A dear-but-distant old friend passed away very suddenly 10 days ago; the news completely crushed me, largely because he’d been on my mind a lot recently.
In fall 1997, John Francis Donahue and I embarked on a 2 1/2 month cross-country motorcycle trip on old vintage bikes (he on his R90, me on my R75/5); it was one of those epic adventures that changed my life. This fall being the 20th anniversary of said trip, I’d recently dredged up old photos and journals from that trip to revisit its impact.
Last year I’d even hatched a plan to take a 20th anniversary version of this trip on my own, and had gotten my hands on a second, travel-worthy motorcycle to such end. But then the election happened, and the present political climate in America pretty much scuttled my appetite for this.
In 1996, my two new year’s resolutions were 1, to start drinking, and 2, to start riding motorcycles: almost always in moderation and never together, which is probably why I’m still in one piece. They still hold true as the best resolutions I ever made. Far from being about recklessness, these resolutions were fundamentally about letting go of fear and control, and have served me well for over 20 years now.
I met John a few months after these resolutions: he was a bartender and a biker, and it almost seemed like he’d been placed in my path for a reason. He was right there when I went completely bike-crazy, and egged me on in the best possible ways. It didn’t take long for us to get into all manner of antics and hijinks together. John was maybe 8 years older than me, and had lived a lot of lifetimes already at that point. At a point in my young life where I was still sorting it out, he knew enough to show me how to relax, to enjoy it, and to take on all kinds of adventures and shenanigans with an open, joyful spirit.
John was game for pretty much anything. He wound up in several early M.O.B. projects: he drove the truck during our Pinays On Wheels Oakland parade appearance, and was a featured player in our first 2 karaoke videos. We even gave him one of the earliest M.O.B. honorary nicknames– Nardo– after my Tita Liling’s amazing driver in Manila.
While John/Nardo and I didn’t last that long as a couple, we packed an epic amount of entertainment into a short window of time, and stayed friends for many years after. He moved to Chicago 10 or more years ago, and so I’d only intersect with him occasionally, if affably, on social media from that point on.
The news of his death last week was abrupt and devastating: it set me off on a mission to find even more old photos and ephemera to share with other friends who were grieving.
The most surprising, conspicuously large item I came across was a sculpture I’d forgotten that I’d made back in that era–it was a replica of a vintage motorcycle fuel tank, hand-built in clay and finished with orange paint. I’d had a solo show at Dorothy Weiss Gallery in SF that year, and had made a whole series of motorcycle tanks and other ceramic sculptures for it. Some ended up in deep storage at my parents’ house, like this one.
The design of this tank was based on John’s Triumph Bonneville. Before I even knew him well, I’d noticed it in front of the restaurant where he tended bar, and asked if I could take some photo references of it for my new sculpture project.
As the sculpture and our connection progressed, so did the design of the tank. I removed the classic Triumph marque, replacing it with Lillet, the aperitif that the two of us were often drinking at the time, and presented the sculpture on a cluster of small, bartender’s rocks glasses. I wouldn’t call the Lillet tank a great work of art, but it’s certainly one that holds the power to connect me back to an intense and special time in my life.
I stopped making sculpture not long after this project, largely because of space and kiln limitations, but I’ve never stopped thinking of sculpture as a uniquely spatial way of working through ideas and emotions that can’t be sorted out in any other medium. It’s a funny thing to contend with memories, and with physical forms that serve as symbolic vessels. It has been strange and marvelous to return to this object, years later, that holds so much personal history and affection, and which also now stands as a memorial to a phenomenal person who was a pivotal part of my life.
Every time I drink Lillet, I lift my glass to you.
When I finally take that road trip, I hope you can hitch along for a while.