Saturday, July 15, 1995
Rudnick came to me in a dream. We're in a house together and he is very sick. We're with a Sicilian, his hair slicked and his shirt open flaunting gold chains, dangling charms and regalia that are insignia of his malevolence and dominant masculinity. This Italian is the Authority of the house.
Bob sits at a table. He's fragile and indistinct. The Sicilian makes threats.
He demands that Bob balance and twirl a green plate on the end of a dowel -- like a circus performer defying gravity for the amusement of the unwashed to the tune of "Flight of the Bumblebee".
Rudnick tries but is unable to perform this command.
I'm sitting at the table with Bob. I look over toward an open closet door. Now the sinister Italian is standing in the closet, empty except for the grim thug himself and a few wire coathangers.
The Sicilian's back is to us and he has one of the hangers looped around his neck. He's pulling up on the hook of the hanger. The implication is clear. If Bob cannot perform the green plate balancing trick he will be garroted -- murdered by the goon -- and left to hang in the closet like a old suit of clothes.
It's one of those dreams of pending disaster encumbered by anxiety and laced with impotence.
Monday, July 17, 1995
Bob "Righteous" Rudnick, my friend of 25 years, has terminal cancers in his liver and pancreas. He's had a shunt and a surgically implanted pump inserted in his stomach so that fluids will bypass his diseased liver.
Three weeks ago he'd had a procedure that had ravaged his vocal chords leaving his once-resonate voice a raspy whisper. At the same time he was given a death sentence by a team of dour health professionals and ordered out of his bed at Rush Presbyterian St, Luke's Medical Center Chicago. He had been assigned a hospice bed in a nursing home deep in Chicago's predominately Jewish Roger's Park neighborhood.
His deterioration has been swift. I'm told that if I want to be with him for one last time I should hurry -- he has a little as 48-hours to live.
I booked a flight to Chicago that would leave Atlanta at 5pm at get me to O'Hare at 6pm. The weather is bad in the east and my flight is delayed an hour. I arrive in Chicago at 7pm, and I grab a cab.
The cabbie is a foreign national, new to Chicago, and unaware of the location of the Glencrest Nursing Home. He heads off in the opposite direction and I don't catch his error until we're at Lawrence Avenue -- 4800 north and 6500 west. I need to be at Touhy Avenue -- 7200 north, 2400 west. I'm in a race with Death and, like in my dream, I'm frustrated by anxiety and hampered by impotence.
Finally we pull into the parking lot of the Glencrest Nursing Home at a quarter-to-eight. Visiting hours end at 8pm.
I sign in at the register. The receptionist is an unpleasant fat woman with a bad eye who clearly doesn't enjoy her employment and does not possess the people-friendly skills that would benefit one in her position.
The nursing home is a foul and squalid terminal for the destitute and enfeebled. A clearing-house for the dying. The place stinks of urine and is layered in grime. It's a deplorable ghetto -- the final holding tank for the withered and impoverished -- running on the empty fuel tank of Medicaid dollars.
The fat receptionist with the bad eye instructs me that "Stanley" Rudnick is down the hall in a corner room on the first floor. I move down the hallway around a cluster of piss-stained, fluorescent-lit hopeless souls on walkers and in wheelchairs.
Tacked to the door of Bob's room is a canary-yellow 8 1/2" x 11" sheet of paper embellished with bad clip-art of a clown and balloons. "Stanley Rudnick" is scrawled in black magic marker in a vacant area. The door is open and as I approach I can see a moderate-sized room with four beds separated by draw-curtains to provide a modicum of privacy. A black and white television hangs on the wall tuned into a White Sox game.
On the first bed immediately to the left of the open door sits Rudnick, a skeletal apparition. He sees me, grins wide and throws open his bony arms for an embrace, which I accept with relish.
The dream is over and I've beat Death to the finish line. I'm with my friend, locked in a bear hug with a shadow of his former self.
LOOKING FOR GOD'S COUNTRY
Herman and Teresa Rudnick,
Hymie and Toots in 1959
With the first heart attack on their back
left Anthracite, Pennsylvania, for Albino Beach, Florida
Now in the balding grey dusk of the eighties
going blind, scared to drive to the grocery,
the pharmacy, their doctor,
or even take a walk after Wheel of Fortune
Their two sons scattered by the superficial wind of maturity
Their baby at 40
dances with Morpheus at midnight
on the wind-chilled street corners of the city that once worked
While the eldest, their first-born
takes out a second mortgage on his only daughter
to find the warmth and sun of God's Country
just like his parents, Hymie and Toots
--Bob Righteous Rudnick
I only have a few minutes with Rudnick before visiting hours are over.
