Friday, November 21, 2014

Ted, Ricardo, and Curtis

On Fridays I write of people whom I admire, either from afar or, when lucky, due to some direct association.  While maybe not generally known by members of the ingrown culture in which I live and work, many of these admired people have their own Wikipedia pages or numerous listings on search engines.  Some have their own pages on the websites of online book retailers.

Others are much more obscure, and if they are no longer with us on the mortal plain, they tend to be remembered only by their families and a few stray friends.  Such is the case with Ted, Ricardo, and Curtis.  You will not have heard of them, but they brought to their lives and endeavors some small portion of joy and, through luck and hard work, enabled that joy to be passed to others.

Ted was one year behind me in college but, as we were both English majors, we had a number of classes in common.  Our college was primarily attended by men and women from towns in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio, usually from families of means, who found the small size of the student body [1200 enrolled] comfortable.  I was an uneasy fit in this world, as I was from a city, had attended a high school three times the size of the college, looked about six years older than my age, and was found physically imposing by most of my classmates.  I also worked in the neighboring town as truck driver.

Ted was of a gentle nature and had the luxury of having grown up in comfort in suburban New Jersey.  His manners were impeccable and his wit quick.  He could quip faster than anyone.  Even though he was sub-majoring in speech and theater and I in criticism, we found ourselves matched by one of our more demented professors in preparing a paper and related presentation about the use of "toy theater" in performance and literary development.

During lunch later that day, after Ted received the news of our pairing, I happened to be seated at a table behind him in the cafeteria.  As he did not know I was there, he was openly sharing his concerns with some other drama students about the "terrifying man" with whom he was to work.  "I don't know if he can even put together a sentence."  Obviously, Ted needed some education, so during our shared work I was careful not only to show him my ability to match subject and predicate, but also that I wasn't terrifying.  In fact, between my literary flair and Ted's natural stage presence, our collaboration was successful enough that we earned some meaningless trophy or certificate.

Ted and I were pals from that point forward.  So much so that, when he was to direct Romeo and Juliet, he begged me to play Mercutio.  I did, even wearing those dang tights that so amused the members of the wrestling team.  While I had memorized my lines, I still had issue with my rhythm.  After a particularly miserable rehearsal, I heard his voice from the darkness of the theater intone, "Well, no tip for you, Mercutio."  That expression became so associated with Ted that I remember hearing it murmured from the back of a classroom when we were presented with a particularly knotty linguistics exam.  I earned a stern look from the professor when I laughed out loud. There is no laughter in linguistics.

After college Ted would earn a Master's in theater and become a director of small theater productions in the greater metro New York area, including serving as an adjunct professor for a number of colleges. He was becoming recognized as an up-and-coming voice in contemporary theater when he died at the age of 34.

Ricardo was the first person to greet me on my first official day at The General Theological Seminary. He was a third-year student, what was called a "senior" at General, and had been put in charge of a small group of new students as our personal orientation guide.  While that group of six now includes one bishop, one cathedral dean, a seminary professor, and a handful of cardinal rectors, on that first day we were little more than a collection of disquieted first-year students.  Ricardo, with cadences drawn from his youth in Cuba [from which he and his parents had escaped to the U.S. upon the advent of Castro's rule], dispensed with the canned crib sheets and information about seminary life and did something that, judging from recent news from my alma mater, is still not in practice by either the board of trustees or the faculty.  Namely, Ricardo told us the unvarnished truth.  It was liberating.

During that first year, whenever I had a question about seminary life or the academic process, I would seek out Ricardo who would offer truth and wisdom.  He was especially good about knowing the best political path to take when navigating rival faculty, especially since he had already earned a PhD in history from Georgetown University and had piloted even trickier waters.  Without question, my seminary days were easier than they would have been if not for Ricardo.

On the evening before Ash Wednesday it was a hallowed seminary practice to gather for a mad blowout of a party that was never considered a success until someone in the neighborhood finally called the NYPD.  Our first year, after working my way to an uneasy status within the ever-shifting politics of an Episcopal seminary, all of us were encouraged by Ricardo to celebrate with the best of our energies.  To focus his point, he then began madly to dance to "It's Raining Men." [If you don't know the song, come back to this page after 5 p.m.]

