t just show up anywhere, that we are a pinpoint demographic, but that despite this we don’t actually need to see any more violent images in the subway than we already see in real life. In closing, Denzel, I imagine writing, this is a small thing, I know. It is a very small thing.
I had finished reading something about something to about 30 people and was eating macaroni and cheese with hot sauce at a dive bar in Chinatown when Teddy pushed the shotgun into his sternum and pulled the trigger. He rested the gun between his legs and folded his hands behind his head and waited to die while birdshot shredded his lungs in that stupid hearse. After he fired, for their own safety the police left Teddy alone until they came up with a plan to approach. When they did, an hour later, of course he was dead. There is no way to know how many seconds or moments he spent dying, alone.
When I was 21, I got pulled over for a DUI after leaving the bar where I worked. I called my roommate. She was still working at the same bar but said she would send me a ride when she could. But in fact, she dispatched a Harley entourage. I was signed out to the care of two long-haired rocker dudes who stood under the harsh lights in the police station at 2 AM looking like it was no big deal, I was on their way anyway. My friend PK rode me home from Van Nuys on the back of his bike, while his quiet friend drove next to us on his purple Harley. So, like a police escort, but cooler. That’s how I met Teddy.
Back then Teddy had chestnut hair down to his ass and played in a lot of bands. His look wasn’t gearhead or glam but something between. He cracked up his friends when they came to his house for their haircuts, something he didn’t love to do, even though he was good at it and it paid the bills. Most of the girls I knew dated him, hooked up with him, or wanted to.
The first time he cut my hair, he kind of fucked it up, and as fast as a cold shower, the friendship was platonic. “Viking!” He said later, laughing hysterically, as if this explained everything. He was high on a pill someone gave him; he wasn’t into pills so I guessed he meant Vicodin but forgot the word. Viking stuck as a name we called each other—for me, an upgrade from “Jailbird.”
Even though he was still playing music, when Teddy told me he moved to the desert, I assumed it was to make room for other dreams. During the months we reconnected, he told me about going to art openings and painting and signing up for community college. He was nervous about being the oldest guy in class, but his determination to go anyway was really sweet and brave. Despite these new interests, though, Teddy was still frustrated that he couldn’t make music his living, and despite all his hard work, the music industry wasn’t showing interest. He’d been writing songs about suicide for years.
Throughout July in New York, we have heat that makes it hard to focus. Anyone who can afford to leave has gone. When I go out, I descend the subway stairs from muggy street to airless platform. There is little room in my thoughts to do more than just wait.
Summer stays glued to the backs of my thighs, and the heat lulls me into narrowing all life to the right now of suffering, to believing all miseries are equal. Like, I could get kicked in the face and imagine I would not feel any different. Sweat behind my ears wets my hairline and makes me itch, and as I wait for the G-train I catch myself scowling at Denzel.
Media is no longer the one-way mirror it used to be. Its borders are porous and fluid. We create media and it creates us. In this way, every poster offers an answer when I ask: what have we become?
On July 11, Brandon Reese, a 20-year-old who lived a few blocks away from me, is in jail for the shootings at Marcy Projects that killed 18-year-old Mario Lopez. Teddy is in the San Bernardino County Morgue Facility. In two days, George Zimmerman will be acquitted on all counts for killing Trayvon Martin. I am so sick of the 2 Guns poster that I share it on Instagram with a scathing caption and the hashtag #weareallaccountable.
By July 17, I have more ideas for the letter to Denzel. I don’t expect a response, but the steam has to escape. I finally sit down to write, but when I open my laptop, an email is waiting: Teddy died.
If Teddy had fantasies that killing himself in a hearse would bring Slade any kind of tragic-rockstar-death infamy, he would find reality a great disappointment. Newspapers tend not to report suicides unless a police officer or celebrity is involved, to discourage copycats. So the news spread like molasses, first to Teddy’s friends around Yucca Valley, who only knew him as TJ or Slade. A week later, a local newspaper posted a brief obituary online, including a cryptic reference to Teddy dying “in a place he loved.” Perhaps this notice triggered a Google alert for another friend who had lost touch with him; finally one of Teddy’s old friends shared the news on Facebook, where almost no one from Teddy’s past knew about “Slade.”
The scant details in the death notice generated implausible speculation and questions no one seemed able to answer. The leader of a band he joined briefly in the early ‘90s made emotional statements on social media that were reposted on music sites like Blabbermouth. Despite having no contact with Teddy for years, she asserted that his death seemed suspicious, noted her credentials as a lawyer, and appealed to the public for information. Pictures of Teddy circa 1990 (in an earlier incarnation of her still-active metal band) appeared on Loudwire and Noisecreep, all but eclipsing the years of work he put into Vessyl.
