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2005-04-30 12:07 AM
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Bob Sparks died ten years ago - April 30, 1995. It's STUNNING to realize it's been so long. I lived with Bob for four years; the first three were wonderful. For three years, we were lovers, housemates, best friends, cheering sections, roommates, emotional support. The last year wasn't very good and I always felt that when I got back to Berkeley some day, we'd be able to sit down and talk. Never happened.
Bob Sparks was one of the most important people in my life. He was to many, even to me, a pain in the ass. He was also caring, vibrant, passionate, fun, enthusiastic and smart. He was determined and often let things go for other things, but what he wasn't was a humorless political activist. He was warm, and caring, and loving and determined. And yes, stubborn, and hard-line and frustrating. Things MATTERED to him.
I went to Berkeley for the gathering in his memory held, as it had to be, in People's Park. Most everyone there spoke of his dedication, his strength, his caring for homeless people, for the disenfranchised, his fight to landmark buildings, his battles with the University. When I finally spoke, feeling more than a bit odd and somewhat forgotten, despite those four years we had together - and I was never the little woman, never the one taking to the shadows to let Bob take the spotlight, but still... So I got up and talked about how much fun Bob was. How we went out to brunch just about every Sunday. How loving and kind he'd been. How we debated whether it was "rabbit, rabbit" or "white rabbit" that you said on the first of the month for good luck. He was the first man in my life to ever brush my hair for me. I remember his orange jumpsuit fashion twirl after one of the Livermore actions; I went to see him and there he was, all decked out. Adorable. Oy vey. Bob wasn't very big and I still see him, long hair, oversized jumpsuit, big smile, in the crowd of men, signing "I love you" to me, twirling around to show my his stylish outfit. Happy as hell.
For his birthday one year we had what is somehow the quintessential Bob experience: we went to see the brand new movie "Gandhi". Then we went to dinner at Hamburger Mary's. On our way back from a Diablo Canyon protest one year, we stopped at the Madonna Inn and swooned over the bathroom in the dining room, and the postcards of the rooms. And the paint job. And giggled.
It wasn't that the politics weren't important - they were critical - Bob WAS politics, but he was also a great cook, if you could get him not to cook for 40 - he had this problem trying to cook for small groups, as he'd learned to cook in the Navy. "Honey? Could you stop chopping already?! Aieee! Um, Bob, it's just two of us. We didn't need five zukes and three carrots and four celery stalks and and and…I know, it's all so good but honey? Stop?" He was an unendingly patient son with a pain in the ass, aggressively helpless "do for me, I'm the reason you exist" mother, and he was a good man. I got to see that part as much as anything else.
We met doing disabled politics; on a trip cross-country that a number of us participated in, his marriage broke up. His wife fell in love with someone else on the trip, a guy I also was keen on. Somehow Bob and I ended up together, and in love. We slept in the choir loft of a church, in Annapolis or somewhere, and he brought me a mocha, like, the first morning. When he came back to Berkeley, he moved in with me. Bob was the guy who believed in me more, up to that point, than anyone in my life in so many ways. He believed I could do anything, more, in fact, than I could. But his belief in me did cause me to risk things, to try things I never had before. He gave me a major belief in myself. I wasn't Emma Goldman, though he seemed to want me to be, but without Bob, I would never have taken on my first ever seat on a city commission. Fought a bunch of fights. Gotten the confidence to get up, stand up. I wouldn't have done civil disobedience. I wouldn't have known I could do stuff.
When the news of his death came, when Debbie called to tell me, it was breath-takingly, numbingly stunningly bad. Unfair, way too early, ridiculous and just flat out fucking wrong. Bob Sparks was 57. He had a somewhat erratic heartbeat; it caused us to switch to decaf because he said he could really tell when he drank caffeinated coffee. But he took damn good care of himself, and should have lived longer. He risked so much, over and over for what he believed in; spending nights on roofs of buildings that were to be torn down without permits to thwart those plans, nights on plazas at the University, in jail cells, in tents (when they came to arrest Dennis Banks one time, he was among the hundreds camped out. Everyone of them saying "why, yes, I am Dennis Banks". He told me this and we giggled. White guys, women, teenagers, all being Dennis Banks.) He let very little stop him when he believed in something. And for a time, he believed in me.
He also believed in past lives and horoscopes and it drove me eye-rollingly mad. But he had patience where I had little. Or none. He built me my first garden - literally built it out of the tables in the yard and scrap lumber and we had a blast. We went to La Pena and danced and had Thanksgiving, and knew every brunch place in Berkeley. He liked spam, god help us, and ate spam omelets at one of them - was it Mama's? He grew up poor, and had a hill accent that cracked us all up. One of everyone's favorite stories was the one when time he and his then wife had a flat tire and he asked her to get the "tar arn". It took three tries until he finally got up, went to the trunk and fetched the "tire iron". We didn't always understand what he was saying, but I stopped correcting him years ago because it was condescending. Everyone understood him and he was fine thanks.
Bob was 15 years older than me. He wore his hair long - I loved that, loved having a lover with long hair. Early on in our relationship, I got ticked off at him and stormed out of the apartment only to find him racing after me, barefoot, to make sure I didn't drive away mad. He didn't want that, he wanted to fix things. I'd never known anyone who thought that way, and I loved him for it. And we fixed it.
I never idealized Bob Sparks, but he was unique in my life. He was courageous and stood up for things and for people and did things no one else would, because it was the right thing to do. When I saw the obituaries in the bay area newspapers, I was flabbergasted. They were kind and gracious and they honored him; I don't know that he knew the respect he had. I know I didn't always see it. Among our crowd, sure, but when you fight city hall all the fucking time, and the university and the powers that be, you tend to have a certain tunnel vision.
At People's Park in May, at that memorial, I saw old friends, but mostly strangers. I had left Berkeley, and Bob, in 1990; five years later, much had changed. I saw some political friends and a couple foes, and valued them for their presence. My feeling was that every damn member of the city council and the mayor had an obligation to be there; Bob kept them on their toes and often kept them honest. I was freaked at not having a bond anymore to my community, until thank god, I saw Annie and Bruce. As long as they were there, I could cope. I was a footnote in Bob's life by that point, but not in my life. And Annie and Bruce knew it and knew who I was.
When I was on the Human Relations and Welfare Commission, Bob was on the Landmarks Commission. He helped me fight constantly with City Hall, and cheered my successes and victories. I told him often that I felt I wasn't doing enough because he set this amazing example. And over and over he would tell me, no, no, what I did was great, not to measure by him.
People's Park was born in late April. Bob Sparks died April 30, 1995. You don't think that's eerie, believe me, it is. He would have chosen it. I was, coincidentally, back in Berkeley with Stu a couple of years ago and I realized that weekend was the park's birthday. I went, with a picture of Bob and a candle, which I lit, without anyone knowing, in a corner of the park while I read the Kaddish, something I just don't DO. A block away from the park there's now a mural. Bob is close to front and center on it. I couldn't get close to it -t here was a vacant lot surrounded by a fence, but I took some pictures. It's a good likeness and I hope people have SOME idea who he is. He deserves to be remembered, as more than just a pain and a troublemaker, but as a man who deeply cared. And whom I loved. It's not right that he's gone.
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