Archives for the month of: June, 2022

Before I continue the dark tale of my life with Johnny in 2013, I’d like to address a question I sometimes hear, especially from people who did not know Johnny and who are only meeting him in these blog posts. What drew me to Johnny? What did I like about him? One of my writing friends recently quipped, “It was all about the music.”

It was partly about the music. Johnny and I met at a musical gathering. He attended for two years before he and I got together as a couple. Johnny came alive around music he loved or even liked: he had acute hearing and when one of us sang in the ballad group he focused his entire attention on the song. I noticed his rapt focus right away. “This man listens,” I thought. He also listened to discussions around the ballad table, some of which were about music, and participated in those conversations. He did not have the annoying habit some guitar-players have of noodling in the background while waiting for their next chance to play and he never played on songs unless someone asked him to do so.

In those ballad-table conversations I picked up a few other bits of information that I stowed for future reference. One time Johnny was telling a story of his experiences in the Navy during the Viet Nam war. He mentioned shore leaves where his shipmates would go whoring and he would hie himself to the nearest record store to listen to the latest music because he was sweet on a gal at home. “Faithful,” my mind ticked off my imaginary checklist of the qualities of a good man.

Also, Johnny was good-natured, good-humored. I would have called him sunny. He would have talked about “positive energy.” Most times when I saw Johnny he smiled, seemed relaxed, said nice things to other people, laughed at amusing moments. Because I had grown up with a hot-tempered brother and an erratic father I enjoyed Johnny’s temperment. And when Johnny played and sang he radiated positive energy, pulsed with life.

He was also romantic and affectionate. He liked to hold hands. He liked to spoon in bed, or let me lay my head on his chest. He’d tell me I looked beautiful in something I was wearing. He printed red hearts after my name on his schedules and on file folders with my name on them.

Johnny was generous: I saw this first in the comments he made about other people’s songs and singing. He always praised a version he liked, or told someone their singing was beautiful or wonderful. When I came to know him better, he told me that if he had a dedicated student who had hit a financial snag and wanted to come for lessons he would teach for free, as his grandmother had done during the Depression. He did this, despite the fact that he himself was often short of money. I saw him take care of his band members financially, paying them first even if he had to short his own share. And, once we became a couple, Johnny took me out on birthdays, Valentine’s Day and our anniversary without fail, although we went Dutch on other occasions. When we moved in together (twice), he paid the moving expenses and, when I said I couldn’t afford to pay rent, he said, “I’m paying the rent anyway. Just move in.”

Johnny and I both wanted a real partnership, which, to both of us, looked like appearing in public as a couple and, eventually, living in the same house and sharing daily life. When we decided to become a couple, after a two-year acquaintance in the ballad group, Johnny was good about introducing me to friends and family and bringing me to parties, friends’ gatherings and family events. He wrote to friends to tell them he had met me. He met friends of mine as well and started spending Christmas and Thanksgiving Day with my family.

I had lived with one man back in the early ‘80s and had wanted to live with the man who was my partner in the early ‘90s. Johnny and I talked of getting married — he was not opposed to it, sometimes said he wanted to marry me — but I had some legal and financial reasons not to marry him as things stood, so we began our daily life together by sharing his house.

Some time after I moved in, seeing how hard I worked, how much time I put into busking shifts, planting and tending a garden, cooking nourishing breakfasts and dinners for us each day, and seeing that I sometimes earned under ten dollars a day, Johnny instituted the practice of giving me “Johnny money.” “Johnny money” was a twenty-dollar cash infusion only to be used for specific things: I could use it for cab rides, BART tickets or other emergency transportation, or to buy coffee. I carried the twenty in my wallet until I had to spend it and, once I had spent part of it, I would say, “Honey, I spent seven dollars on a cab” and he would top it up again. This was Johnny’s way of seeing that I never got stranded somewhere without a way to get home or the means to get a cup of coffee. I honored our agreement about Johnny money and if I really wanted to spend some of it on another item, I would call and ask permission to buy something for the house or a food item for cooking (in general, I was restricted from using Johnny money on groceries).

When we had a common goal, Johnny and I could work together, whether it was boxing up the kitchen to protect our kitchen goods and food during cockroach spraying (more about that later), packing the refrigerator with groceries, or planning how to get out of the house in time to get to a movie, party or concert.

