Ernest died on Saturday, July 15. He was 78. I hadn’t heard from him for over a week and had begun to worry. I had left two messages and they had not been returned. He had been calling me every two or three days with his latest thoughts about how to fight to preserve the Flea Market from the threat of a multi-story housing project proposed for the parking lot where the market had operated for 41 years. Then his calls stopped. When I called again on Saturday evening his stepson, Talib, told me the news.
Elvie, Ernest’s wife, had died not two months earlier of pancreatic cancer. Ernest, himself, had been sick for some time, with a somewhat mysterious blood disorder that robbed his marrow of the ability to produce red blood cells. He had minimized his own health problems, choosing to devote himself to caring for Elvie. He wore himself down and it took constant transfusions to keep him alive.
It was characteristic of Ernest that he put Elvie’s well being above his own. For years he had devoted himself to keeping alive those small underfunded community organizations that actually make a difference in the lives of people. He did so with saintly devotion, without any obvious manifestation of ego. He had been on the Board of Community Services United, which operates the Flea Market, longer than I can remember.
The board is composed of representatives from community organizations and Ernest represented Commonarts. Ernest and I were among Commonart’s founding members. It began as a community arts organization 29 years ago. The city had given us a house on Acton Street, out of which to run a community arts organization.
We’d snagged a CETA job development grant from the feds and with the money ran our only little WPA. We hired a slew of amazing artists: The singer and guitarist, Rafael Manriquez, from whom I heard for the first time the achingly beautiful nueva canción of the Chilean popular resistance; the sculptor, Woody Harrison; the drummers Butch Haynes and Juma Santos; Arina Isaacson, the clown; the dancer, story teller, actress and ritualist Luisa Teish; the muralists Brian Thiele, and Ray Patlan and many others.
No one on the board got paid, and we all stuck it out until the federal money ran out and then we bailed. All of us except Ernest. We had the house, which was potentially a great community resource, and it is characteristic of Ernest that he hung in there, helping to oversee the transformation of the Acton Street house into a daytime drop-in center for homeless women. There was no glory in what he did. There was no money in it.
As with Commonarts, so with the Flea Market. He was a mainstay, faithful through all the turmoil and changes, attending every board meeting on the second Saturday of the month in the Flea Market’s little threadbare office with its dirty windows facing out onto Ashby Avenue.
Those Flea Market meetings. It was difficult to sit through a meeting with Ernest, without groaning. Ernest’s mind did not approach any subject by the shortest route. He wanted us to follow his train of thought through branches and tunnels and seeming detours and only then would he get to the point. We would sit there, wondering when the train would arrive at the station. It sometimes seemed that language was to Ernest as a flame is to a moth. Words pulled him in their wake, the sound of one suggesting another. He would pun and pun again, seemingly incapable of turning off the spigot of associations, ruled by rhyme as much as reason, dragged by improbable connections of sound willy-nilly with his coattails flying and all in the middle of a discussion of the budget, or the vacancy rate in Flea Market stalls.
Ernest’s punning was the link between his poetry and his service to the community. He was a prolific writer and his poems were full of wordplay. Language linked his improbable lives. He was a poet who devoted himself to the mundane, an intellectual who forsook the academy, a white man who married a black woman and worked in organizations that served primarily people of color.
Ernest and I had made similar choices in our lives. We had similar family histories. Our fathers were German Jewish intellectuals steeped in a continental intellectual tradition that seems to have no counterpart in this raw unfinished country. In a sense we were both exiles, harboring memories of a homeland in that intellectual German accented universe we had both forsaken. He would email me his poems in German and English not willing to believe that my German was essentially non-existent.
Was Ernest’s hair white when I first met him? I can only remember him as he was in his last years, not a big man but a man with big hair, a shock of white hair on top of his head that on occasion shed conspicuous flakes of dandruff onto his jacket and a large white beard. He peered out at the world from behind his glasses with curiosity but by and large without judgment. He reserved his wrath for pompous self-aggrandizing politicians, too concerned for their own political careers to notice they were screwing the community. And even to those straying liberals he gave the benefit of the doubt. Among his last e-mails me are drafts of letters intended to persuade them of the error of their ways.
He loved words and believed in power of language, but language could also be a seduction and a snare. In the end, it seems, he was ready to let it go. As he lay dying in his hospital bed he whispered to his daughter, Eda:
“No more double speak,
No more double talk”
And so, in silence, he went gently into that good night.