It has been difficult days for me, and I wanted to get back to my blog before too much time passes. I have had some things written and saved, unable to publish because of news that keeps effecting me so deeply that I feel I’ve been more hidden. Sometimes writing is difficult because of my immediate reaction to close off, so I go back to the safety of draft mode.
My friend is missing. Friday night he was at the Ghost Ship party in Oakland, playing music and giving hugs, two things this man is so great at doing. There was a fire, him and other partygoers were trapped in the smoke and flames. The warehouse party space was an artist live-work community, a creative hub with creative people. A lot was lost that one tragic night.
“I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our more stupid melancholy propensities, for is there anything more stupid than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away, to loathe one’s very being and yet to hold it fast, to fondle the snake that devours us until it has eaten our hearts away?” – Johnny Igaz
I have been in and out of tears for days. My friend, Johnny Igaz, is not just one of the good ones, he’s one of the best. He was one of the first people I came to know in the Bay, over 8 years ago. I can’t say that we were BFFs, we occasionally hung out, but each time felt like we could talk about anything. The thing about him is you don’t need years with him to know his love and friendship. He was a genuinely interesting and knowledgeable guy, but never seemed smug or uninterested. He was relatable and honest with everyone he met. His sincerity, his integrity, his uniqueness, his infectious smile, and his sly wit were all qualities we admired. He was the type of person everyone wanted to be with, and who made you feel like your time with him was valued and important. Johnny wore his passions on his sleeve, extremely comfortable in his own skin, and was effortlessly connecting and creating bonds with others on many levels.
As I write this, it’s been almost 4 days since he was reported as missing, and they have not yet identified him. I went to the warehouse over the weekend, to pay my respects for all the lives lost that night, and part of me just broke. I saw the blackened walls, the missing roof, the trucks leaving from the site filled with burnt rubble from the site. Firefighters, Red Cross, police, inspectors, and the media were all trying to make sense of it.
Photo by Pete Kiehart, you can see the drawing Evie left for Johnny on the right.
I left heartbroken and angry. People were crying over friends and family who were lost or missing as the press hovered around to snap a photo for their report. Articles were appearing about how this building was unsafe and not permitted for living, let alone parties. I saw the grief and fear of the creative community, who not only have some amazing people stolen from their lives, but now risk their own livelihood in losing their own creative spaces from the politics and the necessary crackdown and backlash that will happen because of this.
Friends and family took to social media, writing about their loved ones who were at the party. This was so helpful to me, to see the outpour of love and grief, that I was not alone, that someone could put into words what I could not at the time. The photos of Johnny are the best, every one of the mischievous yet playful smiles made me smile (it’s really so infectious). I started seeing stories of others lost that night, and the weight of the tragedy was starting to come together. There was a community of people, as dynamic and sincere as my friend, as important to their own circles, the ones everyone wanted to be with and that made others feel special and important. Every one of them generous and passionate… they are the magical, and we lost so many of them.
As it turns out, my family and I have come across others who were lost in that fire. Nicole Renae Siegrist, also known as “Denalda,” worked at the local Grand Lake Theater where we take our daughter out for movies regularly. Frequently we’ve visited Issues off Piedmont Avenue, and was helped by Jennifer Kiyomi Tanouye who worked there. Even from the opposite side of the country, we have seen the work of another creative, Alex Ghassan, through our mutual friend in New York, Fresh Daily (whom, coincidently, met Johnny on a quick visit to Oakland). It’s a small world, an even smaller creative community, and that loss is felt.
As the world starts to spin blame and investigate causes, as politicians start to think of how to prevent these losses, and as the media continues to generalize groups, my heart breaks for the creative communities everywhere. These places where creativity thrives have been in danger from development for years, and now the powers that be have a situation where they can continue to be pushed away. A community of people who have already felt on the fringe of society, are now under the microscope for people to judge them and how they live.
Being an artist is tough, Peabe and I joke about how we don’t wish it upon our daughter. Although, in all seriousness; art was not encouraged in our youth and is not encouraged currently in a lot schools. So to be a creative person requires such fortitude and courage, to be extremely exposed and have the confidence to stand and be judged… it is not an easy position to be in. On top of that, add in the fact that some of the creative people at this party are part of another marginalized group, the LGBTQ community, making them even more an outsider to the society’s norms. It’s not an easy place to be, and Johnny (as well as others) took this on with spunk and grace.
As I struggle with my own feelings of being exposed and setting my own posts back to redraft, I know Johnny, as well as others who were lost or missing from the warehouse fire, only encouraged us to create. They believed in each other’s ability and nurtured their own talents to be out there in the world doing what they loved. They leave behind a treasure of music and visuals and we will all be able to forever enjoy this little bit of them. They also have been that person in your corner, who believes in your talent, who can applaud you when you start to doubt. In their absence, we all need to be that voice in our own head and with others… to imagine, to be unafraid, to encourage, to inspire. I think that is also part of their legacy.
One of the loved ones speaking at last night’s vigil promised to always tell the story, keep her partner’s memory alive. As I walked by someone crying at one of the memorials today, at Johnny’s photo, I again felt him with me and knew what he would do. I offered her a hug, and she gladly accepted. It turns out, she didn’t know him or anyone there, she just felt sad about the whole tragedy. She asked how I was doing.
I told her, “I lost my friend, Johnny.”
I pointed at his picture, “If he were here he would probably hug you.”
We cried for a bit, she thanked me for sharing him.
"The cure for the pain is in the pain." This quote by Rumi (1207-1273) was shared by one of the many bereaved participants at last night's vigil for victims of the Oakland fire. The ceremony was tremendously powerful, reflecting the many (often messy) emotions of collective grief. I was particularly struck by the inclusiveness and compassion on display. The underground dance community is rife with outcasts and nonconformists, but the overriding theme was an injunction to treat each other better, to even—in the words of one of the mourners—empathize with and "love the guy who cuts you off in traffic". If only more of us heeded such wisdom. The mood was alternately somber and celebratory (one of the biggest highlights was when we all howled skyward), full of touching and often hysterical anecdotes about REAL people. The world lost some absolute gems this past weekend, but the Bay area community is rising from the flames.
The battlegrounds are set for creatives to be the martyr of the housing crisis and for marginalized groups to be under the scrutiny of media to be a stereotyped culture that they don’t understand. In all of this rhetoric, I come back to the fallen. These extraordinary and most authentic people; who we are because of them and how we can make sense of their horrific and untimely departures. I am consoled to read at this time that they all died from smoke inhalation, and a lot of them holding one another. In this time of grief and healing, I am reminded to love life, care for each other… and put something originally my own out into the world. Johnny needs me to write and post something, and stop hiding away. He reminds me to console a stranger that I happen to be walking by with a hug as he would have. It’s not easy for the grieving, let alone withdrawn, it requires that special something that Johnny had shown us, the ability to connect with others.
“As the world tears apart at the seams and the crushing weight of reality seems unbearable, it is through human connection and music that I am reminded why life is infinitely beautiful even through the darkest days.” – Johnny Igaz
Tomorrow is never promised. Create something, love someone, share with strangers, embrace yourself, and live your life as with the magic that they all were so glad to share with us.
Please enjoy his music, he lives on as Nackt: