Abbot’s Journal Vol 61, September 10, 2007

by Norman Fischer | September 10, 2007 at 3:08 PM

Muir Beach

… Saturday, Company Time retreat all day (subject: “focus”) then benefit for Hartford Street Zen Center that night. With David Schneider. Hadn’t seen him in maybe twenty-five years. He looks almost the same, lean and lithe in his neat suit, one hardly notices the thinning hair and the gray. We sat up on stage reminiscing about Issan and Phil (Whalen). I’d come prepared to read stuff by and about Phil, figuring I had little else to say (couldn’t remember any amusing anecdotes) but then, in the event, I did remember. Seeing Del’s “Tassajara Bread Book” drawings on the wall at Hartford Street, I remembered once driving Del and Issan up from Tassajara and we’d stopped at Del’s place in Palo Alto for dinner. Del and Issan drinking gin and gossiping about the old days in the San Francisco gay community, long before it was safe to come out: all the suffering, all the outrageous, if secret, behavior. I sat listening with shock and delight. It was as if an historical period long gone and long submerged were springing to life before my eyes. That reminded me of an essential element of Issan’s character (and, now I think of it, of Del’s too): a fearlessness, a total inviolability. Having made peace with his own sense of being an utterly debased person (what being gay in the 1950’s meant: you either embraced this, celebrated it, or you felt ashamed and horrified about yourself; surely gay people now are privileged to be fully included in the general fear and loathing that everyone feels), nothing further could happen to him, there was no violence. no humiliation he need stay clear of, so he didn’t care, had nothing to protect, and this was the source of his legendary charm. It was why he had no sense of fear and dread about AIDS, could pick people up on the street and bring them home with him, without any care in the world about when or if they’d leave or what they’d do when they were there. Whatever it was, Issan could handle it. For as long as it lasted. In the end though it was that very cavalier attitude in the face of danger that did him in.

I remembered other things: his walk: with back trouble he felt he needed to take special care of his posture, so he always moved with a straight spine, his head and neck extended, his shoulders squared and swaying from side to side, in a dignified and saucy manner, a gay, but not exactly a gay, walk. He wore white jubons (which are underwear) as if they were smoking jackets, and black tabi (Japanese socks) as if they were footwear of the emperor. No matter where he lived the place was always elegant and neat, though simple, with everything always exactly in place (later Laura Burgess said that Issan had developed this habit of neatness and precision when, as a female impersonator, he had to make swift costume changes backstage). Also remembered (but I think did not mention on stage) how regal he looked on his deathbed, so elegantly laid out. (A poem about it in “Success,” which means he died in 1990).

Lots of stories and memories too about Phil. Feeding him at Laguna Honda – just like feeding our turtles: he’d sit up, stretch out his neck, slowly open his mouth, then “glump!” bite down decisively; then slowly and deliberately withdraw. Rick Levine told me that once in the steam room at Tassajara he’d screwed up his courage (because Phil could be a scary guy) and asked Phil what he thought of Williams’ “no ideas but in things.” Phil grunted and groaned and finally said testily “How do I know what he meant? He didn’t mean anything – he liked to sleep with his patients, that’s what he meant!” Then, a few years later, Phil knocks on Rick’s door and hands him a volume of complete Blake. “Here: I want you to have this.” Wouldn’t come in for tea. In the volume every reference to “minute particulars” had been underlined.

I regret that I (with David’s cooperation) framed the evening around the conceit that the wicked old days were so much fun, and now things are so clean and rational they’re boring (that is, the Zen movement is boring). K. and some of the other women were recalling that to many Phil was scary and mean, and that he and Issan were in many ways quite sexist. When someone in the audience asked “Why aren’t people like that anymore in Zen?” David said, “lawsuits!” and he’s not wrong. There was a lot of sheer irresponsibility and blindness and all that quirkiness and crabbyness (words I’d used to describe Phil and Issan) had its price. Inevitably it would have had to change and certainly the change is for the better.


Norman Fischer