Sunday, March 4, 2012

RIP DEAR FRIEND: LONNIE ROBBINS

Lonnie in the doorway of his magical dining room.  Look at the wood paneling, which he restored. 


Lonnie Robbins, one of my closest friends died this morning in San Francisco. I just learned yesterday Lonnie had a stroke at the end of January.  How could I not have found this out earlier?  I had returned from New York in mid-January with a terrible cold.  I was used to opening my mail and having at least two messages from Lonnie every day.  Yet my illness and the extra work facing deadlines on the cookbook I'm involved in producing here in Portland, distracted me.  It would take Fabiola from Spain and a mutual friend of ours, to wake me up.  She wrote she hadn't heard from Lonnie in several weeks and he wasn't answering her emails. This was definitely odd.  I called his home phone and his message machine was not picking up.  Doubly odd. His cell phone was still taking messages and I left one.

Celebrating Christmas in New York with my good friend Dyanne Demarest at our mutual friend, Joyce  Knapp's beautiful duplex--around 2005.

Then the week's work activities took my time. He was upstate visiting his old friend Lynn, or off doing something, I assumed.  Friday came and I was a bit nervous about not hearing from him. The problem was I had no emergency phone number contacts for him, and I didn't know his neighbor, Abby's last name. I prevailed on my friend Cathy who lives nearby to knock on his door and if there wasn't a response, to knock on Abby's door.  Abby has the bottom flat in the two-family house near Golden Gate Park, where both have lived for nearly fifty years.

A few hours later, Cathy called me back with bad news. Lonnie has suffered the stroke in late January, and she didn't have any more information, other than he was in California Pacific Medical Center. He had been sent to a rehab facility, but returned to California Pacific and was awaiting a transfer to a VA nursing facility.  I wasn't sure what to think. I have known Lonnie since 1970--forty two years. It was inconceivable to me that my vital, contrarian, loving friend was incapacitated by a stroke.  I called the hospital and was put through to his nurse, Juan, who was prevent by law from giving me much detail, other than the fact that Lonnie wasn't ambulatory, but he could talk and he put me through to his room.


Stephanie at Christmas at Lonnie's around 2002. She is sitting with Lonnie's noisy clock just above her. 


A good photo of Lonnie during the same Christmas in 2002. 

Lonnie answered the phone. He sounded like someone who had suffered a stroke. His speech was somewhat impaired, but he sounded alert. We talked for maybe ten minutes. I didn't want to wear him out with a lot of questions. He told me he was supposed to be going home on Tuesday, which I doubted. Lonnie lives in a top-floor flat which requires him to climb two steep staircases to reach. He would have to have a live-in aide, because he couldn't open the door from the top of the stairs. I asked him if his cousin Lee was taking care of his affairs, and he said yes.  It occurred to me later that he may have been answering my questions without knowing what he was saying. I've tried to reach Lee with no success.

Cathy called me again this afternoon with the terrible news that Lonnie had died this morning. I'm comforted that he no longer has to live with the indignity of being a stroke victim, and of course, I'm amazed that we were able to talk and that I could tell my friend, I loved him.

I met Lonnie when I was nearly 20 years old. I was dating his cousin, Jay for a brief time. The relationship didn't take, but Lonnie and I bonded as friends and that friendship would endure for more than four decades. I think everyone had one or two unforgettable characters who they can call friends. Stephanie von Buchau was one, and Lonnie Robbins was another.


