AN OBITUARY BY MARY ELIZABETH (LEACH) RAINES
© M. E. Raines, 2017
A while ago I got one of those phone calls you dread receiving. It started out, “I have some sad news…”
My caller told me that Pindell* was dead. He had died of a heart attack shortly before Christmas.
Here’s what Pindell’s obituary said: “Rick was a graduate of New England Conservatory of Music. He was a scholar, musician and a gentle soul.”
Rick? Who is that? We never, ever called him Rick. We always called him by his last name: Pindell.
Pindell was the first genuinely crazy person I ever befriended. We were students at the New England Conservatory of Music together. I was a piano major, but I hung out with his crowd—the composers. This small knot of composition students at the conservatory were all guys, and they were all brilliant. Geniuses. While we did not have the words “nerd” and “geek” in our vocabularies back then, that’s what my friends were.
Pindell was the nerdiest and geekiest of them all. He was, as his obituary stated, a scholar, a musician, and a gentle man. He was also big, clumsy, funny looking and weird, a guy with a complete lack of social graces who wore ill-fitting plaid shirts and thick glasses that were, just like the old movie cliché, taped in the middle to hold them together.
I have no problem with this. The reading glasses I am wearing right now as I type are duct-taped together.
Pindell and his friends, you see, were My People.
There are a few snippets about Pindell that stand out above all the rest. One memory is of a party at my sister’s apartment. At a time when most of us were still living in dorms, my older sister came to Boston and moved into an Actual Apartment. We all thought that this was quite glamorous.
For some reason or another, she invited my friends to this party. I need to interject here that our parties were not anything like the college parties today. First of all, we rarely had alcohol. Secondly, while we did listen to a lot of music, the speakers weren’t very loud. Back then a person could always have a conversation in a normal tone of voice when music was playing, even at a prom. It was the mid-60s. Our music was on vinyl, and what we ordinarily played were things like symphonies and operas. We didn’t smoke pot, either. We knew very little about it. The first time I ever heard someone say that she had smoked marijuana was in 1967 at the end of my sophomore year. I scarcely knew what the word meant; I had a vague idea that it was something illegal that the beatniks did.
Ours were the last of the days of innocence. The huge demonstrations and riots that welled up against the Vietnam War were still a couple of years away. The nearest we got to a riot was when a downtown Boston theater scheduled a 2:00 a.m. showing of the exciting new James Bond film, “Casino Royale.” As a publicity stunt, they announced that anyone wearing a trench coat could get in for free. Pindell, along with several of my other nerdy friends, donned their trench coats—because everyone had a trench coat back then—and walked to the theater. I had to get up early to open the school’s switchboard the next morning, and I remember how depressed I was that I could not accompany them.
Unfortunately, the theater had miscalculated, never guessing how many students would show up. Boston was a college town, the showing took place during a semester break, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do back then. Fifteen thousand kids, all wearing trench coats, showed up! Although I doubt that it was more than a little scuffle between a few of them, the newspapers reported that a riot broke out. My friends later told me that they were unaware of any riot. They were just standing in a massive crowd outside the theater, hoping against hope that they could get in to see the movie. They really liked James Bond. I still have the newspaper from the following day. On the front page of the Boston Globe is a picture of a police officer, his legs braced, holding back a snarling police dog who is standing on his hind feet, trying to lunge at a few of my terrified composer friends. The rioters. Including Pindell.
Back to my sister’s party. As glamorous as I thought it to be, her sparsely furnished apartment had a bed in it and not much else. We all stood around the bed being jolly and party-ish. Pindell asked someone for a match, lit something that was not a cigarette, and began shaking it around. To my amazement, I saw that it was a sparkler. (A sparkler is a hand-held firework that emits flames and sparks.) One imagines that Pindell, party guy and former rioter, believed that playing with sparklers would be a festive thing to do. I can still see him standing at attention, expressionless, dully waving his sparkler back and forth over my sister’s bed with the flames reflected in the thick lenses of his glasses, completely oblivious to the fact that several people were screaming at him to stop. The sparks from Pindell’s sizzling party toy burned several large holes in my sister’s bedspread, and the sulphurous smoke filling the room made us cough, but luckily the building did not catch on fire.
Another outstanding Pindell snippet occurred when a few of us went to a tawdry cafeteria across the street from the conservatory called Hayes Bickford’s. We went there often to hang out and chat. It was our version of a coffeehouse, decades before there were places like Starbucks. It would still be a couple of years before hippie coffeehouses came into their own. Hayes Bickford’s cafeteria was the one place in Boston where street people, addicts, bums, the most wretched of the wretched, and, of course, students like us could go to get a cheap meal.