Bob reaches into a drawer beside his bed, pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights up.
"MY GOD!" bellows an agitated old guy in the bed across from Bob's. "ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?! THERE'S OXYGEN IN HERE. YOU'LL KILL US ALL!"
"Ironic" rasps Rudnick as he takes another puff and grins.
The guy in the other bed grabs his walker and hobbles out to report fire in the hole.
"I'll see you in the morning" I tell Bob. As I'm heading for the front door the fat lady with the bad eye lumbers past me on her way to Bob's room yelping admonitions along the way.
I walk up the block to the nearest bus stop for transportation to Kate Nolan's, where I'm staying.
As I'm waiting for the bus a black man, around fifty years-old, approaches me.
"Hey man" he says. "I just got stabbed." I can see blood spreading through his shirt at belly level. "Buncha young niggas tried to take my wallet, but I wouldn't give it up, and I chased them off. Don't know what's wrong with young niggas these days. Actin' like thugs! Listenin' to rap music. They picked the wrong nigga to fuck with tonight. I wouldn't give 'em my money so they cut me. It ain't bad, though. I been cut worse than this mo' than once. Stupid young niggas don't even know how to stab people! In my day we knew how to cut somebody!" he says as he moves on down the street.
Suddenly a black Bronco speeds in my direction. I jump back from the curb as the suv lurches and screeches inches from the bus stop sign. Two skinheads in the backseat lean out of the window shaking their fists and shrieking incoherent threats and hateful anger at me as they barrel by. The suv hurtles off in search of other villainous horseplay.
As the black Bronco tears off up the block a couple of young Hispanic girls, who couldn't be more than twelve years-old sashay by in short plaid schoolgirl skirts, high-heels, big hair and too much makeup, like miniature prostitutes trolling for tricks. They give me a look and a wink but continue their nascent promenade rummaging the avenue for depravity, foraging for mortal sin.
A woman pushing a baby stroller approaches me. She says "I'm out of formula for my baby. Do you know if there's a 24-hour grocery around here?"
"I don't know the neighborhood" I say. "I'm from out of town."
She continues down the sidewalk, pushing her fussy hungry baby as sirens howl faintly in the night air.
The siren grows louder. I look back down in the direction of the Glencrest Nursing Home. Red flashing lights careen into view as a fire truck rockets at full throttle up the dark street and into the driveway at the Nursing home.
My bus pulls up to the stop and I climb aboard.
When I get to Kate's I call John Petrie and tell him we have to get Bob back into the hospital. He deserves more than the squalid, urine-stained waiting room where he's been sent to die. We arrange to have an ambulance pick him up the next day and take him to the Emergency Room at Rush Presbyterian St, Luke's. If they can find something wrong with him other than the cancers that are killing him he will be admitted.
FOR GAVIN WHOSE NIGHT IT WAS
Walking down Woodward at 1:57 a.m.
when Detroit bars close
and no one is on the street
The wind chilling to the bone like the Hawk,
welcomes me to the Murder City
on Devil's Night.
A smell of burning wood in the air
Only a hooker and me witness the burning
pausing paranoid to hear if there are any screams
And from abandoned Victorian townhouses
the cries of copulating cats
echo through the Cass Corridor
bouncing off my consciousness
sounding like the helpless pleas of abused hillbilly children
Tonight is Devil's Night
One thousand nine hundred and eighty-seven years
after the Common Error
even the word Detroit feels cold
And Geraldo Rivera missed an exclusive interview with Jesus
and last call by three minutes and a field goal
Murder in the Motor City is up 10%
Think we we'll pass Hank Aaron's home run record
--Bob Righteous Rudnick
Tuesday, July 18, 1995
The next morning I arrive at the Glencrest Nursing home around 10 am. The old guy in the bunk across from Bob's says "Bob don't look so good,"
Bob's trying say something but I can't make it out. I lean in close to hear him and he kisses me. I say "I love you too, Bob." This is some difficult shit, but I keep it together.
Around noon the ambulance arrives. Bob's gurnyed into the back and I climb into the cab with the driver. On the way to the hospital I make small talk with the driver. I tell him I'm trying to find a less abject place for my friend to die. "Good for you, he says."
We arrive at the ER and Bob, now unconscious, is wheeled into the hospital, into an empty bay and hooked up to a Morphine drip. Broken limbs, gunshot wounds and malfunctioning hearts surround us. Screams and moans and anxious clamor gird the room. In the bay next to us is a rape victim. She's a doctor at this hospital and is now a victim and a patient -- and she's enraged and vociferous. Commotion surrounds us but Rudnick sleeps.
