Last night, unable to sleep, I checked my email and discovered that my one-time friend and fiance, Kelvin Walsh, died after a six month bout with cancer. I had no idea, and I am finding it hard to separate my thoughts today from a man who was bizarre, brilliant, somewhat paranoid, and completely authentic. He was only 62 — that crucible of an age where so many people seem to pass out of this life.
Kelvin was originally “Kevin,” but nicknamed himself “Kelvin” after the Kelvinator line of refrigerators and kitchen appliances. He was an authority on the Kennedy assassination, and was an ardent liberal agitator during the politically charged 1970’s in Washington, D.C.. Fifteen years younger than Kelvin, I thought of him as a hippie and burst out laughing the first time I heard him say, “Dig this, man!” After his first stint in the District, he lived in Key West as a free spirit, and wound up back in D.C. as a private investigator for many years. When there weren’t enough leads to follow as a gumshoe, he worked as a painstaking carpenter and handyman. He lived completely outside the conventional realm of career, success, and failure, and that’s a pretty hard line to walk in the Beltway area. Sometimes he owned a car, sometimes he didn’t — when he didn’t, he trudged down to the Metro station in his overcoat that caused my friends to call him “Mannix” after the television private eye. He was intolerant of fakery, cocktail party bullshit, and cruelty. He and a group of exhibitionist friends used to regularly pose around the national Mall in superhero costumes (I think he was Captain America?) where they greeted tourists and posed for pictures. Once my co-workers threw a party, and Kelvin showed up as a Dominoes pizza delivery man. I had agreed to keep quiet as the delivery man set down the pizza, entered the house, sampled hors d’oeuvres at the buffet table, and engaged the guests in political repartee, all under the increasingly nervous eye of our hostess who wondered who the hell he was and how she might best eject him from her home.
He liked to stretch the limits of people’s credulity and propel them out onto a tightrope past their levels of comfort and good taste. We went to a Halloween costume party as Jackie and John F. Kennedy, which afforded me the opportunity to wear one of my vintage suits and pillbox hats, and him to sport blood soaked bandages and some sort of home brewed brain matter we’d concocted.
We met when I was in my early 30’s and he was 47, the age I am now. I had survived my twenties, was into my second graduate degree, and thought my own journey of self discovery was the most important thing in the world. Kelvin called me out on all my self-centered tendencies and believed he had a great deal to teach me. He did, but I wasn’t always ready to listen. Ours was not a smooth relationship, but we could be ourselves around each other and wound up in situations that could only happen to eccentrics such as ourselves. Kelvin taught me to be at ease around mentally challenged people by introducing me to his wonderful sister, Jeanne, and her friends. He was a devoted brother and a stalwart caretaker, fiercely protecting her as a special needs citizen while also championing her independence and her right to hold a job and earn a living.
When my mother became terminally ill in 1999, my homesickness for Florida became too much to bear, and Kelvin and I transplanted all my crap in a Penske trailer back to New Smyrna Beach. His plan was to move to Florida and bring Jeanne, too, but I was lost in a fog of misery without my mother and was irretrievably lost. I pushed him away, and he stepped back when he realized that our paths were separating. Gradually, some of the details about him, like that he loved pasta and hated credit cards, faded in my mind.
Kelvin was a strong personality, and you either engaged with him 100% or not at all. It used to annoy me when people didn’t take him seriously or treated him with the disrespect reserved for nutty black sheep of the family. I am ashamed to say that the last time I saw him, I treated him this way, too. With characteristic wacky timing, he showed up in Florida years later, with no warning, at my job, right before I had to do a summer reading performance program for about 200 kids and parents. When he approached me on our outdoor break patio, I wouldn’t relinquish my quiet decompression time, and I would not remove my sunglasses and make eye contact with him, even when he jibed me about it. I stubbornly refused to drop everything and be manipulated by his expectations. I was civil but cold, and he left.
One of my favorite stories that Kelvin told me about his groovy young manhood involved a beloved girlfriend named Ellie, a budding sculptor whose life and career were cut short by a sudden and tragic illness. Visiting Ellie’s apartment one day, Kelvin watched as she threw a load of dirty dishes out of her kitchen window and into the alley because she didn’t feel like washing them. He started tossing stuff
out the window, too, and they laughed with the destructive, joyful spontaneity of youth as plates and teacups crashed to the pavement. I was sorry he lost her, because she seemed able to meet his great expectations and his ability to leap without fear, without a net. I hope that Ellie is now able to meet Kelvin, and that they are somewhere laughing together and throwing plates at us.