I almost feel as if it’s sacrilege to say anything about this man of letters, but I do have a story to tell and reason to say farewell.
Sam was surely one of the most important of the American playwrights, a fine writer with a great and hungry mind that gobbled up and regurgitated fact, fantasy, desire, longing, rage and disdain. He might have been a fool for love, and I imagine he was – but he did not suffer fools.
I had a couple of memorable interactions with Sam. The first time I met him, I pretended I didn’t know it was him
It was 1991 and I was working at the Buffalo Dancer Gallery under Ogilvie’s, now The Gorge. It was Christmas Eve around 6:00 pm or so, already dark but I wasn’t closing for another hour. I was dusting the glass cases that held rare Kachina Dolls, Fetishes and jewelry – antique silver and stones from mines long closed, bead and quill work. Pots and baskets, trade blankets and Navajo weavings, deer and buffalo hides, pipes and flutes from every Nation on Turtle Island, filled every inch of the space. It was a true trading post right on the corner of the Plaza.
The shop was owned by Duane Hopper, the cousin of Dennis and David, Duane came during the Mud Palace Days and never left. He married Rhoda Concha from Taos Pueblo and made Taos his home. A lot of people from all walks of life came through the Gallery doors. That night it was Sam. I knew it was him immediately. He was a movie star by then. His hair fell forward onto his forehead from the widow’s peak that distinguished his throwback, heart-throb features. He brushed it back with a lazy hand.
He nodded at me when he came in and headed straight to the back of the shop. He browsed around for ten minutes or so, not saying a word, and then suddenly he asked to see a beaded hair clip.
I took it out of the case for him to look at.
“Can you put it in your hair?” He asked me, staring at my long and somewhat unruly mane of brunette hair.
“Excuse me?” I responded.
“Put your hair up with it.” He said.
“Why?” I asked him.
“Because I want to see how it looks.”
I was a little dumbfounded. And irritated. It was Christmas Eve, I wanted to get out of there, off the Plaza before people started getting drunk and Sam Shepard was asking me to try on hair clips.
“No.” I told him.
“What?” He looked a bit shocked.
“I can’t try it on,” I lied, “not allowed, hygiene rules and stuff like that.”
“Oh.” He’d bought it.
“Okay, I’ll take it anyway,” he said.
“May I look around a bit more?” He asked.
I looked at the clock. Got more irritated. “Fine,” I said, “but don’t mind me, I have to start closing up.”
Hint. Not taken. He started perusing the cases some more, picked up a deer skin, flipped through a pile of Pendleton blankets. I wrapped up the clip and wrote up a receipt. I remember it was $25.00 plus tax. He came up to the desk where I sat and put down a beaded pouch that had been hanging near the deer hides.
“How much is this?” He queried as he paid for the clip.
I told him.
“I’ll take that too.” He said. He paid for both in cash.
“Merry Christmas.” I said as I showed him to the door, fearing he’d never leave.
“Thanks,” he answered, not wishing me the same.
That was surreal, I thought to myself as I locked up.
When I got home, I called Duane.
“I think Sam Shepard came in tonight,” I told him.
“Oh yeah, he comes in when he’s in town,” Duane said. “Did he buy anything?”
I didn’t see Sam again over the next two decades, though I know he passed through Taos often.
Years later, my dear friend Susan Masri had just died, too young and far too soon. I had gone to a memorial for her at the Parks Gallery where she had worked. Little did any of us gathered there that afternoon guess that within a year or so, Steve (Parks), too would be gone. I left the gathering early and I walked across the street to the TCA to see my friend Paul Pascarella’s show. I first met Paul at the Buffalo Dancer as well. He was close to the Gallery Manager, the late Bob Watkins. Paul is such an incredible and important artist – we keep talking about doing a post and we will – I remember one particularly powerful piece dedicated to his late friend, the writer Hunter Thompson.
As I was leaving, Paul came up to me and invited me to go to a party with him and some friends whom he said were waiting at the Taos Inn. One of them, Kiki was working and the others were waiting for her to get off work.
I walked into the Adobe Bar ahead of Paul and saw my daughter Genevieve seated at the bar with an older man who appeared to be harassing her. He had a hand on her knee and leaned in closer than I liked.
I walked right over to her and parked myself between them with my back to him. That sorted that out.
“Mom,” my daughter smiled, “I’d like you to meet my friend Sam.”
Genevieve worked at the World Cup Cafe back then and had mentioned to me once or twice that when Sam was in town, he’d come in early in the morning for his coffee and they’d chat.
I turned around and looked into the same eyes I hadn’t seen since that Christmas past, and offered my hand.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said.
He looked like he’d seen a ghost.
“You,” he stammered, “you’re the mother?” He stared at me some more.
“Enchante’.” He muttered underneath his breath, as he took my hand and kissed it.