Lonnie during his naval years

Lonnie was a teacher, who came to San Francisco after graduating from the University of Washington and a stint in the Navy.  It was the early 60s and he came to San Francisco because it was gay friendly and it was a less oppressive city for a young black man in those pre-liberation days.  He worked for Standard Oil for a number of years, but he later became a teacher, initially as I recall, in the East Bay and later in San Francisco.  He settled in the Richmond district near Golden Gate Park in a rambling two-bedroom flat which he filled with furniture and objects from the Arts and Crafts period. His house was built in the Arts and Crafts era. Lonnie's passion was antique furniture, but he later became a collector of all sorts of things. His kitchen not only sported a vast number of Calphalon pots and pans, but also a valuable collection of Griswold Cast Iron. The kitchen was dominated by a large Hoosier cabinet which held all his baking pans. The wooden cabinet had a pull out enamel wear table/counter where he would often read his morning paper and drink his coffee.  All the the wood floors had beautiful old Oriental carpets.  As the decades passed, the flat acquired a kind of eccentric quality to it. It was like a cottage of an absent minded professor, and by the 90s every surface was covered with various things in stages of repair, or was placed to give his eye some pleasure.


Lonnie visiting in New York during Christmas

Lonnie's dining room was my favorite place. We never sat in his living room, which was frankly uncomfortable with its mix of severe furniture from the Arts and Crafts era--collectible it may have been. The dining room was just off the kitchen. It was a roomy space with a coffered wood ceiling and a built-in china cabinet. When Lonnie first moved in, all the wood on the ceiling, the cabinet, the window frames and the floor was painted. It took him months and months of painstaking work to remove the pain and restore the wood to its original 1915 luster.  The floor sported a black oriental rug with gold and white accents. His round oak table had two extensions that could accommodate larger numbers of diners, but Lonnie seldom entertained more than four people at a time. Over the years, the desk would become a cluttered desk-like space where he worked on his laptop, paid his bills, worked on his various restoration projects that required a tabletop. The room also had a bay window where he placed a lumpy, but extremely comfortable couch, which he recovered in a solid terra cotter colored fabric. The room also held his TV, an old, waist-high book shelf that turned 360 degrees, and held books on all sides, a credenza that had a copper and nail top, which held  a collection of old bottles and decanters, and a squared wooden box that served as a small coffee table. It was a room full to bursting. There was art on every wall surface and a gong-sounding wall clock that noisily announced the hour. I could sit on that couch for hours, reading the newspapers, gossiping and arguing with Lonnie, answering email and discussing the day's business. In the mornings, you could look out the window and see a large number of morning doves at Lonnie's bird feeder, which would occasionally be violently interrupted by Lonnie's throwing open a window to shoo the odd pigeon who dared to feed with his beautiful and far more civil-looking morning doves.

The backyard, which Lonnie took care of was a jungle of plants and which thrived or didn't depending on Lonnie's abilities to keep it cultivated. There was a gigantic cymbedium orchid, which when blooming was a sight to see--six or seven huge stalks would be covered in blooms.  Lonnie had a ton of planters some with lemons, some with avocados. There was a pathway of sorts to the very back of the yard, which had an abandoned compost pile. Vines threatened to take over everything. There were bird baths and abandoned outdoor statues, or actually parts of statues and decorative flotsam from Lonnie's never-ending shopping of the city's estate sales and flea markets.  The garage was full to bursting with the various treasures he rescued from the homes of the newly deceased or in the flea markets he haunted. Lonnie augmented his income by selling this stuff on eBay, one of his favorite websites. I never knew if he made much, but he was generous to me with some of his finds over the years. But I really feel sorry for the person who has to clean out his flat and garage, thought it would be fun to watch someone sift through it all.  I hope Lee hosts an estate sales so his many friends can come and buy the things he loved.


Lonnie and me on the terrace of my friends Rita and Riccardo--in San Francisco during my last 
visit there in October, 2011--the last time I would see Lonnie. 

In the late 70s, Lonnie called me in New York.  He had been there for a week, and was staying at the YMCA. I immediately suggested dinner at my apartment.  We hadn't seen each other in a few years, so it was good to see him.  We had wonderful dinner and drank a lot of wine and got caught up.  By the end of the evening, I found myself saying to him, "why don't you get out of the Y, and come here to stay while you look for an apartment. He reluctantly agreed, and two years later, we were still roommates.

