I found out last night that my friend and former professor Phil Heldrich died from complications of the cancer he’d been fighting for a year or so and I’ve been crushed about the news ever since. Phil was a great friend to have and I can’t help but think of some of the times we had together, some of which he wrote about in his book of essays Out Here in the Out There. I was Mr. Tecate Man in the book. This came from my talking him into buying beer for our hotel rooms in Albuquerque for a conference so that we wouldn’t have to go to the bar and pay ridiculous amounts of money for my favorite drink. When looking at the beer selection (by the way, they have drive through windows at liquor stores in New Mexico, something that Phil just couldn’t believe) I grabbed a 12 of Tecate and jokingly said, “Well, when in New Mexico, drink what the Mexicans drink.” So the name stuck. What Phil did in the essay that he wrote about the trip, “Epiphania,” was to write about the poverty and nuclear power of New Mexico, contrasting it with the singular beauty of the state and how he experienced it. He bent the actual events to fit into his art. I’m not sure I actually said 99% of the stuff “I” do in the story, but I did fall off a bar stool at a Stanley Jordan concert and that, my friends, is about as much fun as a Stanley Jordan concert can be. But this was how truth could be found, we had once discussed, through art(ifice). Phil had a gift for writing essays.
When I was in the last half of my 20s and in grad school, I just couldn’t see why everyone wrote confessionally, especially when that could be done so horribly and often was. I can think of one writer who was an earlier professor of mine, and who was a professor of Phil’s as well, who made a name for himself as a second-tier poet in the 70s and 80s by writing poems that were not-at-all-veiled tales of himself cheating on his wife and generally doing dickish things. Maybe this was why I hated confessional writing, because you had to put yourself on display and most of those people willing to do it weren’t people I’d really want to hang out with much. But Phil didn’t write about sexual conquests (because he didn’t have any, since he was very faithful to his wife and loved her and his daughter) or other macho things that were the literary equivalent of Burt Reynold’s moustache. Phil liked writing about place. He had a special way of folding himself into a landscape and its history and using this to look at your life in a way to relate to others. It sounds simple when I say that, but that was the beauty of his writing. It wasn’t that simple at all. It wasn’t quite regionalism, but at the same time it was a way of measuring yourself against the land like a pioneer staring at a Kansas sunset. He knew that life wasn’t all related to geography, but that the land could have a big effect on how we live and how we view our lives as well as other lives. Even a story he once told me of how he happened to get a ride home from someone who later was outed as a killer became as much about Chicago as finding the gun under the seat. I guess it’s a kind of post-regionalist mentality in a way, but even putting that kind of moniker on it sounds flatulent and probably smells that way as well.
And here I am, age 37, writing about someone who touched my life, trying to lay out my feelings for the man and wrap it up into a coherent few paragraphs on death and music and loss in 1s and 0s. Because I don’t have Phil’s genius at essays, however, I won’t bore you with my flatulence and will instead leave you with a story. On our way to the airport from Emporia, KS, to Kansas City (to fly to that conference in Albuquerque), I mentioned a funny thing I had just read in the front pages of Harper’s. It was a bit called “What Would Journey Do?” and was a riff on the “What Would Jesus Do?” movement that seemed to be everywhere in the small college town where we lived that sat like a cracked jewel in the buckle of the bible belt. As I was telling him and the other passenger, Amy–another professor, about how taking random lyrics from a horrible band was akin to religion (or something equally grad-school stupid), he said that he loved Journey. That he and his wife listened to them all the time when they first started dating and that he had lots of warm memories of LA and California and that time in his life. I told him that his mullet now made more sense (it was a bit of a mullet, not a true one). I then explained to him what a mullet was. And as much as I still hate Journey, I now will never be able to listen to them without my own warm memories of Phil. I guess I can thank him for that. I do know that I will miss him immensely and I’m thankful for all that he taught me. I don’t know for sure how Phil felt about San Francisco, but I’d guess he would have had some great stories about it–maybe relating it to Jack London or Haight Street or Harvey Milk. And I know he would appreciate the irony of making me listen to Journey. Doubly so for forcing me to write while listening to Journey. He’d laugh, “Ha ha, gotcha on that one. Yeeeaaaah,” waving his finger in the air and then go into musing about the history of the block of whatever town we were in.
Thanks and goodbye my dear friend.