Johnny was better than I at getting things done, specifically about making decisions. I admired his ability to look at a situation, decide what to do and move into action while I was still weighing the pros and cons. He was used to improvising, thinking quickly on his feet, but he was also good at planning things, working out what steps to take. He used this in his teaching to help students to get from one skill level to the next. We were both good at deciding what we were going to do and sticking to it: I went out busking five or six days a week at the same time, played a two or two-and-a-half hour shift, closed my case, counted my money and went home. I played in rain or shine, day after day, unless I was sick or unduly tired from a few late nights in a row. Johnny had routines, too, from checking his bank balance first thing each morning, to typing and printing a daily schedule to work from each day.

Johnny and I were both articulate, verbally adept people. We had similar vocabularies and facility with grammar, spelling and English usage. We both liked to read. He turned me on to Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill series and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels (He had shelves of them). He and I made up little songs about my cat Fiona — he wrote “Fiona’s Lullaby” (based on Emmett’s Lullaby), which became part of our bedtime ritual: Fiona would settle on the bed and Johnny and I would sing to her:

“Lullaby and good night, be a sweet little kitty,
Lullaby and good night, don’t fuss and don’t bite!
Go to sleep, go to sleep and don’t make a peep
Go to sleep now and rest and don’t be a pest.”

Johnny met my needs for a smart, committed, loving partner. Except when he didn’t. But isn’t that the story of all relationships?

When Johnny and I arrived back in the Bay Area from our trip for his brother David’s funeral I was still trying to process the sights of Johnny vomiting in public and drinking whiskey at seven in the morning. Although my father and brothers were all alcoholics I had never seen them vomit from drinking or drink before early afternoon. My childhood gave me a baseline for how drinkers behaved, but Johnny did not adhere to conventions such as drinking only at proscribed times and he had shown no embarrassment at losing his dinner in a restaurant while servers scurried to clean the floor.

During our first post-trip night together, soon after I closed the bedroom door, I set to re-stringing my guitar, struggling to loosen stubborn bridge pins and pricking a finger on sharp lead wires. Johnny offered to change strings for me but I said no, feeling it was good practice for me to do it myself. Johnny pulled a bottle of whiskey from his omnipresent black satchel. I went silent. He drank and played aggressively with my cat. I let him put on the last two strings after my pricked finger started bleeding.

I do not know how to talk to Johnny about his drinking without resorting to blaming and judgments. I know I don’t know how to talk to him about it. When I say his drinking makes me sad he calls me “mopey.” When I say that “regular” people don’t drink in the morning, he says he is not a regular person. He tells me he accepts everything about me (poverty, cerebral palsy, my living at home) and he wants the same acceptance from me (but he does not accept my discomfort over his drinking, which he thinks I should get over).

I consider reading the AA Big Book. I consider attending Al-Anon meetings, although I never cared for Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings I attended in the past. I write him an unsent letter that begins “Dear One, I can’t handle your drinking” and ends “I do not like it when you are belting whiskey morning and night and I do not like it when you turn on me and make it my fault. You keep saying you are being charged with another man’s crimes, but I am talking about your drinking, not my father’s drinking or my brothers’ drinking or anyone’s else.”

Johnny has gigs in March and April 2013 — he’s playing a private party in late March, and appearing at an April 1st benefit for fiddler Sue Draheim. He and I will play our second duet gig at The Arlington cafe on April 5th and he has a blues gig scheduled for April 15th in Marin County and a band gig on April 21st in Oakland.

Johnny and I rehearse for our gig. We enjoy running through our songs on April 3rd and 4th, fine-tuning our arrangements and laughing as he drills me on the pronunciation of “one” in “My One Desire.” He pronounces it “wun,” reminding me of a movie gangster who says “dese” and “dose.” We take in The Good Ol’ Persons reunion show at Freight and Salvage on the third as well.

After we play The Arlington I need to get down to the annual business of preparing my tax returns. I dread doing my taxes every year because I am a self-employed sole proprietor with no business background: I dutifully slog through IRS publications and forms for the creative pursuits that produce my tiny income, counting CD sales, gig money, painting sales and writing consultations. I do not earn enough to pay someone else to prepare my returns and my record keeping is idiosyncratic to say the least. I tackle my returns with a mixture of confusion and resignation: I will get them done (I always do). I live in fear of an audit: I am scrupulously honest, but I am afraid my documentation might not pass muster.

On Sunday night April 7th, just as I am about to start my taxes, filmmaker Les Blank dies of cancer. Johnny stays up half the night writing a five-page obituary for his friend and mentor and emails it to me. I read it and inform Johnny of a discrepancy in the titles of two films in the piece (like me, Johnny is a stickler for accuracy), but I don’t fully take in the meaning that Les’s life, art and philosophy had for Johnny. The obituary lays this out beautifully and yet I don’t absorb just how important Les was to Johnny (Later Johnny will request that he himself be buried in Sunset View Cemetery as close to Les’s grave as possible). I do register that Les’s death is a second loss for Johnny, closely following the death of his brother David.

