June 10, 2007

A Eulogy for Bates


My first meeting with Jennifer Bates was a brief one. I was in Philly giving a reading back in 1999, and my old friend, musician David E. Williams, was in the audience with Jennifer, his girlfriend. She was dressed all in black, which was neither here nor there, though I found the long black leather duster and boots a nice touch.

      After the reading, David introduced us. We shook hands (she had a very firm grip), then she stood off to the side while David and I chatted. She said very little, and when a few of us headed to another friend’s house for a few beers, she went home.

      I knew very little about her at the time, apart from what David had told me. She was a painter and musician who was fascinated with UFOs. She was a late seventies punk who never lost the attitude as she became a card-carrying member of the NRA and headed up the local Town Watch group. Only in later years would I remember that I had dealt with her when I lived in Philly and she was managing the Roxy, an arthouse theater just around the corner from my apartment.

      Then one summer afternoon she and David came up to New York to catch an exhibition at the Jewish Museum (the notorious Nazi show), and Morgan and I joined them. I came away from that afternoon understanding Jennifer a little better. She was not only sharply intelligent, but also a fearless straight talker. In a museum, on the subway, in a restaurant, she would speak her mind, not much worried about who might take issue with what she thought. Sometimes it almost seemed like she was testing the environment. The thing is, none of this was spurious. Jennifer always knew what she was talking about, and could back it up. And at the same time, intense as she could be, she was funny as hell. She and Dave made a very good pair. When they were together, David seemed as relaxed and happy as I’d ever seen him.

      A few years ago, she and David opened Germ, a bookstore and gallery that specialized in UFOs, conspiracy theories, cyberpunk, alternative science, unknown history, and cultural pessimism. To my mind, it was the Greatest Bookstore in the World. Not because they had three levels and millions of titles (they didn’t)—but because they carried books that most bookstores, chain and indie alike, would shun.

      A few months after the store opened, Morgan and I were in Philly again, and stayed with David, Jennifer and their cats. That night we slept in the guest room on their new sofa bed. Come morning, I remember, Morgan and I tried to fold it back up, but it got stuck half way. Those things can be tricky sometimes.

      I ventured across the hall to David and Jennifer’s room, where she was sitting in bed, eating a bowl of cereal.

      “Ummm . . . ” I said, “we’re trying to fold up the bed, and—”

      “Stop,” she said, looking up from her cereal.

      “I mean, we got it halfway there already, but it—”

      “Then just stop.

      “But we’re almost there, we’re just—”

      “Just leave it alone.”

      “Oh . . . Okay.”

      If it had been coming from anyone else, I might’ve been a little taken aback, but I knew it was just Jennifer being as direct as she always was. And in this case it was Jennifer being a good host. She wasn’t saying we were incompetent boobs—she was telling us that we shouldn’t be bothering ourselves with things like that.

      The four of us spent the rest of the morning sitting around their bright kitchen, the walls covered with artwork, talking about Philly and New York and cats, until Jennifer had to go open the store.

      A few hours later, we stopped by the bookstore just before heading to the train station, and Jennifer insisted that we take whatever we wanted. I insisted on paying, but she refused. In the end, I paid anyway—it was a hell of a bookstore, and I didn’t want to just walk out with half the stock.

      In October of 2005, I got a phone call from David. I could tell from his voice that something wasn’t right.

      That’s when he told me that Jennifer had been diagnosed with leukemia, and that the prognosis wasn’t good.

      Over the previous years, David had mentioned that she had a blood disorder which had led to a few trips to the emergency room, but this was completely unexpected. She was too young.

      It’s hard to know what to do or say at a time like that.

      David told me that while she was in the hospital, she was watching a lot of DVDs on her laptop, so, although it was only a small gesture, Morgan and I tracked down a few obscure films Jennifer was looking for, and sent them along.

      We communicated some via email and not surprisingly I found her as direct as ever, with no tolerance for bullshit. She wasn’t in the least interested in anyone telling her “Oh, you’re gonna be just fine.” She probably would’ve slugged anyone who did.

      It wasn’t that she had resigned herself to her situation. Quite the opposite—she fought, and fought as hard as anyone I’ve seen in similar circumstances. But she was always a realist about it.

      Meanwhile, David sent out regular updates of her ups and downs to a growing mailing list. The worse the condition grew, the harder she fought. She wanted to get home and have the energy to finish the album she was working on.

      Last October, a year after first hearing of her condition, Morgan and I went down to Philly again. This time I was part of a reading event at Germ. Before heading down, we weren’t sure if Jennifer would be there or not. Even David wasn’t sure. But when we entered the store, there she was, setting up chairs and getting the video monitors ready to go. She had energy. In fact she looked as good as she looked last time we were there. But she wasn’t, and she knew it. She even joked about her “death cough.”

      Over this past winter, her condition grew worse, and she kept fighting. Then on the evening of May eighteenth, I received a note from Jerome Deppe—a good friend and David’s long-time guitarist—telling me that Jennifer had passed away the night before.

      On June second, Morgan and I made another trip down to Philly. Sadly, this time it was for a memorial service.

      A lot of people showed up—many of them strangers, and many old friends I hadn’t seen in years. The service was simple and brief. Then for a few hours, we talked and ate and told stories.

      I didn’t know Jennifer as long or as well as many of the people who were there. My own stories aren’t nearly as wild as some of the things I heard. All I can pass along is the sense I got of someone I knew far too briefly.

      She was a rare one, Jennifer was. Not only has David lost the woman he loved, but all of us who were there that day have lost something too. And though it’s too often a cliché, in this case it’s true—the world we’re living in really has lost something with her passing. Jennifer Bates was tough as nails—a woman of principle and conviction and strength. Her voice was a voice of sometimes harsh and sometimes uncomfortable Reason.  Slightly twisted Reason, perhaps—some might even argue it was Reason from an alien perspective—but that just makes it all the more important.


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