A Survivor's Tale

Soul Friend

The thought of not having Randall around to cast his knowing eye on the madness around us filled me with quiet dread

Courtesy of Naomi Schiff

The day Randall moved into the flat downstairs, I knew he would be a perfect fit. A tall, bespectacled man in his late twenties, he had the serene demeanor of a yogi twice his age.

The house, a funky duplex in a part of Oakland that we dubbed "Upper Mid-Downtown," was a living museum of spiritual enlightenment. The owner of a religious bookstore in Berkeley, I was told, had once lived there and previously invited several gurus to come for extended stays, including the renowned Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. This was an enchanted place, a nexus of East and West. The large basement was filled with spiritual artifacts ­— ritual masks from Bali, Hindu sculptures from India, Druid paraphernalia from godknowswhere — mixed with the personal belongings of former residents who had journeyed East and never returned.

Randall was a different kind of seeker. He had gone to school in Katmandu, when his father, a professor at Claremont College, was hired by the U.N. to do consulting work there. That experience had sparked a lifelong interest in Eastern religion and philosophy, including a stint as a grad student at the East West Center at the University of Hawaii. Randall had a lively inquisitive mind, a wry sense of humor and a deep skepticism about spiritual fakery of any kind. He also was a man of big appetites. He could down six meals a day and not put on a single ounce.

Randall was never predictable. At Claremont High, he founded a club for poetry enthusiasts called the Calliopean Minority and then insisted on reading Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" at every meeting. When he was an undergrad at Oberlin, he ran for school senate on an anti-voting platform. In his election flyer, he encouraged students to go to the polls and write on a piece of paper: "I am a highly evolved sentient being from a faraway star, visiting your planet on a mission of peace and goodwill." Needless to say, he didn't win.

Shortly after he moved in, Randall asked me if I could stash a few magazines in my flat. The next day he showed up with a dozen or so boxes of vintage erotica. He never told me why he needed to hide the collection, but I assumed it had something to do with him not wanting to be embarrassed when his girlfriend Naomi came to visit. Later, after the two were married, Randall confessed to a friend, "The percentage of what I do in order to secure Naomi's good opinion is astronomical."

Once, when we were planning a New Year's party, Randall, who was an accomplished graphic designer, proposed that we use a suggestive drawing on the invitation with a line that read, "Food, music and nude dancing on the roof" or something to that effect. The place was jammed that night with curiosity seekers, including my future wife, Barbara.

Things happened quickly after that. I started living with Barbara in San Francisco and, a few years later, I got a job at Sports Illustrated that took us to New York City. Meanwhile Randall moved into Naomi's house a few blocks away and they formed a design business downtown. Although I didn't see him often during those years, we remained close friends. There's a Gaelic phrase that describes the kind of friendship we had: anam cara. In Celtic tradition, according to poet John O'Donohue, an anam cara was someone "you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the 'friend of your soul.'"

I could always count on Randall to bring me back to planet Earth. Once when we were in our mid-fifties, I had a long conversation with him about the second half of life. I prattled on about all the things I wanted to accomplish in the coming years: painting a masterpiece, learning Italian, traipsing all over the globe. Randall gave me a bemused look and admitted that he didn't have such a list. "I've raised two great children," he said, referring to his daughters, Ruby and Zina. "What could be more important?"

A few months later, I got a call from a friend who said that Randall was undergoing treatment for late-stage colon cancer. A chill ran through my body. My friend said that Randall didn't want anyone to know about his disease, but I should call him anyway. When I finally reached him, he was remarkably matter-of-fact about what he was going through. He said the chemo was awful but seemed to be working and he expected to go back to work soon.

The next time I saw him, the cancer was in remission. We went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant near his office and talked mostly about baseball (which he loved) and politics (which he found amusing). Every time I brought up the subject of his health, he steered the conversation back to baseball.

I was at a convention in southern California when I learned that Randall had relapsed. By the time I arrived in Oakland a few days later, he was barely conscious. He smiled when I handed him my present: a Babe Ruth baseball card I'd had since childhood. I also gave him a note thanking him for everything he'd done. He died before he got a chance to read it.

At the memorial gathering, Naomi displayed a scrapbook filled with tributes from Randall's friends. One compared him to Gandalf: "Full of incredible knowledge but never too serious." Another marveled at how his thinking paralleled the graceful way he moved his body. "His mind bounded from thought to thought," the friend wrote, "and his opinions were beyond right and wrong. They hovered in the air, quirky and ephemeral, inducing wonder."

For me, losing Randall felt like a gnawing pain. He was the first close friend of mine to die from that magical time in the '70s when we were all coming of age and trying to reinvent the world. Randall understood me in a way that few people have. The thought of not having him around to cast his knowing eye on the madness around us filled me with quiet dread.

The French writer Joseph Roux understood this pain. "We call that person who has lost his father, an orphan; and a widower, that man who has lost his wife," he wrote. "But that man who has known the immense unhappiness of losing a friend, by what name do we call him? Here every language is silent and holds its peace in impotence."

But that's not how I want to remember Randall. What I recall are those lazy days in summer when he and I would head out to the Oakland Coliseum with a posse of friends and cheer for what we lovingly referred to as "the fuckin' A's." Win or lose, he would be perfectly at ease, lounging calmly in the sun, savoring his Polish sausage and beer, and wondering what strange and unpredictable thing might happen next.

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