On Tuesday morning of tax week, Johnny emails me to say that he’s been invited to a gathering to remember Les, organized by Les’s ex-wife Chris Simon. Johnny wants me to go with him. I have told him I can only do three things during tax week: talk to him, work at my day job and do my tax returns. I answer that I do not want to go to the memorial, that I did not know Les well, that I would go if it weren’t tax week or if I had finished my tax returns.

Johnny fires back an email telling me how he would handle my tax returns (skip work until I get them done or file an extension). He tells me that it is important to him that I appear as his partner. And then he writes this paragraph, in which he criticizes me for taking a two-hour break from tax prep to watch an episode of “American Idol.”

“I know how stressful this week is for you,” he writes. “And of course you need to relax sometimes. Still, you were okay with taking two hours last night to watch a T.V. show starting at 8:00. And my impression is that you actually stopped working on your tax stuff at least a little before that hour. I hope making this appearance with me could be given at least this much time.”

The morning of the Les Blank memorial, Johnny receives notice that Sue Draheim has died — death #3 in the space of less than two months. I agree to attend the Les Blank gathering and Johnny agrees to spend the night with me following the get-together. He tells me he will pick me up at 5:30 PM for the 6:00 PM party in the Berkeley hills near my home.

Unbeknownst to me, Johnny has passed out at his home in San Leandro that evening while I sit, dressed and ready to go, anticipating a ride or a phone call informing me of a change of plans. Johnny’s driver cannot rouse him until 7:30 PM, at which point they drive to my house where I have been waiting for two and a half hours. Johnny’s driver has not cleared space in his station wagon for me to sit, so I perch on Johnny’s lap in the passenger seat for the ride to Les’s house.

Unwinding myself gingerly at the curb, I pick my way over a grassy strip, turning at the sidewalk to see Johnny lurching his way across the grass, barely able to remain upright.

We enter the house. Johnny introduces me to a few people, including the hostess, and accepts the first drink on offer. In no time at all, he has vomited mucus on a leather chair and part of the hardwood floor. I speed to the kitchen for paper towels to clean up the mess and a woman I don’t know says to me “He shouldn’t drink.”

I shrug my shoulders. Does she think I am responsible for him? How is it my job to control his drinking?

Meanwhile, Johnny, feeling better after vomiting, has grabbed another beer. I drink a ceremonial champagne toast with a couple of musicians I know, raising a glass to Les’s memory, and then I am ready to go home. Johnny, however, wants to have a long conversation with each person remaining at the party.

We got back to my mother’s house around midnight and got into bed. I began to cry. I could not fathom how someone could be too sick to eat, throw up the contents of his stomach and then open another beer: when I vomit, I rest and take cautious sips of ginger ale. I considered breaking up with Johnny that night, doubting whether I could sustain a commitment to him, having visions of being dragged to more parties where I knew few people, could not participate in music beyond my skill level, and got stuck listening to the all-afternoon or late-night drinkers rambling on to one another.

By the next morning, after little sleep, Johnny was his kind and loving self again. He ate a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs with cheese and salsa, toast and butter. Later on he sent me a sweet email: “Thinking of you with love, honey. Good luck with everything today. XXX JH.”

I finish my tax returns on April 14th, and mail them on April 15th before Johnny whisks me off to his evening gig at the Station House in Point Reyes. He calls me up to the stage to sing “Sitting on Top of the World.” I get polite applause for that and sit down again. He calls me up again to sing “Clueless,” my own song about the mishaps of our courtship, and the crowd loves it. In fact, every single musician there makes a point of telling me how much they enjoy it.

Johnny and I sing “New Love Thing” together. One couple gets up to dance and some people sing along. Also, Johnny and I get to sit down to a delicious dinner on the house: I eat skirt steak and broccolini and half of Johnny’s bread pudding. He orders a rich, cream-based oyster stew. I am happy to have an elegant meal and a relaxing evening. The drummer plays tastefully. The bass is not overloud. And the piano player is smokin’.

Dear readers,

I don’t have it in me to write a Johnny and Sharyn story tonight. “Soon come,” as Johnny used to say.

In 2013 Johnny and I are discussing moving in together, but I have still not stayed a night at his house. My mother starts to complain again about Johnny’s visits to her house, although we follow the rules about no consecutive overnights. She says she wants to spend her old age in peace.

