Jeff Conant

Trickster Goes Bye-bye
The Daniel Davidson Story

"Trickster can also get snared in his own devices."
     --Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

"If I commit suicide, it will not be to destroy myself but to put myself back together again."
     --Antonin Artaud

"The way flesh is like/ something happening to me"
     --Daniel Davidson

Suicides travel between worlds like tricksters and visionaries, and they become ghosts who stay with us beyond their time on earth. They come back to haunt. Ghosts, they travel on waves of fear, and just as they were misplaced and dissatisfied in life they are restless in death and we are restless with their memories. Like seers they open for us a vision of the gate between worlds, forcing us to confront the terror of this world and the baffling mystery of the other world.

Or whatever.

I am looking at Dan Davidson, Dan who my friends and I refer to as "the dead guy", maybe in a bid to keep him in his role, in the land of the dead, so he’ll leave us alone some.

"Shh!...Doc! For God’s sake don’t call her, don’t call her name! Just say: the woman who died. That’s bad enough. She is probably somewhere around, somewhere around here."
                                 -- Jaime de Angulo, Indians in Overalls

I am looking at Dan and I am seeing him as the trickster, the game-player, the one who makes journeys and invents rules as he goes. The one who makes up rules because the world’s rules insult him, they hurt him and he spends his days stepping around and beyond and out of them if he can.

At Dan’s memorial service in San Francisco the week after he took his life, I was the first to give a eulogy. I began, "Daniel was difficult," and everyone breathed relief I think, maybe because now they didn’t have to say it. Few were able to give him their deepest friendship, because he couldn’t be trusted with it; he inspired anger because he made up his own rules and refused to conform, even out of respect, even out of love. And he demanded too much, as all of the wounded have a right to demand too much. But suicides are those who tell us that love doesn’t touch them -- they are too much with this world, or too far from it. I always imagined that Dan was imitating what he’d learned from his world, mimicking the cosmos because he felt it was cruel to him. It told him "be shifty, be uncomfortable, be unfair, be mean, be always hurt." Though in the end it was his ethical demand and his brilliant honesty that made him the artist and trickster he was.

He wrote An Account:

It is considered appropriate to sustain conditions which are against the best interests of almost everyone.

Most of his tricks were political, in the sense of public, for the people, for the polis. He knew that the cruelty he’d suffered in his life could be traced to industrial imperial capitalism, and back to Patriarchal Judeo-Christian moralism, and from there back to the invention of tillage and the seasonal sowing of seeds, and from there back to the stone ax. Probably the only thing that had gone right in history was when trickster stole fire from the gods. Everything that came after was punishment.

Dan dreamed of a small-scale pre-industrial habitat and he never forgave the world for having taken a turn for the worse after the late Paleolithic age.

We sat on a big bald hill in San Francisco overlooking the blight of stacks on stacks of redwood Victorians and hospitals and freeway interchanges and the bridges spanning the Bay and imagined the perfect animal noise and abundant air of 400 years ago. Dan was fascinated by natural science, geology, botany, the stories in stones, the habits of mushrooms, the power of plants. And he was equally repelled by people because of their infinite blundering and greed.

He made war on private property. He made stickers that said TAKE ONE FREE and went into stores and stuck them on products. On products! He was not breaking the law for he rarely stole; he merely advocated theft. His crime was conceptual; he was changing the rules, not breaking them. One of his mottoes was "It’s free because it’s yours."

For the guilty visibility is an offense, the crime of occupying space.

He made a cardboard sign that read "WILL VOTE REPUBLICAN FOR FOOD" and spent whole afternoons standing at a freeway offramp stooging and staging a one-man show. Herb Caen, the San Francisco columnist, spotted him and made a note of it in his column: "the homeless are really getting desperate now".

There is the famous incident where he tried to play a trick on the U.S. postal service. He wrote a postcard to Gary Sullivan and Marta Deike in Minnesota, with a message declaring the U.S. postal service a bunch of fools and lackeys–did he use the word "Toadies?"–and in place of postage stamps he pasted Easter Seals. He drew arrows to the Easter Seals and wrote in thick pen, Not a real stamp® . He signed the card "D." and sent it from San Francisco.

Gary and Marta never received the postcard. Instead they received a letter from the Postal Service, with a xerox of the postcard. The letter notified them that the joke had failed, and that it was their duty to report the mysterious ‘D’ to the Federal Government. The Postal Service asked "Who is ‘D’ in San Francisco?"

Daniel Davidson had gotten their goat.

The military longs for a time when war will be the single greatest unifying force in society.