I’m not quite certain how it happened but I suddenly found myself deeply engaged with Sam Shepard in an impassioned conversation about Greek Theatre and the Homeric Tradition. We both flew off on a philosophical tangent with my daughter chiming in and out, while also conversing with Paul and Kiki who was finally removing her apron and counting her tips.
As soon as we got outside, Sam laid claim to Kiki and didn’t let go of her for the rest of the night.
I am writing this in the dead of night; after a false start that led to a dead-end, I awoke from a dream of Sam standing in a grove on Taos Mountain – I knew as I dreamed, it was Taos Mountain – calling me back to the page.
Besides Paul, Kiki and my daughter, Sam and I had other mutual friends. Poets and people who ply their trade in word-craft, descendents of a lineage that reached back into the mists of time and reemerged with the Jazz Age and found voice in Be Bop, Beat and Beats. Found voice in Hip Hop and the Street. We were kindred spirits who had crossed paths with silent recognition.
Now we were not so silent and as if we had only this brief moment, this interlude in the vast stew of time, to catch up, make the connection real, we talked and talked as if life depended on it – we talked about writing, about poetry and drama, about people and places and the faces one recalls at the oddest, most unexpected moments.
All the while he would reach for the young and nubile flesh he kept beside him through the night, like King David who kept Abishag the virgin, in his bed to warm his dying bones. Sam wasn’t dying yet but it was as if the young women he kept close, were an elixir, or a charm he used to keep Death at bay, and for a time, I’m certain they did.
We went off to a party – another surreal event I shall remember forever. Almost like a scene from one of Beckett’s tragi-comic plays, The rooms of an unknown home were filled with people and food. Alcohol was plentiful and chatter was high. I saw Henry Hopper there that night and Dean Stockwell’s kids, Austin and Sophie. Jack Smith was there and Tony Huston. Arron Shiver was there too, and he and Genevieve had had an on an off again conversation about staging Sam’s play, Fool For Love in Taos, with (in their perfect fantasy), Sam playing the old man.
Genevieve mentioned this to Tony who thought it a grand idea and wandered over to where Sam stood talking to someone, his arm still draped around Kiki.
What ensued was as unpredictable as Sam clearly could be; his Scorpio heat rose to his forehead, reddened the already ruddy skin and inflamed the passionate nature of the beast.
Gen and I stood silent on the sidelines as the two men almost came to blows, with Tony telling Sam (in his smoothly poetic, Irish accented voice), that every actor needed a good director, with perhaps a passing reference to his own famous director father, while Sam grew more enraged, more inflamed. I think perhaps the idea of playing the old man had touched a nerve – the old man being drawn from his own alcoholic father, and none of us likes to think of ourselves as old. Sam was then only in his late sixties after all.
Somehow the situation was diffused and off we went to the Alley Cantina, Sam, Kiki, Paul, Gen and I. Sam sat me to his right while his left arm encircled Kiki in a death grip. He ordered one drink after another and we kept talking.
He was at the Santa Fe Institute then, and we talked about the collision of Science and the Arts, of Literature and Quantum Physics, of Love and War. Of the inevitable breakdown of communication between minds that work in opposite ways – the rational as opposed to the non-linear, creative – that’s where the bridges needed to be built, now at this time, he thought. He loved his tenure there. He found it enriching, humbling even.
At about 2:00 am, we left the Alley. Sam gave me a big bear hug and that was that.
The next time I ran into him it was at the World Cup. I was having some invasive dental work done, and he remarked how lucky I was, it was not turning my eyes black.
“I always look as if I’ve been in a fist fight,” he told me. “My eyes go black and blue.”
I saw him one more time after that, same place, same time of day.
“I’m going to Ireland with Patti (Smith),” he said. “You should come, it would be fun.”
“I mean it,” he reiterated, “it would be good for you.”
I never saw him again.
When I read Patti’s elegant and exquisitely eloquent tribute to her “buddy” in the New Yorker earlier this week, I was reminded of that lineage that goes back to Homer and his acolytes. To the Oracle at Delphi whose voice echoes in Patti’s own, to the river Styx where Chiron rows his boat, back and forth, from bank to bank carrying the Souls of the Dead.
Patti called for a favourite steed instead; no boat for this Cowboy who rode roughshod through the American Dreamscape, turning it on its head and side as he rearranged it into one of Post-Modern Magic and Myth – compressing that vision into a kaleidoscope of space/time – squeezing the life out of innocence itself.
He’s gone now. The man called Sam. He once walked here, among us mortal women and men.
Editor’s Note: After I wrote the first part of this piece, before I was awoken by my dream of Sam, I saw Duane Hopper at a grocery store in town, with his daughter and grandson. Duane has been very ill these past years but yesterday he told me he was better every day and that he had gone fishing the day before.
Sam liked to go fishing too, He went fishing a lot around the Land of Enchantment, with his good friend, Paul Pascarella. Maybe there was a stream close by where he stood in my dream.
Photo of Sam Shepard at the Sante Fe Institute, stock files