Meanwhile, both Johnny and I have financial challenges: the guitar student trade has dips and ebbs and my busking income is tiny. I am advertising regularly for writing practice students on Craigslist, which usually brings in complaints that I don’t teach for free or people wanting to rent me writing space. Counting my pennies and trying to save for a retreat with my teacher Natalie Goldberg in France, I decide I will do an extra busking shift five days a week: after I play two hours in the Berkeley BART station in the morning I will return to either Downtown Berkeley or Ashby in the afternoon and play another hour. To make the afternoon shift more palatable I decide that I will only play the songs I most want to play during my second shift. Things are slow enough for Johnny that he muses about busking himself and goes so far as to make a busking set list. He says that if he busks he will make a large sign informing people that he teaches guitar.

On February 22nd, 2013 Johnny’s brother David has multiple cardiac arrests and lands in the hospital in Boston. His doctors sedate him, put him on a ventilator and chill him down to protect his organs. Members of his church come to sit with him and pray over him while Johnny and I sit in California.

Johnny and I both have late February birthdays. I ask Johnny if he wants to forgo celebrating because of his brother’s condition and he tells me no, that we are alive and need to celebrate. Earlier in the month we have gone to hear both Alan Toussaint and Dr. John at Yoshi’s as they pass through town on tour. Toussaint is particularly engaging, interpolating Mozart’s death march into “St. James Infirmary” and leading the audience in a sing-along of “City of New Orleans,” assuring us that “All white people know this song,” and turning his mic toward us as we sing.

I buy Johnny a card for his 67th birthday and bake him a pear tarte tatin. His birthday falls on Super Bowl Sunday, so I come out to San Leandro for awhile to see him and to avoid the Super Bowl at my house. Three days after that, on February 27th, Johnny’s brother David dies and, the next day, Johnny treats me to dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant in Berkeley.

I wake up sick the following day, no doubt stressed by David’s illness and death. I stay home from work for a few days, trying to get well before a road trip to Seattle for David’s funeral. Johnny and I will be traveling by car with his niece Lucy and her husband Adam. I sort out black clothes, shoes and raincoat for the service. I cannot find a black beret, so I decide to pack tights and a hat in Lenten purple. Since Johnny’s entire wardrobe is black, he will have no trouble dressing for the funeral where he will sing a few folk hymns.

Lucy and Adam propose camping in Ashland for the first night of the trip, but I look at a forecast showing 90% chance of rain and Johnny books us motel rooms for the night. By then we know that David’s estate will cover our expenses for the funeral trip: meals, lodging, etc., including a couple of nights in Seattle.

Johnny’s family gather at David’s Seattle house for a few hours. Someone brings in some beer for that occasion, but there is no food, no ceremony. We sit in the living room of a house that has been closed-up for months, talking of Johnny’s parents who used to live there. We gather again at a cemetery in the rain for prayers and songs. Those who wish to can use a spade to throw dirt on David’s coffin. We gather that night for a salmon dinner at Ivar’s, a restaurant that has been in Seattle since 1938 and then we go our separate ways.

Johnny is drinking heavily. He gets sick in the car and again in Ashland when we go out to have dinner. At least once during the trip I wake up to see him swigging whiskey from a pint bottle first thing in the morning.


“Whiskey before breakfast?” I ask.
“A good old Irish tradition,” he answers.

I do not say anything else about Johnny’s drinking right then because his beloved brother has just died: he is grieving and does not need extra pressure from me. And I am still trying to figure out whether Johnny is merely someone who drinks heavily on occasion or whether he has a true addiction to alcohol.

"Clueless" CD "Paris" CD breakfast dishes busking butternut squash cookbooks Daring Bakers desserts eggs feta cheese food paintings food photos fruit trees gluten-free recipes Johnny Harper leeks Natalie Goldberg pasta peaches pears pen and ink sketches philosophy pie crust polenta relationships salads seasonal cooking seasonal recipes Sharyn Dimmick Sharyn Dimmick — art Sharyn Dimmick — recordings soup substitutions summer recipes Thai flavors The Kale Chronicles The Lauren Project tomatoes travel vegetable gardening vinaigrette watercolor paintings Work With What You Got writing practice yeast breads

"Clueless" CD "Paris" CD breakfast dishes busking butternut squash cookbooks Daring Bakers desserts eggs feta cheese food paintings food photos fruit trees gluten-free recipes Johnny Harper leeks Natalie Goldberg pasta peaches pears pen and ink sketches philosophy pie crust polenta relationships salads seasonal cooking seasonal recipes Sharyn Dimmick Sharyn Dimmick — art Sharyn Dimmick — recordings soup substitutions summer recipes Thai flavors The Kale Chronicles The Lauren Project tomatoes travel vegetable gardening vinaigrette watercolor paintings Work With What You Got writing practice yeast breads