He would graduate at the end of that year, be ordained a priest and become the vicar of a small parish in Baltimore that also had a active presence in the Spanish-speaking community, where Ricardo's bilingualism was welcomed.  He became a strong voice for the poor neighborhoods in the Charm City and was often spoken of as a future bishop.  He would die at the age of 45, just four years after his graduation.  On the night I heard of his death, I was attending my first diocesan convention as a priest. During the impromptu party after the first day's deliberations, while sitting with a gossipy collection of parish secretaries in the lounge of a Holiday Inn in DuBois, Pennsylvania, someone punched up "It's Raining Men" on the juke box and there was a moment when I was convinced that Ricardo's spirit had passed by just to say "so long".

Curtis and I were classmates at General and members of the same advisory group.  These groups were headed by a faculty member who would often hand-pick the members.  Our group was generally regarded as the most promising of our class, although I take no credit for that.  Indeed, many of its members did move up to significant roles in what used to be The Episcopal Church and all of us, at that fledgling stage, were ambitious enough to engage in the fine art of perpetual disagreement.

In truth, I didn't much care for Curtis during our first year or two, as he could be condescendingly expert about liturgy, having made it his hobby since childhood, and had no interest in any other aspect of spiritual life.  I, on the other hand, found that spiritual life could combine art, music, and literature, even from a decidedly secular realm, and present it in a manner that was less dependent on liturgical form and more so on teleological function.  Since I could also be condescending, we argued a lot in classrooms, in the refectory, and at the bar at the Peter McManus' Cafe on 7th Avenue.

However, we came to respect one another's abilities as the three years unfolded.  I recall all of us being subjected to some Pentecostal crackpot at one point, some guest speaker who decided the best thing to do when invited to speak at the flagship seminary of the original Episcopal Church was to trash our tradition, Anglican theology, and the quality of our calling.  While the rest of our classmates sat placidly waiting for the speaker to end his harangue, Curtis and I shared a look, raised our hands and, in a tag team match worthy of television wrestling, so tangled the poor fellow up in his statements that he stormed from the room in a stuttering rage.  I believe the two of us were spoken to about this by some authority figure.

Curtis would be ordained and serve in a parish in New Orleans but his chief contribution was in editing the most popular auxiliary hymnal in the church.  Through it, his labor of love, he combined his abilities as a chorister and organist to bring into common use many of the great hymns and spiritual songs of the African-American tradition in Anglicanism.  It would serve as a lasting legacy, as he would die at the age of 34, just seven years after our graduation.

These three came offhandedly to mind the other day when one of my students was researching the effect of AIDS on society.  We hardly talk about it anymore, but I recall the devastation that the disease wrought upon members of the arts, academic, and ecclesiastical communities.  I remember the fear, anger, and sometimes just plain hatred on display in parishes and student bodies.  I remember what it was like to face a vestry who no longer wanted to receive communion on Sundays because they didn't want to "catch AIDS".  I remember those in New York City who would refuse the common chalice at the altar rail.  I remember how even those groups, such as the theater community, who were traditional oases of support for the gay community would turn their backs on someone so afflicted.

But mainly I remember the toll the disease took on mostly young men who had much to offer to their friends, families, and professions.  I especially regret that I never had the chance to speak with them one last time and thank Ted for his friendship, Ricardo for his mentor-ship, and Curtis for being such an able competitor.

When the Burial Office was read for Ricardo at the cathedral in Baltimore, the preacher, who would himself later die of complications from AIDS, would offer the following:
"I know that many in this cathedral live in fear of the plague that afflicted Ricardo, the fear of getting sick, the fear of being rejected because of your sickness, the fear of being alone when you most need the love of friends. But let this service be witness to the fact you need not be afraid -- we have heard the Gospel message -- and as you are not excluded from the love of God, so you are not excluded from the love of those who love and serve the Lord.  For we know that every human being, no matter how you live or what your pain, is someone God thought worth the death of his son. ... And more than this -- more than being loved by God, more than being cared for by his church -- the promise of eternal life is yours."
Amen, brother.  And thanks Ted, Ricardo, and Curtis.  My life was richer because of you guys.