The Persian Gulf war, January and February 1991, was a moment when a lot of us in the Bay Area grew very close and very serious and very creative. Dan’s contributions to the anti-war movement were jewels of creative resistance. He made simple signs, in English, Spanish and Chinese, that said SAY NO TO WAR, playing on the "Say No to Drugs" campaign very visible at that moment. In the window of his third floor Haight Street apartment he had hung one of these signs, and next to it stood a cardboard movie cut-out of Clint Eastwood pointing his .45 at your head as you read the sign from the street. "Say No to War, punk." It was the paradox that pleased the author more than the propaganda; he knew that paradox would get people’s goats in a way that dogma doesn’t. He spent days with a tape recorder interviewing people about the war and cornering them into impossible arguments if their views weren’t right. If you agreed with him but the mood struck him, he would turn into an ardent supporter of the war. "Lets bomb the barbarians back to the stone-age!"

He made pins to give away which simply said: IRAQI. Wearing the pin, you labeled yourself an Iraqi, enemy of the State, making the point that we are all victims of war and agents of war. Strangers were forced to confront the issue.

I am wearing the pin at a party and some guy approaches me and says "What the fuck does that mean?"

As I talk with him, Daniel approaches with an "Iraqi" pin in hand and says, "We are all Iraqis, and we’d like you to join us. Have this pin as a token of our good will."

Dan is acting like a cult member or an alien infiltrator, nodding his head and smiling like a scientologist. The poor guy who assailed me is helpless. Soon after, he gets freaked out and leaves the party.

In the bathroom of his house, Anarchy Arboretum, the sign reads: "God Save the Queen: She ain’t no human bean."

Daniel and I worked together in a neighborhood garden in the months before his death. He had hepatitis C and a plastic heart valve and week-long migraines that made it impossible for him to concentrate, and I invited him to help me make a garden around the corner from both our houses. We went in and just started digging. Half of the fun was planting our own vegetables, and the other half was doing it as a public secret, using land and water that belonged to some absent landlord. The garden was next to a Baptist Church and gardening to the rollicking music on Sundays was especially fun. A garden in the city is a bid to turn irony to hope, to cultivate something as simple and useful as food from the plastered, sour earth of an urban neighborhood, and Dan and I spent many days there arguing about what to plant, and where, and when, and how. There in the serpentine soil of the Lower Haight, sometimes while we gardened we told each other Zen fables or Sufi stories or any little parable we had.

Dan’s illness was so ironic it became a parable itself.

He dug up a perforated shell there, a decorative bead that had been left by the Ohlone people, San Francisco’s recent neolithic inhabitants, and he named the plot Basketshell Garden in their honor. There was no irony in his longing for a simpler world, a trait he holds in common with most people who call themselves or have others call them poets.

Unlike the present but much like the past, the future will be a place of harmony, prosperity and opportunity.

Without late twentieth century medical technology, Daniel wouldn’t have survived to the age he did. Or more likely he never would have been sick that way in the first place. He had a plastic heart-valve and a pale scar down his front the length of your arm. A dentist had performed oral surgery on him without antibiotics and he wound up in the hospital due to a prolapsed heart valve and a germ that entered his heart from the top down. In the silence of poetry readings you could hear his heart tick; people who didn’t know him would turn to him and ask "Whatever that is, could you please turn it off," and he got a painful delight at telling them, "No, I’m afraid I can’t". But he couldn’t bear the pain of a life sustained by hospitals, doctors, and drugs. Anticoagulants and painkillers and mood stabilizers and the hepatitis medicine whose side-effect was intense depression.

I bet he still haunts those hospitals making nurses slip in pools of vomit.

We made a promise to never work alone in Basketshell Garden because it defeated the purpose of our fraternal bond. I suspect, though, that Dan went to the garden when noone else was around and picked the ripe peas, because I planted a lot of peas and I ate very few. Like trickster, his appetite got the best of him. And since the special needs of his heart nearly prohibited him from engaging in gainful employment, he had nothing better to do between writing sessions and debilitating migraines than walk over to the garden to eat peas, or stand at an intersection with the sign: "Will Vote Republican for Food".

Employment is a means of control, keeping you too preoccupied with survival to think about your position.

Unemployment is a means of control, keeping you too preoccupied with survival to think about your position.

Daniel was full of bile, and it’s no surprise that his liver gave out soon after his heart did, the liver which collects toxins and controls the humors. It’s likely that the infected blood came from the hospital, in the form of an infusion before Hep C was recognized. With the bad blood stagnant in his liver, Dan’s humor gave out, and the trickster in him had nothing left to tie him to our earth.

When he left, there was a note that said Sorry.

In the summer of 1996, working in the garden, I made him promise me that he wouldn’t kill himself. It was clear that he wanted to and I and others tried to keep from going there. But I don’t blame him for not keeping his promise. Sometimes I’m even ashamed that I tried to bind him to this life with pledges, which ultimately amount to words, mere words, in the face of his and our wounds. After Product, Weather, Image and, with Tom Mandel, Absence Sensorium–his published books–his last work, "Sorry" resonates with an understanding that he knows there is love but it is nearly inaccessable to him.

So he had to go bye-bye.

The sign in the kitchen at Anarchy Arboretum said:

DON’T HIT. CLEAN YOUR MESS.

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