There's a tin-age Bob Dylan song called "Is Your Love in Vain?" that was on the '78 Street Legal, just one year before his brief Christian phase. The lyrics included the line, "Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow"; this was back when feminists still existed, and Dylan caused a stir with the words, but I don't think he cared too much. Nor did I, except that now it's the first pop title?aside from "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"?that flashes through my mind when I think of my brother Doug, who died of a rapid cancer at his home in San Luis Obispo, CA, on Dec. 18 at the age of 52. He leaves behind two loving and quick-witted daughters, Xela and Kira, ages 12 and 8, Dan Vasquez, his devoted companion of four years, and Barbara Bailey, the mother of his children. An odd arrangement, I suppose, in most of the United States, but San Luis is a college town in California. That says it all to me: people who look askance at the intertwining relationships?Dan has two kids, Barbara is a lesbian?can fuck off as far as I'm concerned.
My three remaining brothers and I had common and disparate relationships with Doug (he was the middle of five boys, I'm the youngest), times when circumstances beyond childhood put us in the same vicinity or household for a long period of time. He traveled to Bangkok and Alaska with my oldest brother Red (there's a photo of Doug taking a dip in the freezing waters, stark naked); deciphered financial statements with my second oldest brother, Jeff, for a Mexican restaurant he'd started a year ago with Dan; and managed our father's car wash in 1972 with brother number four, Gary, after Dad died unexpectedly at 55 of a heart attack. Doug had to be called home from a Peace Corps stint in Afghanistan when the tragedy occurred, and when he arrived in New Jersey after several flights that totaled maybe 46 hours, I'll never forget the endless embrace he had with my weeping mother. He'd planned on remaining longer than two years in Afghanistan, but family came first: Doug was a mensch.
It was during the two following years that I spent the most time alone with him. Once they unloaded the car wash, Gary and his girlfriend Teresa, now his wife, left for San Francisco, while Doug and I stayed in a ramshackle house with our mother five miles outside Princeton. I was a senior in a redneck high school, Doug was figuring out what to do next with his life. He seemed so old then; it amazes me that while I was 17, he was only 25. Doug eventually took a master's at Fairfield University, a doctorate in rhetoric at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and soon wound up as a professor at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. So things worked out for him on a professional level.
Our mom was still grieving for the husband she'd married in 1940 and lost prematurely (today, he'd have a bypass and be back at work in two weeks); keeping her fragile body together was difficult enough. Doug, aside from reading 14 or so books a week, from mystery trash to John Barth, and watching All in the Family and Maude, was the effective household manager. We were fortunate to have the Watergate hearings as a distraction: We both wanted Nixon to be crucified and relished every morsel that John Dean ratted out to Sen. Sam Ervin's committee, and joyously watched the President's cohorts fall one by one, especially the demonic Bob Haldeman. We'd later be on opposite political poles, but for then both of us were tear-down-the-wall-motherfuckers hippies. Especially Doug, who went to college from '65-'69, the shank of the counterculture revolution, at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
But back to that lame Dylan song. In fact, Doug did teach me how to cook and make flowers grow; as for sewing, we were both at a loss, as was my mother. In the spring of '73, just months before I went to Hopkins myself?I can still remember those visits to Baltimore in '65, when the city was still de facto segregated and A-rabs led their horse-drawn fruit carts around town?Doug planted a huge garden with four kinds of lettuce, dozens of tomato plants, green peppers, herbs and a little marijuana on the side. At one point, he considered getting a goat to roam the yard and graze on grass, and then eating the animal that fall. My mother and I nixed that plan; we couldn't bear feasting on a pet.
On the cooking front, Doug came back with elaborate (to us) recipes from Afghanistan, which employed lamb, cumin, yogurt, grape leaves and flat bread. He taught me how to prepare coq au vin, roast chicken, meatloaf and the old family standard of hotdogs and beans, with his own eccentric touches, like splitting the dog and stuffing it with brie. He was a fabulous chef and I'm sure he could've made a career of it.
Not that things didn't get testy on occasion. That summer I worked at Princeton University?where our mother was a librarian?in a science lab where my duties included feeding and cleaning up after white rats, and then, when they became obsolete, throwing about 50 of the varmints in a metal box and pouring chloroform in it to knock them off. It was a little unsettling at first to hear the 20 seconds of rat whines and scrambling, but it was part of the job. What really got to me, though, was when I'd have to go out back to exterminate redundant monkeys and cats, and would draw a crowd of outraged students, who'd boo me (a minimum wage $1.85/hour grunt) for performing my duties, so they wouldn't have to do it themselves. I hate college students, especially the sanctimonious liberal ones.