All of my friends were poor, and even at Haye’s Bickford’s low prices, we rarely ordered food; usually all we could afford would be a cup of coffee. We would stretch our cups of coffee out for hours on end as we sat at the cheap little tables and discussed music. The composer crowd always discussed music.
On this evening, our group sat down at a table that had not yet been cleared. In front of Pindell sat a sloppy plate of someone's leftover spaghetti and meatballs. Pindell picked up the used fork and began eating.
“Pindell,” I gasped. “What are you doing?”
He looked at me quizzically. He did not understand. “Eating,” he replied seriously. Then he turned his attention back to the plate in front of him, shoveling in forkfuls of the contaminated spaghetti with great gusto.
When he had cleaned the plate, he put his fork down and sniffed his armpits. Sniffing his armpits was something he was known to do. He didn’t try to hide the fact or to be sneaky about it. Pindell would raise one arm high in the air, duck his head, take a good strong whiff of his armpit, and then move to the other arm. Once again, it would have bewildered him had someone pointed out to him that this was just not done, so we didn’t bother. I will say this: his attentiveness paid off. He looked strange, but he never smelled bad.
I believe that, perhaps in compensation for some of his social difficulties, Pindell had a touch of the savant in him. Here’s an example. Like most of the rest of us at the conservatory,—especially the composers,—he had an enormous record collection. Once he and another friend named Herman were scheduled to give a talk in an advanced music theory class. Their presentation involved references to excerpts from a large number of compositions. In planning the talk, Pindell said that he would bring along his record player and records so that they could play the excerpts they would be discussing. Herman protested. He told Pindell that finding the exact spot to play on the record would chew up way too much time. One of the numerous short excerpts of music that they were going to reference in their talk, for instance, was from Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” a five-and-a-half-hour-long opera!
Nevertheless, Pindell showed up on the day of the talk carrying a huge stack of records under his arm. Herman began to speak to the class, and when he mentioned the first musical excerpt, Pindell, who already had the record in question spinning on the turntable, lifted the needle and miraculously placed it on the precise spot where the measures being referenced began. Herman was astonished.
After Pindell repeated this feat with five or six different records, the teacher exploded. “What is going on? A magic show?” he demanded.
Pindell did not understand the instructor’s excitement. Afterwards, Herman said to Pindell, “That was amazing! You must have spent a long time practicing where to place the needle for all those different pieces.”
Pindell was bewildered. “Why would I need to rehearse something like that?” he said. Locating exact segments of music on a record was something he had always been able to do. He was quite surprised to learn from Herman that not everyone possessed this ability!
The most poignant memory I have of Pindell occurred at that same party with the sparklers. When it was a little later in the evening and the smell of sulpher had dissipated, Pindell took me aside and told me that he had something to say. He then professed that he was romantically attracted to me. His words sounded stilted and rehearsed. Stunned, I told him the truth as sweetly as I could: I was not interested in him that way. He took it well and it did not interfere with our friendship. While I was a little disturbed by his revelation—Pindell was crazy, after all—I was also moved and flattered. It took immense courage for him to share his feelings with me.
We lost touch after our conservatory days. Several years passed. The world began to change. Almost overnight taking drugs became commonplace, there were massive protests against the war in Vietnam, boys let their hair grow long, profanity became commonplace, kids largely stopped bathing, and a new group of people my age sprang up called hippies. It was then that I bumped into Pindell. It would be the last time that I ever saw him.
I was walking down Newbury street in Boston. He was on the sidewalk going the opposite direction from me. He looked wildly different. He looked, well…normal. He had lost weight, he was dressed neatly in professional clothing, his hair was expertly groomed, he had on a nice pair of glasses that were not taped together, and his eyes no longer darted here and there in the glazed, crazy way I was used to. No, he made pleasant eye contact and there was expression on his formerly wooden face. Even his voice and posture had shifted. This was not a man who would interrupt a conversation to sniff at his armpits.
“Pindell,” I exclaimed. “What’s happened to you?!”
He smiled in a benign, knowing way. “Two things,” he said. “Both of them have completely changed my life.”
“What two things?” I asked eagerly.
“I began taking LSD regularly, and then I discovered that I am actually a transvestite,” he confided. “I’m a different person now.”
Pindell is the only human male on the planet who has ever became normal and sane by taking LSD and wearing women’s panties.
Rest in peace, Pindell. I’m glad I knew you.
*Pindell's name has been changed out of respect for the family that survives him. All the incidents and places related, however, including our friendship, are true.
Please enjoy Mary Elizabeth Leach’s newest collection of short stories, now available in paperback and for Kindle, “The Man in the GPS and Other Stories”