The Storyteller has gone away and he’s taken his story with him. Never again will we hear his voice.
After Chet died, I forgot all about The Book because there was no longer a book to remember, but I didn’t forget about Chet. My strongest memory was, and still is, of a routine social ritual he performed during our first meeting – thanking a young barmaid for delivering his tea fixings to our table. Chet simply said, “Thank you.” That’s it. “Thank you.” I have no idea why that fleeting, inconsequential moment has had such a profound and lasting affect on me, but it has. Every time I think about it, my heart aches a little.
A small, family and friends memorial for Chet was scheduled for Friday, July 1, 2005 at The Columbarium, his final resting place. Located a few blocks north of Golden Gate Park, The Columbarium is copper-domed, Neo-Classical structure that was built in 1898. The four-story building features six large, stained glass windows, one of which is presumed to have been designed by Louis Tiffany or John LaFarge, a 45-foot high rotunda, and niches for the ashes of 8,500 souls. Many of the cinerary niches have solid copper doors; others are glass-fronted, allowing for displays of personal or symbolic items. The Columbarium houses the remains of numerous prominent San Franciscans, including Harvey Milk.
And now it housed Chester Leo Helms, Jr.
On Friday afternoon, I met up with a few of Chet’s friends at the home of photographer Grant Jacobs and we walked to The Columarium. A young woman with a clipboard was checking off names as we entered the building. The good, ol’ guest list. Freddy Clarke, a musician friend of Chet’s was seated in front of a sprawling floral display, playing ethereal tunes on an acoustic guitar and his sweet notes resonated throughout the rotunda. The mood inside was hushed and reverential and it was immediately obvious that there was no dress code. The 150 or so mourners were wearing everything from somber, traditional funeral garb to sleeveless leather vests, jeans and cowboy hats.
I spotted Clara Bellino, whom I’d met at the Hotel Cornell dinner two months earlier, sitting in the middle of the room by herself and we exchanged subdued waves of greeting, but I didn’t recognize or know anyone else, except the people I was with and Jerilyn Brandelius. I overheard someone say that Chet was on the third floor, so that’s where I headed. When I got there, a small crowd of people was standing in front of a glass-fronted niche. Edging closer, I saw that the niche contained the familiar “Hippies Use Side Door” photo of Chet; a Family Dog logo decal; a small black & white photo of Chet and his brothers, John and Jim when they were kids; and an elegant, porcelain Japanese vase.
I returned to the ground floor of the rotunda and listened to a parade of speakers, including John Helms; former Merry Prankster, Julius Karpen, the man who had replaced Chet as manager of Big Brother and the Holding Company after they parted company; and Joli Valenti, Dino Valenti’s son, who read a touching, eulogistic poem he had written for the occasion.
After the speakers finished, the crowd drifted outside and commenced the mingling that is required by such gatherings. A few joints were lit and began to make the rounds, stories were exchanged and, of course, promises to get together again real soon were made, re-made and then made again.
During the walk back to Grant Jacob’s house, Grant and I fell a bit behind the rest of our party and he said, “I have a great story for Chet’s book.”
Chet’s book? What Chet’s book?
And that was the moment I realized that although the world would never hear Chet’s story, it needed to hear the story of Chet. That was the moment I realized that I wanted to be the one tell that story. That was the moment I realized I was going to do everything I possibly could to make it happen.
But I didn’t say anything, I just listened to Grant tell his Chet story. And it was one hell of a story. In fact, it is the best Chet story I have heard to this day and, believe me, I have heard dozens of great Chet Helms stories during the past three years. But there’s a problem. Although I absolutely believe Grant’s story – his details are too precise not to believe it – it turns out that he is just one of the possible three surviving witnesses of the eight people who were present during the event he described to me. Five of the eight people are deceased and Grant has no idea who the other two people are. The story he told me absolutely demands corraboration before it sees print and I have, thus far, been unable to do that.
But I’m not giving up.
I can say no more.