My Friend, Virginia

Virginia and Kirk

Virginia and Kirk

I don’t know why she died, or how. I heard her neighbor found her dead,  in her tiny house at the end of the street, overlooking the hills of El Sobrante. She loved those hills.  I heard she was alone,  except for her dogs. One of them “a nasty little Chihauha you should adopt,” she told me, laughing, during our last conversation on the phone. ” He doesn’t  mean to be bad, he just had a bad time of it before I got him.  But, he is a pain in the ass.” For Virginia, dogs were companions, so maybe we shoudn’t think of her dying alone.

I met Virginia in San Francisco in 1979, at the  Holy City Zoo, a small, hole-in-the-wall comedy club on Clement Street. On any given night, you could hang out on the sidewalk with the likes of  Robin Williams, Dana Carvy,  and countless other comics who went on to become celebrities.

During the day, as we all  know, Virginia was a tireless advocate for animal rights. As the Western Coordinator for The Fund For Animals, her work was never finished. She was frequently in her office in Ft. Mason until the early morning , organizing legislative points to confront politicians with the following day in Sacramento. The office  was filled to the brim with piles of legislative stuff,  books, dusty animal related  retail products such as tee shirts, note cards,  and handmade jewelry donated to The Fund. The only comfortable place to sit was a  hairy couch, which one shared with her current dogs, rescues from dog hells: the street, short backyard chains, beatings, the kill pound-harder dog times.  A few assorted chairs were there for volunteers, and other visitors. And files-thousands of them. Virginia could produce files on any animal subject, tell you which bill and politicians to to vote for, books to read, documentaries to watch…anything and everything animal related. For almost a decade we  spent frequent nights there, smoking pot, drinking wine, and laughing while we sorted paper into piles that only made sense to her. 

The Fund paid Virginia  a pittance,  and no benefits, but she forged on,  year after year, decade after decade, fueled by passion for the animals who could not speak for themselves.

But, my friend, Virginia was far more complex than her composed, understated image projected. She was an artist. She surpassed being a triple threat; she could sing, dance, act, and write. A few evenings a week, (up to seven if she was in a community play) Virginia unleashed her artistic talent. Her comedy consisted of animal themed irony that she wrote herself and organized by subject in spiral notebooks. Her jokes didn’t kill, but got a steady stream of smiles, and a few laughs, but they were heartfelt, and her delivery was right on. And, she read for the blind. And,  did  radio theatre. “It was difficult to get used to, but now I really enjoy it.” she told me.

You couldn’t not like Virginia.  She was genuine. She was good and kind, and like her mom, Grace, she had no ego. Self wasn’t important to her. Her entire life was spent helping others. I admired that, and loved her.

Once, when I had moved to LA, Virginia called to tell me she would be spending a couple of weeks at a house in the San  Fernando Valley, going through the belongings of Camille, a woman who had died and left everything to the Fund. “Would you  like to help me?”

From the outside, Camille’s house looked like a regular three bedroom California ranch. Inside, it was an untamed, jungle of artifacts and precious documents that told the story of Camille and her husband, who had been comedians during vaudeville. Virginia, with more patience than I, sat on Camille’s sofa for hours reading sixty years of correspondence from people who had loved Camille. She discovered that Camille, who in her prime, had been a six foot tall, natural red head, gorgeous in every way. Plus, we were astonished to learn, for years she  had been the elegant woman in the flowing gown,  perched on neck of the the lead elephant in Ringling  Bros. Barnam and Bailey Circus.

Camille’s house was a trip through architectural decades, and journeys to other countries. One room of her house was the sewing room where she designed and sewed her own colorful costumes. The ‘pink’ room, with its neon pink wall, and combo 50’s/deco furniture, had been her husband’s, who had become an alcoholic and admittedly, according to the neighbors, had been of little help to Camille when she became ill.

As Virginia and I read, dug through stacks of magazines, and unearthed artifacts from over-stuffed closets, we both fell under Camille’s spell, and became her biggest fans. By the time we left, she had become our sister.

Virginia  and John Cantu, the bartender, maybe manager,  at the The Zoo,  became an item. John was a presence in the comedy scene. Swarthy, a salesman, and  masher par excellence, he told me once, “If I hit on 10 women, odds are I’ll get laid at least once.”  Most of the female comics  avoided him, at least in any intimate way, but Virginia saw something else in John, a gentleness and intelligence most of us didn’t notice. After they were no longer lovers, they were steadfast friends until John died an early death maybe fifteen  or so years ago.

During the seven years I lived in San Francisco, and when I visited her, Virginia and I frequented Bay Area piano bars.  I knew two or three old standards, and a couple of obscure Cole Porter songs; Virginia would produce  a fat binder filled with songs,  and the key she sang them in. She was partial to Patsy Cline. I swear, when she  sang Crazy,  it could have been Patsy up there singing her heart out.

We also played senior centers. Virginia, my daughters, Alice and Anna, who were not even teenagers yet, and a piano player she’d talked into accompanying us, would spend an afternoon every few months singing and tapping for the toughest  audiences I ever performed for. Virginia would sing songs most of the audience could relate to, and even knew the words to. They loved her.  I would do a few minutes of comedy, (that was frequently ignored, if not scorned), and  sing a couple more  songs. My daughter, Alice, played the flute, and Anna, my youngest, sang songs from the musical Annie.  Occasionally Virginia, Anna, and I would do a tap routine.

Virginia, Anna, and I all  took tap lessons from Jean Anderson, another eccentric woman with old-time show business connections in San  Francisco. When Anna landed a part in the USF production of ‘Annie’, Virginia and Jean helped her practice, and Virginia helped drive  her to rehearsals.