After a couple of hours Bob is rolled into X-Ray. The technician takes a couple of pictures and leaves the room. Bob regains consciousness, after a fashion. He gets off the table and pulls out his IV. His eyes are wild and he's hallucinating. I leave the room and tell the technician that the patient is moving around and incoherent. The tech puts Bob back on the gurney, straps him in and reconnects his drip. He fades again and is rolled, unconscious, back into the ER before the X-Rays are complete.
This time he's parked in a bay directly across from a guy who has been beaten with a 2x4. His legs are broken. He's a large man with long gray hair cascading over his shoulders. And flowing gray beard.
Rudnick is awake again. He sits upright and points a trembling bony finger in the direction of the bearded, long-haired guy.
Hallucinating that he's in the afterlife and having a face-to-face with Jehovah, timorous and perplexed he whispers "Who is that?" He slips back into narco-slumber.
After a while a doctor shows up and tells me Bob has pneumonia and will be admitted.
Around 6pm we get a room in the oncology ward. Bob is awake but he doesn't know where he is. He doesn't remember a thing about the day. He drops off again and sleeps with his eyes and mouth open. I try to get some sleep in a chair beside his bed but I have a difficult time at it. Periodically Rudnick wakes out of his coma and waves at me. I finally fall into a fitful sleep brimming with eerie phantoms and ungodly nightmares.
Knocked over a clock
That knocked over a beer
on an almost finished poem
Can always get a new clock
Can maybe write a new poem
But tonight I need this beer
--Bob Righteous Rudnick
Wednesday, July 19, 1995
Bob is having a pretty good day. He's staying alert, getting to the bathroom by himself.
But he's in the bathroom a bit too long. I can hear him scratching and frenetically scraping around. I go to check on him. He's ferreting under the sink and behind the toilet. He's removed the cardboard core from a roll of toilet paper and is digging into it, tearing it apart. He looks up at me and says "I know I hid some around here somewhere, but I can't find it. I LOVE heroin!" he says hungrily.
After while Jenny shows up. Jenny is Bob's girlfriend. They'd connected when Bob was in his mid-forties and she was twenty-two. Jenny is from Detroit and her parents liked Bob even though he's a radical ne'er-do-well, a penniless poet and an ardent junkie. He was a step in the right direction. Her former boyfriend, "Scary", was doing life for murder. Bob told me he knew it was true love because when she'd leave for work in the morning she'd leave a half-pint of whiskey on her pillow for him to find when he awoke.
The three of us sit side-by-side on the edge of his bed. Jenny, Rudnick and me. Bob leans over and kisses me on the cheek. Jenny yelps "Hey! What about me?!" He turns and lays one on her. It's a pretty good day.
A bit later John Petrie, his wife Jo Jaffee and Paul Karrol join us. John reaches into a paper bag and pulls out a fifth of Wild Turkey and passes it around. Bob sits in a chair beside the bed and hosts the soiree. After a few drinks Jo wants to know why the hospital can't provide Bob with a wheelchair so that he could wander the hospital for diversion. She leaves the room to find a doctor to whom she can issue demands on Bob's behalf. We take turns swigging the whiskey as her heated challenges echo through the hallways.
Thursday, July 20, 1995
Thursday morning I woke up early. Hard to get very much sleep in hospital chairs, even the kind that recline into something bed-like.
Bob's fairly catatonic. He sleeps most of the time, his eyes and mouth open, his breathing shallow and infrequent. The morphine mercifully weaves elaborate dreams for the entertainment of his dying soul. But every now and then he slips the embrace of narco-slumber and he returns to the hospital room.
I'm sitting next to his bed, he shifts his weight and looks at me with a grin and asks "Having fun?"
"Are you uncomfortable?" I ask him.
I get one of the nurses to increase his dosage. He slips back into his analgesic doze.
The doctors, as always are imperious and dart in and out of the room self-importantly barking orders. But the nurses are always there and they are angels. On this ward their job is to send off the dying to the Other Side with as little difficulty and pain as possible. They are gentle warmhearted women, compassionate and noble as a matter of course. They stroke Bob's face and hold his hand and kiss his forehead.
One of them asks me "Is he your best buddy?"
"Yeah. Best buddy," I answer.
I'm taking the phone calls and collecting the faxes from those whose lives he's touched. Penny Arcade, Legs McNeal, Steve Paul, Penny Puhl. And a fax from Rich Stoneman. "I remember you running up 4 flights of stairs at 76 Riverside Drive, raspily saying 'Hurry up -- Lou Reed is in the Rambler and we're late for WFMU. Do you have anything to smoke?'"
Friday, July 21, 1995
Dementia claims Rudnick on Friday.