Anyway, one night early in the summer, I came home from work, had a beer or two and went into the kitchen to pop another when I heard this Doug-laced harangue: "Gee, it sure is fun to cook for you and Mom and then have to clean up, too." I responded, yeah I guess that's a drag. That didn't cut it. "No, you don't understand: From now on, you'll clean the dishes and pots and pans. And I don't want a half-assed effort, either." This put me off, but he was right, and so I acquiesced and tidied up the kitchen for the rest of the summer. It was a fair deal. Our mom was upset at Doug yelling at me, scolding him, "Son, Rusty's only 17, why don't you lighten up!" But my brother was correct.
He drove me to school that fall and stayed the night, after introducing my roommate Mark (who killed himself several years later; I still have no clue why) and me to Fells Point and Greenmount Ave.'s Godfrey's Steer and Beer, where a tall glass of Pabst was still a quarter. (Cigarettes in Maryland at that time were only 35 cents a pack.) Doug eventually moved out of the house, when my mother was stable, and began his second education career. I remember once visiting him at his Troy, NY, apartment near Rensselaer in '75; he was proud that I was a journalist at the Hopkins News-Letter and asked me to teach a class, even though I was younger than most of his students.
In 1982 he almost died from a serious bout with Guillain-Barré Syndrome. He was taken to Los Angeles from San Luis (where they had no clue how to treat him) by a speeding ambulance and though he was largely paralyzed in the hospital and couldn't speak, he did scrawl out a message to his brothers: "These doctors are butchers!" When he recovered a bit, though he was still on steroids and using a cane, Gary and I went to visit him and found a daredevil awaiting us. He'd drive around the curvy mountains (with no guardrails) at breakneck speeds, which was all too adventurous for my taste. We stayed drunk for three days.
As the years progressed, my other brothers and I would see him about twice a year, when he came to New York to grade SAT tests. It was a boondoggle for him, all expenses paid, and gave him time to shop at Canal Jean, visit my newspaper office, fool around with the computers and eat fancy dinners with Red, Jeff, Gary and me.
In 1986 we spent time in Dublin and Belfast together, a wonderful trip that culminated in a two-day stay at the Ashford Castle. One day, as we drove to Belfast, both of us hungover from way too many glasses of Bushmills and Guinness at the Shelbourne Hotel, he was in an exceptionally bad mood. We stopped early to get some lunch; I told him I wasn't hungry and he replied, "Well, fine, but this is the last stop till dinner," as if he was meting out great punishment. I told him I didn't give a shit, which stunned him, since Doug didn't like to miss a meal, and we drove on in silence. We only started talking again upon crossing the border into Northern Ireland. It was stunning; from the pastoral South, in just a few minutes we landed in a landscape eerily reminiscent of milltown Pittsburgh or New Hampshire. When we stopped at a tavern, mindful of the propriety Catholics and Protestants put on them, and both looking like natives, we immediately spoke in a Texas kind of drawl to separate us from the locals. "Ah, you're not Irish boys after all, you're from America," the bartender said and then kept us in conversation, as did other patrons, for two hours.
Two years later I met Doug and Barbara in Madrid, and had a long, not-entirely-liquid lunch at the Ritz Hotel. One night, while Barbara camped out at my hotel, the extraordinary Palace, nursing Xela, Doug and I, after sampling different tapas and wines, went to a bullfight. I had the concierge order us the best seats in the ring, and we landed right behind the battery of matadors. (I'd been to a bullfight once before, in Mexico City when I was 19, although in nosebleed seats. I had a ball with a couple of friends and the high altitude just made the Tecates double-strength, so within minutes we were shouting, "Ole!" with the Mexican sports fans. I remember the three of us just pissing in the streets after the bullfight and then going to a bar, where I lifted an ashtray that I preserved until '93, when a flimflam personals consultant from the Boston Phoenix broke it and didn't give a shit at all. But that's a different story.)
Anyway, the expensive seats we had in Madrid were too close to the action: Whereas in '74 the bull-slaughtering was somewhat abstract since it was so far away, in Madrid we saw every drop of blood, saw the ears presented to Spanish officials, and we both got very squeamish.
