Monday, August 14, 2006

the force that through the green fuse drives the Goggins

Bill Goggins walked into my office sometime, I don't know, around 1991, maybe '92. He was applying for an internship at SF Weekly, where I was an editor at the time. (This was before it was a chain paper; don't let me bore you with that story.) He had some experience at a public radio station, KALW I think, but he generally seemed like exactly what he was, an overqualified, incredibly smart guy who'd been working in restaurants, bumming around the bar scene and imagining a million futures for himself that never quite came into focus. He was a San Franciscan, in other words, or at least (as I should say) a San Franciscan of that era. Things have changed. I was only a year or two older than Bill, and I wasn't far from being that kind of guy myself. I had half-accidentally fallen into an editorial position at a weekly freebie rag that was very slowly turning into something resembling actual journalism. And what the hell was I supposed to do with this kid? It was glaringly obvious that he was smarter and better educated than I was.

The editor-in-chief at the time, Marcelo Rodriguez, dropped by to meet Bill, and after Bill left, Marcelo looked at me and said: "He's incredibly talented, but I can't understand a fucking word out of his mouth. If you can figure out what he's talking about, he's all yours." Marcelo and I betrayed each other later, as people will in the overly intense atmosphere of a tiny paper where everybody works too hard, but he was an outstanding judge of talent and I'll always be grateful to him for that. Not on Bill's account -- Bill would have broken down somebody's door, somewhere and sometime -- but on mine. Because I got to work with Bill Goggins in that hothouse atmosphere for three years and become his friend.

I hardly know any of you who worked later with Bill at Wired, because I left San Francisco in 1995 (after New Times bought the Weekly). But it sounds like he already was the same irrepressible, hyperintelligent, hilarious, occasionally awkward and tremendously vital presence that he became at Wired, only in embryo. As anybody who knew Bill can testify, he could get on your nerves sometimes. He could be too intense. He lived every second in that second, wanting you to ride through that second with him, through some overtly obvious pun that had a deeply cynical second meaning and an almost utopian, invisible third meaning, past despair for the future of our planet to faux-crude admiration for a beautiful woman and an especially funny turn of phrase someone else had tossed off and barely noticed, concluding with a belief that Enlightenment wisdom would eventually banish the demons from our universe and a desire to go have a cocktail, or five. He once told me that he thought schoolchildren should recite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights instead of the Pledge of Allegiance, an idea that still makes me want to cry and laugh at the same time. And later that night, or the next night or the one after that, we were at some stupid party in some stupid South of Market loft -- yes, that was already a cliche, but perhaps a more exciting one in those days -- and he informed me, with no doubt in his voice, that he and I were both going to drink five glasses of champagne. Not over the course of the evening, but right now. So we did. The official story about our relationship was that I was the mentor -- I doubt I ever had a conversation with him where he didn't address me as "Cap'n" -- but of course with Bill it was very often the other way around.

But here's the thing: Yes, Bill could be too intense. But I have known hardly anyone in journalism, ever, who was more selfless and less arrogant. With his verbal facility, fact-loaded brain and nuclear-tipped intelligence, Bill could have been a real jerk. But as an intern, he never complained about typing up and fact-checking the listings database (it's a dreadful task that takes many hours, but it's also the raison d'etre of every weekly paper). On his own initiative, he made a coffee run for the editors every morning. He not only seemed at peace with the idea that he had to "pay dues" despite the obvious fact that he could have done any of our jobs more efficiently than we were doing them, he seemed to welcome it. Of course he worked harder than anyone and became essential, and in three years moved from all-purpose intern to copy editor to running the A&E section. I can't remember exactly when he became the go-to guy for headline copy, but I'd say that by the time he'd been there a year, he was writing half the heads in the paper.

By the time the Weekly got swallowed, Bill was among my closest friends. We worked together all day, and hung out several nights a week. I was the editor in chief, but he was the guy who helped me maintain a facade of composure and competence. We might have been too close. We knew an awful lot about each other's private lives, and even briefly had the same girlfriend at the same time. You can read into that whatever you like. After the Weekly gang split up and I moved to New York, I pretty much let the friendship drop. I don't exactly know how to forgive myself for that, but of course Bill never acted like I was a jerk. Whenever I saw him on either coast, or we checked in by email, the crazy-intense friendship seemed to pick up at the moment we had last left it, almost without a beat. The last time I hung out with him, he took me to the Mint on Upper Market and goaded me into a no-doubt amazing Karaoke version of George Michael's "Father Figure." I want to laugh and cry in the same second. Bill could.

I wasn't surprised that Bill walked away from journalism, at least for a while. I felt even in the early days that it wasn't clear what Bill should be doing: international law or psychiatry or reorienting the moral compasses of huge corporations or documentary filmmaking or TV standup or deep-sea diving or writing a book that would out-infinite Infinite Jest. All of those things, all of them, and more besides. Bill needed to live a thousand years and have a hundred careers. What was a few decades of sharpening copy, writing headlines, pistol-whupping the solipsistic minds of young writers, loving a wide array of friends all over the world and spending night after glittering night amid the lotus-eaters of San Francisco's barrooms?

It breaks my heart that Bill is dead. None of us can stand it, or we wouldn't be here. He didn't get to do all those other things, which reminds us that we won't get to either. His marriage didn't work out the way he wanted, and I know in my bones how badly Bill wanted marriage and a family. (News flash: Things won't work out for us the way we script them either.) But I also know in my bones that the prodigious sadness is ours, not Bill's. I feel him sitting next to me as I write. His hairline has receded still more, as I've seen in recent photos. He gives me a shrug and that twitchy little wink, and cracks his knuckles. "Easy come, squeezy go, Cap'n," he says. "Rattle my cage sometime, will ya?"

Bill was incapable, or almost incapable, of self-pity. He lived more in 43 years, most of them in one city, than most of us will live in twice that time. He lived more intensely in every hour of those 43 years than most of us ever do, except during sex, warfare or childbirth. He's more alive now, two weeks dead, than Dick Cheney has ever been. Ted Hughes once wrote a poem about a lamb that died in infancy where he said that life could never get its attention. That wasn't Bill's problem. Life had his full attention. He was more full of life than anybody I've ever met. Maybe this is childish magical thinking, but I've been telling myself that the life force was so strong in Bill, so literally superhuman that his human body finally couldn't contain it. I hold no fixed opinions on the big metaphysical questions, but the force that drove Bill Goggins was something big and primal and inextinguishable. It had to get out and go crashing around the universe, running far ahead of us down the dark Caltrain tunnel that leads from 16th Street to whatever that pinpoint of light is in the distance, laughing and smiling and dispensing great-bad puns along the way.

Andrew O'Hehir
New York
(andohehir -at-

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