I help him to the bathroom. After a few minutes I check on him.
He's sitting on the toilet. His hair is tangled and wild, like an unstable current is rampaging through his brain and surging out through his scalp. His eyes are wide and turbulent, full of lunacy. The fleeting illusion of Life is breaking away. The ship is pulling away from the dock.
"You ok, Bob?" I ask. But we're not connecting. He's adrift, lost in his internal turmoil.
I get him back to bed and he slides back into unconsciousness. And I settle in to the chair beside his bed for the duration.
The afternoon crawls by. I find myself counting the minutes between his breaths, each time longer than the previous, until his breathing stops altogether. I touch Bob's hand. It's as cold as ice.
Paul Karroll walks into the hospital room.
"P.K." I say. "I think he's gone."
Paul goes to his knees at the bedside, whispering Hassidic prayers for the dead.
Suddenly a bunch of Bob's friends, the ones who arrive every evening to drink whiskey and carouse and lionize Bob, burst boisterously into the room.
John Sinclair wrote "Rudnick was such a beautiful street-level cat from the old school: he knew everybody in every joint in town that was worth a visit, and he reveled in amassing weird groupings of people ... working out vast details of logistics over the phone, wrestling everyone into vehicles and propelling some small mob from place to place, mixing with the inhabitants, regrouping ( "All right," _ he' d whisper in each person's ear, "we'll be leaving in ten minutes and, let's see, it'll take us exactly 24 minutes to get there."), and lurching off into the night, always unbelievably attentive to every social, sexual, recreational drug and musical need of each member of the party."
Bob sits straight up, climbs out of bed and takes the toastmaster's chair amid this confederacy of unruly friends. He always was the consummate host and he isn't about to let a little thing like his imminent death stop him now. He grins and touches his rowdy comrades. When they've all left he crawls into the hospital bed and slips back into the black.
Saturday, July 22, 1995
Today Bob doesn't leave his bed. He remains unconscious and inanimate.
Early in the afternoon a doctor with a retinue of interns visits the room. He tells his students that this patient was an IV drug user. Then the doctor turns to me and asks "Is he HIV positive?"
"No" I answer. But it strikes me as odd that he didn't check the patient's chart and that he's asking a civilian sitting at a patient's bedside for diagnostic information.
Sunday, July 23, 1995
Rudnick dies at around 4pm, when everyone is out of the room.
"They often do that" said the nurse. "They wait until they're alone."
In September, 1995, a memorial and a gathering to celebrate the Righteous One's life and influence was held at the Heartland Cafe in Chicago. We were there to commemorate and exalt but also to raise the money needed to provide a tombstone for Bob's grave.
The Heartland cafe, not a small place, was packed shoulder to elbow with Bob's friends, fellow travelers and admirers. The restaurant portaged trays of whiskey sufficient to oil the throng as comrades and henchmen took the stage to spin wild stories of Rudnick's audacity and reckless tenacity. Blues musicians played the blues, jazz musicians jazzed it up, rock 'n' rollers shook the rafters and poets emoted tribute and homage.
Bob's old friend and fellow conspirator from the heady days of the MC5 and the White Panther Party, John Sinclair, recited his poem "Ain't nobody's business if I do".
"we have a right to our bad habits
& if we want to blow our minds
or fuck up our lives, shoot dope
or smoke cocaine,
if we want to eat too much meat,
sit around all day & watch t.v.,
stay up all night listening to music
by charlie parker & screamin' Jay hawkins,
if we want to walk around naked,
fuck our eyes out,
eat some pussy or suck a cock,
take it up the ass, get our nuts off
700 times a day,
lay around & drink whiskey,
bet on games, shoot dice,
sell some pussy on the street,
if we want to gamble in casinos
or spend our money in a whorehouse,
give the president a blow job
in his big chair in the white house,
walk around the streets
with all our belongings in little bags,
sleep in doorways,
piss in the gutter,
if we want to sleep away the day
& never answer the telephone,
take every meal in restaurants & bars
& never exercise,
& if it comes to the end
of the line for us, we have every right
to blow our motherfucking brains out
or jump off the bridge
or take ourselves away from here
any way we might want to, then baby please,
we got a right to our final choices
& it ain't nobody bizness if we do"
The last performers of the evening were a punk band from Detroit who stomped the American flag and played with such ferocity and racket that the neighbors called the cops.
In the end I designed Bob's headstone with the image of a sleeping lion and a quote from Coltrane's "A Love Supreme".
"No road is an easy one, but they all go back to God."
I mentioned to one of my friends that since I was at the age where people around me were beginning to drop off, maybe I should go into the business of designing grave markers. I could call my new enterprise "Stoned Again".