We did well sharing a one-bedroom apartment.  Lonnie was good company, and he helped keep the place in order. We shared many dinners, and catted around  the city's somewhat louche gay night scene on the weekends like the two single men we were.  This was the pre-AIDS era, where men were hooking up and partying like there was no tomorrow.  We didn't indulge like many of the men we knew and we didn't do any serious drugging--mostly pot. We had jobs--me in publishing, and Lonnie on leave in New York from teaching school, to working with his cousin Lee at a Lutheran charitable services organization where Lee was executive director.


Lonnie and his friend, Fabiola who visited us from Spain.  A few days later, they house-sat my apartment 
while I was off on a European jaunt.  This photo was taken at a dinner hosted by Laurele and her sister Karole 
at the time. Like me, Lonnie has enjoyed a long and loving friendship with Fabiola. 

Lonnie constantly found treasure, which he would bring home.  One day he arrived with a beautiful scale, which he scraped the rust off of, painted with black enamel, cleaned and shined the brass bowl and reset the scale for accuracy.  He gave it to me, and it still glows in my kitchen more than 25 years later and has maintained it's accuracy.  He brought home an elegant set of nesting tables, which were abandoned on the street because their joints had become loose. He re-glued and cleaned the tables and they were like new. Those tables are in my TV/study. I have a nickel plated gas lamp with a beautiful white ruffled shade, which Lonnie found for me because I had asked for one. He restored it, and I sits in my office, where I can admire its lovely flowing lines. I have a small, elegant little crystal decanter, etched with little crosses all over its sides, which Lonnie gave to me. It lacked a stopper, and became a flower vase for single blooms, but later became a storage bottle for red wine vinegar. I see it by using it more often. It's a beautiful object, repurposed, something that Lonnie loved to do.


Lonnie fixing breakfast in my New York kitchen


I always had an eye for beautiful things, but Lonnie showed me how to widen my taste and to consider the beauty of other things that I just overlooked.  I always brought treasures back to New York I found as we prowled San Francisco's estate sales and flea markets. There was always something to tempt me. The rule was nothing bigger than what I could schlep on the plane back east.

In 1982, I met my partner, Arthur, and it was time for me to set up my life with him.  I hated losing Lonnie as a roommate. We just always had so damned much fun together. As my relationship took over my life, I think I saw Lonnie once more before he left New York to return to San Francisco around 1984. Suddenly two friends who had been inseparable were out of touch with each other.

Arthur died of AIDS in 1991.  Two years later, Lonnie invited me to stay at his home in San Francisco for the Christmas holidays. I was delighted to accept, and that was the first in a series of Christmas and/or summer visits to my hometown.  San Francisco was going through a period of mild, unrainy Christmas seasons, and that first year the weather was spectacular.  My friend Joan Vogel has moved to San Francisco where she had an exciting job with a local publisher there.  Whenever I visited Lonnie, he always turned his kitchen over to me. Lonnie was a very good cook, but I think he enjoyed someone else doing it.  And so we embarked on a remarkable number of memorable meals in this apartment. That year, Christmas dinner was to be a spectacular, lavish and authentic Spanish paella.  I wanted seafood an sausage, but Lonnie's blood pressure nixed the sausage.  We drove all over the city looking for special seafood ingredients for the paella.  We saved time on making fish stock by buying excellent stock form a seafood purveyor in Laurel Village, not to far from Lonnie's home. We went downtown because I found out about a supplier of excellent seafood near the waterfront, but when we arrived, we were told everything was sold out for that day and they didnt' take reservations for anything. So we ended up at the Whole Foods grocery on California Street near Van Ness, where we bought an amazing variety of shrimp, clams, squid, scallops and halibut. We bought red peppers for roasting, Spanish rice, saffron, onions, garlic, fresh thyme and parsley.  I spent most of the day assembling that paella.  Joan arrived with her new puppy, Ruby, a Rhodesian Ridgeback mix with a lovable personality. We drank superb chardonnay, while we nibbled on cheese and crackers, and Lonnie set the table. We took a photo of the gorgeous paella as it rested from the oven before setting it on the dining table. That photograph was attached to Lonnie's refrigerator with a magnet for years, and always made me smile in remembrance of a spectacular Christmas.