Virginia danced with Jean for years, in productions throughout the city. Several years ago, I sent Virginia some photos I had taken of her and Jean tapping in the Bandshell in Golden Gate Park. How I wish I had kept a few of them.

I will never forget a Gay Pride Parade that she convinced me to tap  in. We were dressed, well made up actually, as animals,(cats, dogs, bunnies, bears…).  We tapped along Castro Street to disco music that blared from someone’s boom box, smiling and waving. We hadn’t expected the music which threw our rehearsed routine way off, but we adjusted and danced with gusto the duration of the parade. After tapping on the asphalt for an hour,  my feet were blistered, and my legs so tired I could barely drive home. “We’ll have to think up something else for next year, she said, something that blends better with disco music,”  she laughed.

I spent the millennium New Year’s Eve with Virginia at a boring party somewhere in the East Bay with friends of hers who she said “were dull at any time. I can’t imagine why I’d think the world possibly ending would make them any more entertaining.”

We left early, taking the ice cream we’d brought to share, and parked by the lagoon in Berkeley, smoked a joint, ate the ice cream with a shared spoon,  and chastised ourselves for not going downtown to be with the masses, which was where we really wanted to be if the world was coming to an end.

When I decided to go on the road as a full time comic, I needed an answering service. Virginia suggested that her Mom, Grace, might be interested. Grace was as gracious, and kind as  Virginia, and possessed the same understated  wit I loved so much in my friend. Because of childhood polio she didn’t get out much, and had become the Animal Switchboard, a general  call center (her kitchen), for animal related concerns and questions.  When I asked her if she’d be interested, she said, “I’ll have to answer the phone, Animal Switchboard.”  “No problem, I answered, I am one.”  

So, for several years, Grace fielded calls from agents, boyfriends,  my children, and my mother,  who lived in Pennsylvania. If she didn’t know exactly where I was at the time,  she handled the issues in a motherly, yet professional way, making sure everyone felt satisfied.

Throughout the decades, where ever we happened to be,  Virginia and I would spent hours on the phone late at night, talking politics, comedy, and general blarney. Our reminiscing caused chortles of laughter, and our equal distain for radical conservatives, most especially the NRA, set our teeth gnashing.

Once or twice a year, when one or the other of us were on a road trip,  we managed to spend a few days together. Last fall she edited a small book of stories, Irish Mongrel Child, for me. Her edits were brutal. I was unhappy, and called her to work through the manuscript. Virginia, soothed my ruffled feathers,  and listened with understanding   to my concerns. Some of her edits were brilliant, others scrapped, our friendship solid.

After Cleveland Amory died, the Fund for Animals was run from NY, apparently by some young folks who had no clue how important  Virginia’s work and lobbying efforts were in California, but they continued to support her with a diminished budget. Virginia used what little money she had to keep her  gargantuan, and if you were an animal in CA, this is not an exaggeration, efforts going.

Her long-time friend,  Norman, who was a Canadian, twenty years her senior,  truly brilliant, eccentric, physicist, who worked with lasers, helped her keep a series of used cars functioning. Eventually, they moved into a house in El Sobrante together, and got married when he suffered a stroke. “I need to have executive power over his care,” she told me. A year or so later, she said, “Nobody has ever asked if we are married. Really, the medical profession doesn’t give a shit.”

Virginia continued to live in the house- a building that would have been condemned  if anyone had seen the inside. The back deck had long fallen off, the plumbing leaked, the floors and walls  were rotting.  Both of them were hoarders; but she was an organized one.

Virginia agonized over what to do with the contents of Norman’s numerous metal file cabinets. “Rent  a dumpster,” I suggested. “Let’s throw everything out.” “Oh, I couldn’t so that,” she admonished me.  “Some of it is very valuable scientific information.” And, true to her nature, she eventually found a man who valued it, and carted some of Norman’s stuff off. She moved a block away into a small, 900 sq ft. or so  house, with a view of the mountains she love so much.

As far as I know, Virginia was the only person concerned about her  brother, Larry, who is learning  challenged living in Oregon. He had been in San  Francisco until Virginia’s sister uprooted him, and spent  his considerable savings account which he had  saved year after year, working as a grocery clerk.  She apparently spent it, and now he lives alone  in a mobile home. If anyone knows where he is , I would like to contact him.

Eventually, The Fund was taken over by the Humane  Society of the US. I don’t remember  the political  justification, but I definitely remember her telling me that she had been let go with a paltry $7,000.00 severance pay-after decades of service in animal rights, and a warning not to  to divulge  the amount. She bought another used car, and continued her trips to Sacramento to lobby for PAC, the committee she founded, and kept the AnimalSwitchboard going.

For the last few years,  never having had much, Virginia  now lived in poverty. Her social security was under a thousand dollars a year, and her rent, I think she told me,  was over $800.00. She  counted on her food stamps to eat. We had several discussions about the conservative rights disregard for the poor; their idea that everyone worthwhile should be able to earn money.

When I saw her last fall, she gave me several past date New Yorker magazines she had gotten from the library. ” I like to come up with captions for the blank cartoon on the back page, but of course, someone gets to it before I do. I think mine are funnier sometimes, though,” she laughed. No doubt.

I always gave her fifty or sixty dollars,  and if I’d had any more to spare, I would have given it to her freely, but, I also live on a scant budget. Driving across the country to my daughter’s in SC, I  thought about what I could do to raise some money for her. I wrote to the  Ellen Degeneres show because they give cars and money away to those in need,  and I wrote a story about Animal Switchboard for the  San Francisco Chronicle that I hoped would generate some money to keep her, and it, going.  Nothing became of either.

 I’m not a religious person, but Virginia was Catholic. If there is a heaven, my friend is there- sharing her goodness from above. She is dancing, singing, laughing- making life better. I hope she finds my son, Kirk. They were great friends; both candidates for sainthood.