By christopher j pinney
I met Dave when I was fourteen. We had both gone out for the high school tennis team, and quickly bonded over our mutual dislike of the coach; a strange unpleasant man with Krakatoan intensity. To be fair, “Coach Roach” was an obsessive perfectionist, and we were clowns. Offended by our mediocrity, I remember Coach handing Dave a racket with no strings and dispatching us to a faraway court where we were supposed to practice “swinging through.” The theory was that using the empty racket would increase the fluidity of our ground strokes. We never got a chance to find out. After theatrically whiffing three or four times, Dave pushed his face through the center of the racket, saying, “Romper, stomper, stomper boo. Tell me, tell me, tell me, do…”; a spot-on reference to a children’s show featuring an empty hand-held mirror. As I convulsively laughed, Coach Roach appeared out of nowhere, unamused. Smirking at us, he barked, “Five laps around the courts, both of you.” When he noticed Dave and I still laughing midway through our third or fourth lap, he made us run five more.
Dave was probably the funniest person I’ve ever known. Sharing a dark, absurdist sense of humor, we immediately committed to the challenge of making each other laugh. Everything was fair game, and Dave had an uncanny knack for delivering beautifully inappropriate jokes with a deadpan face. Whether he was talking about how sexy my eighty-year-old Nana looked in her hairnet, or facetiously whispering sweet nothings to his cat, Martha (“Don’t worry, Martha, when they leave we’ll have our special time..”), Dave made a point of stepping over the line.
One of Dave’s most memorable jokes wasn’t funny to me at the time, which of course made it funnier. My Ford Escort had broken down near his house on the coldest night of the year, and I asked Dave if he could steer while I rolled it off the main road. Straining to push the car through a bone-chilling wind, I heard Dave’s muffled voice coming from the driver’s seat. “Chris, do you mind if we swing by 7-11? I’m a little parched.
As funny as he was, Dave’s humor often hinted at a cynicism borne of the contrast between idealism and reality. His great Kung Fu spoof, for example, in which he envisioned a blunter, less inspirational Master Po: “Run like the wind, Grasshopper. Your opponent is far larger than you and will surely crush you to a pulp.” Or his absurdly pessimistic reimagining of the chorus from Bob Marley’s song, Get Up, Stand Up: “Get up, stand up. Sit back down again.”
Beneath the wisecracks Dave was troubled. Plagued with poor self-worth, he was characteristically anxious, and suffered through stretches of crippling depression. He almost always felt as though he should be doing more (code for living more conventionally: pursuing an education, relationship, better job…), but the life he thought he should be aspiring to never seemed to fit. Whether he was in school, or working in a cubicle, Dave invariably felt lonely and unsatisfied.
Although it was organic and probably to some extent unconscious, in his twenties Dave undertook what would become a lifelong quest for higher meaning. In the myriad forms of philosophy, politics, Morrissey, drugs, Dylan, vegetarianism, Wicca, crystals, therapy, and ultimately Zen Buddhism, Dave plumbed the possibilities of consciousness; obsessively immersing himself in potential panaceas. Like a safecracker restlessly searching for the right combination. More than anything, though, I saw Dave as an explorer, admiring his dogged pursuit of greater understanding. But watching it was inspiring and heartbreaking in equal measures. As desperately as Dave searched for that elusive puzzle piece, he seemed fated not to find it; each door leading to another.
As those who knew him can attest, Dave was a one-of-a-kind experience. In the span of the same conversation he could be insightful, silly, self-absorbed, hilarious, charming, and compassionate. He spent the last years of his life in San Francisco living among Zen Buddhists, more comfortable in his skin than I had ever seen him. He had made good friends, learned meaningful lessons, and enjoyed being part of a community. But the last time I saw him he seemed adrift and dispirited. He was considering going back on anti-depressants, but skeptical about their effectiveness. He was studying to be a pharmaceutical tech, but laughingly confessed that he had no interest in it. “I don’t know, I might come home,” he said, “but I dread the thought of returning to the ‘real world’.” The next day when I dropped him off at the airport I told him to call me if he needed to talk. I don’t know if it would’ve made any difference, but I wish he had called.
Years after John Lennon was murdered, George Harrison said he didn’t think of him as dead. They had been living separate lives for so long, he explained, they no longer had a day-to-day relationship. Lennon existed for him, and would continue to exist, in memories. At the time I found Harrison’s sentiments a bit detached, but now I think I understand what he meant. I loved Dave, and it saddens me to know that I’ll never share another spontaneous moment with him. But the time we spent together will always be with me, and I’m thankful for that.
On “The Ino’s Blog,” Shundo — one of his fellow Buddhists from the Zen Center — posted two thoughtful pieces about Dave’s passing, featuring fond remembrances from many of his friends at the Center. The ‘real world’ misses him, too.