The next year, Stephanie came for Christmas dinner. Stephanie, who died about six years ago, was a colorful character. Known throughout the Bay Area by readers who were interested in opera, symphony, ballet, sports, and food, Stephanie von Buchau once pissed off the general director of the San Francisco Opera--the fearsome Kurt Herbert Adler, by trashing his production of Tchaikovsky's PIQUE DAME. She didn't care for the conducting of Rostropovich, a Russian virtuoso cellist who had sought political and artistic asylum in the United States and was just launching his conducting career. She also didn't much care for his wife, Galina Vishnevskay's fading soprano, but she kept most of her contempt for the director of the production (mercifully forgotten by me).  And outraged Adler withdrew Stephanie's critic's seats, thereby setting off an uproar that made him look mean and petty and made her reputation as a critic who wasn't afraid to declare the Emperor's new clothes when she found them. I had personally known Stephanie in the late 70s and we became friends, because I reached out to her and let her know that I was a passionate admirer of her critic eye and brilliantly observed critical style. Stephanie was a huge personality who never stopped talking or letting someone else get a word in edgewise. You simply sat there in awe of the things that came out of her mouth.  She adored my cooking and for dinner, I decided to stuff a pork loin with a combination of garlic, onions, kale, spinach and Parmesan, which was roasted and from which I made a reduction of the pan juices. It was a dish I made up on the spot and it was a huge success. We stuffed ourselves silly and drank a wonderful French burgundy, and drove Stephanie home to Larkspur in Marin County afterwards.

I usually kept Lonnie, who was by now retired, busy shuttling me around from one social commitment to another. Lonnie had begun to know my family and endured a number of visits with my brothers. It got to be very noisy in his dining room with brothers, their spouses and others as we cooked dinners or went out to Lonnie and my favorite local restaurants. There as always someone to visit, or something to do. When Joan married her husband, Fritz, Lonnie and I went to the wedding where I was part of the ceremony. Held at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the spectacular but intimate reception was held in their restaurant space.  It was a brilliantly beautiful day and both bridge and groom were giddy in love and superb hosts.


Lonnie and Maryann way up on top of Twin Peaks in San Francisco around 2000. 

My ex-sister-in-law owns a fabulous B& B near Pt. Reyes, California on the coast, and invited us several times to come to the inn for a visit. We usually would go to dinner. My opera buddy, Christine Goerke, was making her debut with the San Francisco Symphony in 1997 singing the leading soprano part in Mahler's Symphony #8. I flew out for the occasion and brought Lonnie with me, and a bunch of us had an impromptu party at Starrs afterward. It was during this event that I would meet Terri Stuart, a local opera lover, who would become a close friend both both Christine and me--a friendship that endures to this day. Lonnie also came with me to Christine's San Francisco Opera debut as Rosalinde in Strauss operetta classic, DIE FLEDERMAUS.

In 1999, I went for the Christmas holidays to San Francisco.  We decided to share the millennial  celebrations, though there was some concern that Y2K would ruin the transition into 2000. It was during that holiday that Lonnie and I decided to collaborate on a New Year's Eve dinner for about 10 people.  Lonnie made long-simmering collard greens, cornbread, and Hoppin' Johns while I did fried chicken, a big salad a a chocolate cake.  Everyone brought champagne. This was one New Year's that actually lived up to its hype.  The weather was beautiful, everyone was in a joyous mood, Y2K turned out to be a bust and the champagne flowed.  I didn't stay up much after midnight--but it was a truly memorable evening, and I was very happy to celebrate it with my long-standing friend.

