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-

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Bumping Into Bill

I'm definitely one of those believers that people who remain connected to each other do so for reasons that span beyond our lifetimes. I wouldn't say that Bill and I were intensely connected or ritually connected, but enough so that bumping into him was always special.

Bill (as we all knew) was a unique human being. He radiated the stuff that makes us glad we're alive. I can never fully describe it...and I know better writers could get closer to it, but you know what I mean. He was the kind of person I looked forward to seeing at work at Wired, because regardless how stressed he might of been or if he was rushing by, he was always smiling, funny and so kind. This was a big plus for me in those heady days of Wired, because by the time Bill joined the magazine, there were a lot of very talented by totally egomaniacal types. He wasn't one of them!

One of my most memorable encounters with Bill was bumping into him at a war protest in downtown LA in February 2003. I moved to LA 6 months earlier, and well, everything in my life really sucked. It was my birthday, and earlier that day I got in a phone argument with my mom about why I chose to spend my birthday at a war protest that she didn't really understand let alone agree with. Not feeling particularly happy, I saw Bill on a corner and he turned, saw me, and immediately his face lit up. It's like someone hired Bill to track me down and cheer me up. We hugged, caught up on things the way you do between hundreds of people bustling around and Martin Sheen on loudspeaker. The day got better.

The last time I bumped into Bill was at the Latin American Club about a month before his death. I had moved back to SF a couple years ago and missed the Wired reunion parties, so hadn't seen Bill since LA. Paul Donald and Amy Johns were also there. "Hello beautiful!" was Bill's reaction to seeing me, and I think I said something of the same back. Rarely do I hear that anymore! I loved him for just being a classic, charming and totally in the present guy.

Like a lot of others, I am deeply saddened that he died so young and so suddenly. I also feel that hell, if you're gonna go, do what you enjoy. All my future runs are with Bill.

Kristy O'Rell

Immortal in my Book

I was deeply honored that Bill and Varese came up to Portland for my wedding last year on July 30th, 2005, exactly one year prior to Bill’s fateful run in the San Francisco Marathon.

Although we kept in touch and saw each other sporadically over the years (he visited me a few times in Germany, where I’ve lived the past 20 years, and I came to SF), most of my memories of Bill go back some 25 years when we were both 18-19 years old. I lived next door to Bill in a freshman dorm at Georgetown University. The first thing he said to me when we met was, "Would you like to engage in some stimulating interlocution?" “Say whuh?!” He was a gifted student who seemed to defy entropy and convert 100% of expended energy into results. He was also just a really fun guy to hang out with.

Early that year he "raided" my room one night by banging on the door and yelling, "Open up, vice squad!" It became a funny ritual: to bang on the other guy’s door, burst in, pantomime and yell out another creative variation on the "vice squad" theme: Dice squad, mice squad, rice squad...I think we ran out of rhymes after I flung open his door and began furiously scratching my scalp: Bill grinned, "Right…lice squad…".

It sounds kind of nerdy now, but that same year I swaggered into Bill’s room and boasted that my "Merriam-Webster" was far superior to his "New Heritage". He immediately picked up the gauntlet and we staged Dictionary Wars where one of us would try to find a word definition in our own dictionary that we believed there was no way the other dictionary could possibly match, much less, surpass it. It was a testament to the fact that words were to Bill as eighth-notes were to Mozart, and Bill had a competitive spirit in all things.

Although some exchanges with Bill were mundane, he would begin many a conversation by listening thoughtfully to your standard "PK4" opening, then develop a koan-like imponderable that would end with an "I gotcha!" raised eyebrow and tilt of the head, or if you were on the phone with him, a slight inflection in his voice, to let you know that he would be highly impressed if you 'got it' but not disappointed or condescending if you didn't.

I visited Bill four weeks before the 1989 earthquake, when he was living just above Chinatown. We went to the Embarko and had a great time. Bill was one of the few people who could comprehend the humor and humanity of a strange 3:00 a.m. encounter I'd had that weekend in an all-night donut shop with an A's fan who carried with him an old gym bag containing 25 years of hits, runs and errors on a thick stack of tattered and yellowed continuous paper print-outs. I told Bill the guy had an endearing, yet somewhat annoying, habit of repeating your name like a small child: “Hey John!..Hey John! Joooohhhn! Hey John!” Bill immediately added that character to his 999 other Mel Blanc voices. The perfect copy editor, Bill took the original and made it even funnier. I used to get abdominal cramps every time Bill launched into that voice.

Bill's memory, of course, approached total recall. I once told him the same "funny thing that happened to me" twice within the space of two months. He listened politely until I was finished, then his face erupted into a Harpo Marx grimace. I said, "Oh, that's right, that's old news, isn't it...." He jutted his jaw and responded in a faux Dirty Harry voice: "Yes...why don't you live a NEW life...I'm TIRED of hearing about the OLD one...."

I spiritually believe, but of course cannot verify, that Bill is now in Heaven. It is appealing imagery to see Bill dining on “ambrosia” and making the universe roar with laughter at his wit, humor and verbal acrostics. Others may very well subscribe to some form of materialism whereby a few hundred gigabytes from among the terabytes of brilliant “memes” that thrived in his mind managed to survive the brutal eviction and now live in diaspora on paper and as memories in all of us, and that’s as immortal as it gets. I guess the latter alternative would be a bleak and despairing way to go out for those who never ‘made their mark’ during their brief lifetime. (Could that be the materialist equivalent of “not going to Heaven”? It’s a crying shame I can’t ask Bill, as I’m sure he’d be able to comment on that. ) But Bill had such a lasting impact on so many people’s lives, I’m very certain he’s having it both ways with the cosmos: he is "up there" in a soulful, spiritual sense and yet still very much "down here", very tangible and real in our hearts and minds. I find that very comforting amid my deep sadness over his passing.

John Stilwell, Munich, Germany