Walter Mencken 7 p.m., Dec. 10
"A cynic is just a disgruntled idealist." ~ Ian Orteza, 2006
I was born in San Diego, California, in the United States of America in nineteen hundred and sixty-one. My father was in the Navy and we lived in a very small apartment just east of Lindburgh Field. With no money for anything more, my parents rented that place because they couldn’t afford anything better. Jet airliners screamed overhead, merely hundreds of feet above our heads. My parents told me that even before I could walk and talk that they would carry me outside and when those loud flying machines would come tearing up the sky above, in for a landing, I would point up to those monsters and stare in wonder and smile. One natural fear we are born with is the fear of loud noises, and apparently I had missed out in getting that memo. It was therefore no surprise to my parents I would wind up somehow involved in aerospace at one point in my life.
And so it goes, I was involved in the shock and awe business when I met Ian Orteza.
I left aerospace at around the same time that Ian left the United Nations. Ian found it ironic that the U.N. would even have offices in Geneva. "When you enter Switzerland, and you present them with your U.N. passport, they look at you and say, ‘Right, show us your real passport.’ And they act like you’ve insulted them," he once told me. Ian also held a Filipino passport. Geneva honored it.
Another irony: Ian worked in war reparations, while I worked in making the hardware creating the necessity for that reparation job. We acknowledged this several times. We figured that if we kept it going that we would simply keep each other in business. Like true cynics, we decided that since people would kill each other anyway, there might as well be the means to an end, and inversely, the end to a means. The dog could wag the tail or the tail could wag the dog. Our reading glasses would simply slide down the end of our noses and we would enter numbers on a spreadsheet that ultimately makes everything balance out for everyone else.
This is what happens.
The internet was so shiny and brand new, there wasn’t even a glimpse of a social networking site. Meredith’s place was hand-coded, and she had a threadless forum, and that’s where I met Ian, along with Sammy and Heath and Michael and Gina and Terry and Chris, and a host of people I still know to this very moment. Ian brought in Katriona, too. So, for a good few years, I would get to work and wonder what everyone was up to, and daily we would post something in there, and from those comments we learned much about each other. How we all wound up on Meredith’s site, well, I imagine the universe attracts misfits to a certain point on its own accord.
I considered us all explorers.
After a couple of years, then, it came as no great surprise that some would venture forward in order to expand their knowledge and to experience another place. Sammy and Ian both flew in to San Diego so I went up to meet them there and to bring them back into my world. If I had it to do all over again, perhaps we would have unwound down in Popotla. But we were young and they were single and the nightlife of Tijuana was too good to pass up. We grabbed it, because we had to. It was an ice-cold beer right in front of us. Or perhaps, a mountain to be climbed. And so we did.
"The church of the naked Madonna’s," Ian called it, the premiere strip joint in Tijuana at the time. We had fun there, but we didn’t stay long. We weren’t interested in hookers. The reference, obviously, was toward what we would experience the next day - the big giant Jesus; or as I called it then, the Church of the Big Giant Jesus. We went up there and played around with that statue even before it was mounted on the dome where it now rests. I don’t know where Ian’s photos wound up, but the photographic angles up into the lattice were amazing. He was amazing.
Ian Orteza died last week, in his sleep. This World weighs far less today than it did when he was alive. I didn’t cry the day that Ian died, it took me a couple of days, but then I did finally bawl like a hungry child. I got real mad at God. I still am. So, apparently, God is a cynic, too. You’re in good hands then, Ian. Put in a kind word for me, I reckon I’ll need it.
There is a depth to some men that surpasses anyone’s ability to ever reach the bottom, and that was Ian. Somewhere in there, a vast chasm of patient knowledge and lasting wisdom resided, and you could sit with him and wait and prod him and maybe you would get lucky and this soft-spoken man would open up. Rocio got mad at Sammy and me, that if perhaps we would just shut up every once in a while that she could hear Ian. After the first night of drunken foolishness, I took Ian and Sammy up the street and we ate tacos de birria because there isn’t a much better way to quell a hangover. And because, after all, birria tastes wonderful.
"This place is a lot like the Philippines," Ian said, cupping his taco masterfully above the plate.
And of course, we went to Caliente, because there is so much history there, Seabiscuit and others, it was at one time – along with Tanforan – the only track on the West Coast. I have pictures somewhere of Ian and Sammy in the old rusted starting gates, until a security guard tried to take a bribe for me taking those photos. I talked my way out of it, like I’m prone to do. We went to the old cinco y diez bridge and took more photos. Then, the Church of the Big Giant Jesus. And so on.
Ian brought me a gift from Katriona, it was a pocket knife with my name engraved on the side. My gift to her, then, was a machete. It was engraved with images of harvesting agave. Fitting, since I’m sitting here drinking tequila. And so, Ian wrote me, "She sleeps with it," and you know how I felt about that. Maybe there are no other four words that are more erotic than those words are. Ian knew. No man writes those words and doesn’t know what they mean to another man. And no woman sleeps with a sword and doesn’t know what it means to the man the sword came from.
Ian’s talents were not limited to writing. He sketched a comic strip for some time, called "Orgasmic Chill". Basically, feet out of the bottom of the bed. That’s all we are as lovers, really. He knew. It was so completely clever. It was so completely human.
Ian climbed mountains. Maybe in more ways than Mother Nature set forth, Ian decided that there were more important things to do than to wait for some nefarious challenge from God. I never wondered for a minute why he climbed, I knew. Just like he never wondered how I wound up in Mexico. It’s my own mountain. To Ian’s mother: Your son was my brother. Maybe not in blood, but certainly in spirit. To Ian’s daughter: I cannot be your father, but I will be your friend, perhaps one day you’ll have a question that only a father could answer.
Ian was not the person who inspired me to write; he was the first person to encourage me. I wrote a piece on Christopher Columbus and Ian loved it. If you like what I write, then thank Ian, otherwise I imagine I wouldn't have bothered. It was, I reckon, my own mountain. And, you know, Ian just told me to do it. Sammy will undoubtedly love this next thing:
"There's nothing to mourn about death any more than there is to mourn about the growing of a flower. What is terrible is not death but the lives people live or don't live up until their death. They swallow God without thinking, they swallow country without thinking. Soon they forget how to think, they let others think for them. Their brains are stuffed with cotton. They look ugly, they talk ugly, they walk ugly. Play them the great music of the centuries and they can't hear it. Most people's deaths are a sham. There's nothing left to die."
~ Charles Bukowski, The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship, 1998
And Ian, Bukowski would be proud of you. You did live your life and you never swallowed anything without tasting it first. I can’t imagine that you ever believed anything without examining it first, that is the way of us cynics, isn’t it? For you, whatever is there once we’re gone, if wings are given out in heaven, I can’t imagine you flying until you’ve had a good chance to evaluate those feathers. And then, once you’re convinced, I can’t imagine that you’ll ever land again. Some people were born to fly. You are certainly one of those people, my brother. I will miss you so very much, and it’s entirely possible I’ll never love another man as much as I loved you. I will happily take what part of you you’ve given to me to my grave, and everything I write from here and there, well, you have always been a part of it. Enjoy your vacation, Ian, I hope to see you again some day.