Later that year, my buddy Maryann Palumbo told me she was going to San Francisco to give a lecture at the Standford Publishing Course in Palo Alto.  She wanted to go to Las Vegas on the way back. I don't know how I thought this up, but she and I conceived of a plan to go to San Francisco for a few days of playing then she would do her Standford lecture and meet me at the airport, where we would fly to Las Vegas for a few days before heading back to New York.  When we got to planning a hotel, I suggested she stay with me a Lonnie's.  It was a crazy idea. But she would have her own room, and Lonnie was game, having met her before. The minute we were on the plane, I was worried that she wouldn't be comfortable in Lonnie's eccentrically cramped apartment.  Turned out I had nothing to worry about. She was comfortable and thoroughly charmed by Lonnie.



Lonnie enjoying a beer at one of New York's great watering holes. Fabiola took this photo 
during their stay in the Big Apple. 


Lonnie and I could also be a combustible combination of personalities.  He could be very judgemental and I would certainly fire back. But these were usually small flurries that didn't last long. Lonnie liked to snipe but if you showed your backbone, he usually retreated and order was quickly restored. During my many trips to San Francisco or his periodic visits to New York, we fell into our usual easy rapport. We drove all over San Francisco in his battered Ford visiting museums, churches, the top of Twin Peaks or the beach. We take excursions to the East Bay or Marin County or the Wine Country. Always there was good food involved.  Those years staying with Lonnie helped me to re-connect with the city of my youth. My family had moved out of the city and were sprawled into the suburbs--with my youngest brother as far away as Sonoma. These were the years of my forties, and it we had a lot of fun.

Lonnie retired from teaching sometime in the early 90s, but because there was such a shortage of qualified teachers, he and other retired teachers were pressed back into service without the work affecting their pensions. So Lonnie was able to live more comfortably teaching part-time. When not working, he would take his usual long afternoon stroll in the neighborhood, which kept his tall frame in good trim.  Lonnie was also very conscious of the environment and frugal. He would constantly yell at me to turn off the water and give me lectures on wasting things. He loved to recycle and fix things--get them running and useful again. He often complained about the wastefulness of a consumer culture. And he was right. He drove his cars until they simply died on him. He had a VW van that ran and ran and ran, cross country, all over California, Oregon and Washington. His last car, a much-abused Ford Escort was made in 1990 and he was still driving it around the neighborhood to get errands done at the time of his death.  That car broke down in Marin as we were on the way to Pt. Reyes.  I kept needling Lonnie about the terrible shape his car was in. And of course, I overlooked the bad timing and picked at that issue when we broke down, which only made him angrier.  Later he admitted he should have had the car in better repair.  Still that car continued to run and run, though I was grateful I had finally learned how to drive and rented a car while I was in San Francisco last fall.

Lonnie stayed up with the times. He was one of my first friends to embrace computers and taught computer science in the San Francisco high schools. He joined Facebook, and kept a large correspondence with friends keeping them informed with steady stream of Internet information. For more than forty years I think Lonnie and I would agree that we were mostly amiable companions with similar interests, a sense of both adventure and humor.  I'm sorry he'a gone.  I've lost a wonderful friend and an amiable companion, and I miss him already.


Lonnie and me in his dining room (there's that booming clock over his head) around 2003 or 2004




2 comments:

  1. I was missing Lonnie this evening, I need to find something to bring him back and connect to again, and I finally arrived to Greg's Blog. I have enjoyed this so well depicted biography that Greg has made of Lonnie's life. I had not read it till now. Thank you Greg for having written this to say goodbye to our dear friend Lonnie.
    Fabiola.

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  2. The article you wrote was awesome!
    Lonnie was named after my grandfather; Lonnie Feemster from York,South Carolina.
    I could tell by the holiday cards that Lonnie sent to his "Aunt Christine" (my mother)that he was an artist; born with an extraordianry gift.
    I too; am a visual artist and I now know, who I inherited this trait from; the Feemsters; since none of my other siblings can only spend a few seconds with me in an art museum!
    Is it possible that you could share more information about him to me?
    His mother was named Pinky. I would love to have a copy of her picture for the family tree. My e-mail address is kathy.pittman@osumc.edu
    I thank you in advance.
    I also thank you for being a friend to Lonnie.

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