I want to believe the media attention this bandleader finessed for herself in Teddy’s name was well-meaning, but the evolution from death notice to public appeal to current-band press release, always tying him back to herself, was appalling and opportunistic. Fucking Hollywood. None of us knew what had happened to him, but maybe it was none of our business. The only way to finally shut down the rumors was to state the facts plainly. The main fact being, in the words of his childhood friend PK, that Teddy “laid down in his hearse and called it quits.”
The night I finally allowed this to sink in, I fed old metal into my headphones (turned up to 11), searching for songs that fit him. The rumors had shaken loose the trivia that Teddy died on Dio’s birthday, so I started with “Holy Diver.” To this soundtrack, I tried writing my feelings, which streamed into a belligerent, one-sided argument: You didn’t even say goodbye. Fuck you. I can’t believe you were such a fucking poseur! How could you stage the end of your life like it’s one of your videos? Come on, man. A fucking hearse? Seriously? Dying in a hearse is fucking ridiculous!! Is that supposed to be some cool way to die? Does being cool make you less dead? FUCK YOU!!!!
But then always: I love you, Viking.
As I told friends about Teddy, about our friendship, I started to see our last conversation differently. He had been right, that I said I would call when I got to town. It was true, that I didn’t. I was the flake, the diva. For three years, I never saw how simple it was. Instead of answering the last question I’d put to him coyly: When will I ever see you again?, I had to settle for attending his memorial service.
In California I learned that Teddy was delicate and emotional (and petulant) with everyone. He was unanimously praised as brilliant, talented and kind. And hilarious. But he was also just plain exhausted, worn out by mental health issues he’d been battling for years. He was sufficiently well known in the mental-health community that a former therapist spoke lovingly and openly at his memorial—of how exasperating he could be. Many of those present laughed a little, in recognition.
When the service ended I was invited to join a few others who were going to see his house. I got into my rental and followed a few miles on a paved road, then turned onto a dirt road and drove another mile till we stopped in front of a small slate-colored house behind a chain-link fence. As I stepped out of the car, the dash thermometer read 104 degrees. We heard a neighbor’s dog in the distance, and nothing else. One of us looked around, fascinated, while it continued to bark. “It’s deafening, isn’t it?” he said of the silence.
Five of us stood in front of Teddy’s home, dressed for church and gingerly sharing stories and regrets. One friend shared the confusing goodbye text Teddy sent him in early July. He felt terrible that he never replied, but would cherish the words for life. We envied him this tangible thing he could hold, to keep Teddy close. I confessed that I’d come, I suppose, as an apology.
The day felt like the sky felt like it would go on forever. We all said how difficult it was to understand how anyone could live in a place so isolated, for so long. One said he wouldn’t last two hours. We would laugh and then the quiet would come right back, bigger than anything we could say. Eventually, someone knew how to open the gate so we let ourselves in and walked around the property, like tourists. We looked at Teddy’s cars, imagined him standing in the yard, living his life. The hearse was still parked next to the house.
Two people tried to look through the windows but there were shades, to block out the desert sun. I felt like a trespasser, less welcome by the owner himself than the others, so I stood apart, alone in front of the house. Where I stood I looked down at my feet and saw a small object in the dirt. I bent down and picked up a man’s silver ring; I noticed that no one had seen me. Maybe it had been there for years. My instinct was to drop the ring in my pocket and keep it. I put my hand in my pocket and held the ring in a tight fist. After a minute I walked over to the others, though, and opened my palm.
“I just found this,” I said, in the form of a question.
“That was his favorite ring,” his friend, the one of us who was local replied, another question. After a brief pause, she answered. “He must have lost it that day. He wore it all the time.” The design included two dice and the words Lucky 13.
Reflexively I looked at the hearse and pictured Teddy standing beside it, chucking the ring in frustration. Neither of us could have imagined it would come to rest at my feet.
I had told friends I was going to California to apologize and to honor Teddy, though I didn’t know what that meant. I let the idea push me all the way to his front yard, where I felt the same impotence that I was feeling in Brooklyn.
It meant: #weareallaccountable includes me, too. It meant: anywhere from three years to two weeks late, depending on how you look at it, I finally showed up. Holding a piece of his last day in my hand, my awareness narrowed to a single moment of whatever is the opposite of suffering. I felt a grace that washed out all the violence. I smiled, mostly inside. Then I gave his friend the ring.
Robin Grearson moved to Los Angeles on a whim when she was 18 and moved to Brooklyn on a whim 23 years later. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Thought Catalog, Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. She currently lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant.