Monday, June 27, 2011

Toni and Clarence, Someplace Tropical

for Omar

From the moment I heard cancer took my great friend Toni Gentry, on the heels of learning my rock and roll hero Clarence Clemons died, I had a mental image of the two, someplace tropical, with umbrellas on their drinks. Not that either one of them was an umbrella-glass type, but both had a sense of occasion. It’s a huge understatement to say they were both known for their sense of style.

At Toni’s Kansas memorial service (her second, the first held in her now-home, Arlington, Virginia), a friend talked about the first time Toni walked into her shop, “wearing thigh-high leather boots.” Many, many things expressed my own memories of Toni at this service—we were colleagues in my school writing center, and her teacher’s reminiscences of her intensity in the school setting, an intensity that made every moment matter, brought back cascading memories. Her sisters’ memories of her going Mama Bear on those who crossed them reminded me of the ways Toni used to look after me, and her friend Eric Melin’s memory of the way she could make your jaw drop by saying exactly what she thought, that was uncomfortably (and hilariously) familiar. But those boots….if she wasn’t wearing those boots the day I first saw her walk in the Writing Center, then she should have been. Like Clarence blowing the door off its hinges in that mythical bar meeting with Bruce, that first image of her crossing the room takes on epic dimensions for me, and if she wasn’t dressed all in suede with thigh high boots, I’ll never know because that’s all I can see right now.

Just as Clarence’s style would have meant much less without the distinct sound and call of that horn, Toni backed her style with unique substance. Its outlines were in every story told at yesterday’s memorial service. It was even in the look and feel of the service, a yard full of friends and family against a rich wooded backdrop—some drinking beer, some holding each other, all laughing between the tears.

We had to laugh, you see, because Toni was one of the world’s great laughers. That’s the way I hear her right now, talking about “boi-oi-oi-yeez” [boys] or whatever subject amused her at that moment, her voice staccatoed by that laugh that was perpetually trying to come out. Sometimes, she just let it go, and, hand to mouth, her whole body rocked with delight. One of Toni’s favorite phrases was “great fun” because she looked for it everywhere she went and generally found it.
This meant she found “great fun” in and for others as well. Unlike many charismatic and creative people I know, Toni’s sense of occasion was always about who she was with. When you were drawn into her orbit, you realized you’d found your own groove. I don't know how else to describe it.

My finest memories of Toni were “great fun,” but they were quiet ones. I once called her on a long afternoon I was reviewing 3 shows back-to-back at Kansas City’s one-time great blues club, the Grand Emporium. I was worried about her. She was going through a divorce but still living in her married home, and I figured she needed a friend. [We were “pals.” I don’t know how else to put it. Buddies, pals, shoulder-to-shoulder-through-the-rough-times friends.]

Anyway, so she tells me she’s making this casserole [for dinner I’m presuming], and I tell her that I guess she wouldn’t be interested in keeping me company at the club. In half an hour, she’s there, and we’re out in the parking lot eating her casserole. I ask her how she’s doing and she says, “I’m ba-ha-had! I’m cooking casseroles and driving around with them in my back seat.”

Then came one of those body rocking laughs, for both of us. There’s a little eternity in that afternoon in that parking lot crying-laughing and trying not to drop that casserole. Most of my memories of her somehow fold into that one.

You know how with some friends you are the driver and with some you are the passenger? I always see myself as the passenger with Toni, but we’re busy going nowhere special in no hurry because the best part’s that time in the car.

So, I heard my story reflected and refracted through the stories of others who spoke during her service and others who I talked to in that celebration I didn’t want to leave. Though I knew almost no one at the service when I arrived (the time and space that defined our relationship being a specific in-between station in her life), I knew of them because she always talked of her loved ones. And they knew of me. And I felt like I was among friends, potentially close friends because we all knew and somewhat understood and definitely benefitted from the integrity of one of the most creative and beautiful people any of us will ever be lucky enough to know.

The theme that came up again and again—regarding her sisters and regarding her two sons, Tariq and Malik, especially—was the way she gave them all permission to be who they were, to be different as they wanted to be and to recognize that difference as something special. This gal from north of Topeka did that for everyone she knew. She certainly did that for me. She taught me a lot about who I could be. A lot of what’s best about who I am, I owe to her.

Aside from worrying about all their loved ones being so sad, Toni and Clarence no doubt have this common mission to talk about in this tropical place where they walk the beach, drinking something extravagant and silly, maybe simply for its na-ai-ame, with their little umbrellas. They both took us closer to free. They both left us trusting we’d carry forward their work.

I promise, Toni, to keep chasing that “great fun” and do everything I can to make the world worthy of your gifts. Pass the word to C. Thanks for getting us started.