Like all my brothers, Doug had his contentious side. My favorite example of this, which he maintained till the day he died, was his choice of a favorite whiskey. Which to him meant a premium brand of tequila. The rest of us would laugh and say, "Fine Doug, you've made your point, as silly as it is." He insisted?and this would sometimes last through dinner?that tequila was in fact a whiskey, just like bourbon and scotch. Uh, right.
And, as I mentioned previously, he never gave up his liberal-radical politics, even though he was a man of relative affluence. Once, fairly recently, while having dinner at Arqua with Mrs. M and me, he insisted that we send our boys to public schools, so they'd be exposed to minorities and immigrants. "Doug," I tried to explain rationally, "our sons live in New York City, not a liberal, white college town like San Luis Obispo. They ride in cabs every day, interact with every strain of humanity known to man. Besides, even though Junior's school is exclusive, a lot of his fellow students are Indian, Japanese and South American. I think we have the diversity angle covered." Surprisingly, he shut up.
Our last conversations were on Necker Island this past Thanksgiving, just a few weeks before he died. We all knew he would bow out soon, but expected he had three months or so. First, we talked about Time's "Person" of the Century. (Why Time began, just in '99, this farce of gender confusion I have no idea. If it's a man they select, it should be "Man of the Year," as was previously done; if it's a woman, then "Woman of the Year." Or "Robot of the Year." Whatever. This concession to washed-up 60s icons like Gloria Steinem is plainly unacceptable and needlessly misleading.) Doug chose Gandhi; I opted for Churchill, even though my heart said Babe Ruth. The eventual choice of Einstein smells of compromise and noncontroversy.
On the last night at Necker, Doug took me aside for a half-hour lecture, which was not at all uncharacteristic. "Listen pal," he said, "I think New York Press has come a long way on gay issues, but your pandering to George W. Bush is kooky. Don't you understand that this backwards man from Texas wants to exterminate all gays?" A neutral observer might speculate it was the painkilling drugs at work; I knew better but didn't put up much of a fight. It all seemed moot at that point. He then went into the importance of hate-crime legislation, which I vigorously oppose. And then he segued into the evil of Republicans in general. I don't know, maybe I should've argued back like the old days, but I didn't want to get him too aggravated. The trip to Necker was a year in planning; it was fortuitous under the circumstances that Doug could see the entire extended Smith family at once. When he, Dan, Xela and Kira left by boat for St. Thomas, and he could see the entire clan wave, it was as poignant a moment as I can remember. He e-mailed me two days later saying it was the greatest act of love he'd ever experienced.
Obviously, I've left a lot out in this short space and my other brothers would have different stories to tell. But like many brilliant men of his generation, he was multitalented. He understood the immense effect of the computer more than 10 years ago, hosting his own homepage and sending digital photos. I once asked him, in about '93, if he'd consider writing for New York Press on a semiregular basis, as he had a magnificent way with words. "Why would I do that," he asked, "when right now I write for millions of people on the Internet?"
He was a gifted professor, popular but strict with students. He traveled extensively, usually to Latin American countries, but London, Thailand, Greece and Capri as well. As a younger man he painted and made silk screens. One of his creations, Forty Soul Dancers, which wound up being sold at headshops around the country, took him two days to complete, at one crystal-meth stretch, all while playing one record, Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love, over and over. Although he couldn't carry a tune (a Smith trait) he'd revel at family dinners, often in Southampton, where the five of us, well-lubricated, would belt out old favorites for an hour or so, like "La Bamba," "Runaway," "You Can't Hurry Love," "I Was Made to Love Her," "Good Vibrations" and "It Ain't Me, Babe." Our parents died young, but Doug always had immense affection for my mother's brothers, Joe and Pete Duncan, and their magnificent wives Winnie and Peggy.
A kind colleague at work sent me a note shortly after Doug died. It read: "Dear Sir, I know that there's grief in your heart, but we shouldn't feel sorry for the loss of a love. Rejoice for now your brother is with God!" My brother had no truck with Christianity?he believed in a more Buddhist concept of life?so he'd probably sneer at this sentiment. But it made me feel better.
Doug packed a lot of intensity into his short life, but I'd always imagined he'd reach 90 at least. That errant prediction makes it only tougher for my brothers and me: losing one of the Five Smith Brothers was something we weren't prepared for as early as 1999, and so just leaves us unbearably heartbroken.
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