We Close Our Eyes, A Poet Dies


Tiny - Posted on 26 February 2011

Author: 
Terry Messman

June 2000

Trent Hayward died nearly within spitting distance of the gleaming,gold-bedecked dome of San Francisco City Hall. On the evening of Friday, June 2, he laid his head to rest on a ragged patch of earth one too manytimes. He never arose from his final sleep. We close our eyes, a poet dies.It was a lousy place for a great writer to die, a shabby, vacant lot on thecorner of Larkin and McAllister that had become a last-ditch sleepingquarters for those who couldn't pay their way into even the worst slumhotel. Trent Hayward, an outspoken and prophetic writer who tried to rightthe wrongs of this rotten, corrupt system, slept on this street corner formonths, a place where his dreams were invaded by the roar and toxic exhaustof passing traffic, his inner peace assaulted by the mind-bending chaos ofstreet life.

The ultimate mockery is that he died in full view of the golden dome ofCity Hall, where San Francisco officials, in their ice-cold arrogance,invested hundreds of millions of tax dollars to build a decadent replica ofthe opulent Palace of Versailles, presumably so all the unsheltered, unfed,and, in too many instances, unliving bodies of homeless people sprawled onthe unforgiving ground all around could be comforted by thismultimillion-dollar monument to Mayor Willie Brown's ego.

Every night when he bedded down, every morning when he arose, Trent couldsee where the city had blown all its shelter money, its drug detox money,its mental health money - instead of wasting it on the destitute likes of him.On June 13, about 100 of Trent's friends gathered at the street cornerwhere he slept, and dreamed, and died. We held a memorial service organizedby Lisa Gray-Garcia of Poor News Network and Connie Lynch of the GeneralAssistance Advocacy Project. As I offered flowers and a tribute to Trent, Iwanted to say, "Trent still lives in our hearts and is resurrected in ourstruggle for justice."

But those words just wouldn't come out. His death seemed too sad forsolace. All I could offer was a curse to the world of injustice where helived and died: "Fuck you, San Francisco, for spending your money to coverCity Hall in gold while your people live and die in poverty and misery onthe streets all around it."

In my heart, Trent Hayward is absolutely irreplaceable, the finest writerto grow out of the homeless movement. I mourn his loss tremendously. He wasthe most passionate and dedicated writer out of the hundreds who havewritten for Street Spirit in the past five-plus years.

Trent was the one with the guts and the nerve, the one with the spirit andthe sarcasm and the spunk and the style, the one who would not be silenced.The one who could rescue comedian Doug Ferrari from the oblivion of povertyby the sheer humanity of his writing. The one who could use that same pento hurl thunderbolts at the agents of injustice in positions of power. Itis heartbreaking that his voice will be silenced forever.

Andrea Buffa of Media Alliance and Lisa Gray-Garcia (Tiny) called me withthe awful news after Tiny found the cops putting Trent in a body bag on thevacant lot where he died. That night I was shaken at his loss, rememberinghow vital and enthusiastic he had been in the days before his death, askingme constantly for new writing assignments, wanting to take on a whole worldof injustice with his pen.

But as much as it hurt to contemplate his senseless death that first night,the next morning was far worse. I felt such a heavy sense of irreplaceableloss, a feeling I can't get over to this day. I felt then, I feel now, thata part of our hope has been stolen. In Trent's absence, many life-and-deathstories on the mean streets of poverty will never be written - not with asmuch passion and outrage and investigative zeal as he would have mustered. On the morning after his death, it felt like the world was a lesser place,drained of vitality. I have not been able to fathom to this day how to makeit right again. In spite of well-meaning platitudes, life doesn't always goon again, and not all wounds are healed by time.

Like a setting sun

Neil Young's haunting song of mourning and loss plays in my mind for Trent:

"I've seen the needle and the damage done,

A little part of it in everyone,

But every junkie's like a setting sun."

Trent's sun set gloriously. He was writing furiously for Street Spirit,Street Sheet, and Poor magazine. His powerful moral indictment of themismanagement of Hospitality House came out in the June issue of StreetSpirit the very day he died. On the last day of his life, when Trent wasfading away and becoming permanently voiceless, the fates granted him thisone last chance to be a voice for the voiceless. It felt like an unquietghost was still raising hell in our publication, disturbing the peace ofthe unjust. With Max Nolan, Trent had spent months researching thisinspired piece of muckraking journalism that spoke out for all the homelesspeople and artists who got shafted by the agency.

His first on-line column for the Guardian was reportedly in his backpack,the same backpack his mother Connie Connell wrote about in a farewell prayer:

Trent, oh Trent, my only son

You left this world with only a

backpack by your side

And as you laid down upon the ground,

Earth mother hugged you and cried.

At the June 13 tribute to Trent, it was overwhelming to see how manyhomeless friends, activists and media colleagues came to pay tribute to afallen warrior. Connie Lynch read a beautiful, wake-up call of a letterthat Trent's mother had written especially for the service (the full textis reprinted on page five).

Perhaps the most heartfelt tribute was paid by Doug (Dougzilla) Ferrari, agifted comedian who had undergone a harrowing descent from the top of thecomedy world down through the end-of-the-line slum hotels and emergencyshelters of San Francisco.

When their paths crossed fatefully on the tough streets of the Tenderloin,Trent threw Dougzilla a lifeline, disguised as a pen. Writing in StreetSpirit under the pseudonym Harpo Corleone, Trent wrote a vivid account ofFerrari's life story so that you could feel the exhilaration of Dougzilla'scomedy career, and also the anguish of his addiction and mental disability.Trent made you see the hellish plummet into hellhole slum hotels.

Trent's story in the May issue of Street Spirit lifted Doug Ferrari out ofthe silence of poverty and got him onto the front page of the San FranciscoChronicle. Kevin Fagan picked up the story, wrote about Ferrari's plight inthe Chronicle, and enlisted Doug's old circle of comedy friends to come tohis aid.

With his voice full of emotion, Ferrari said at the memorial service thatTrent had saved his life by writing his story. Ferrari had been laid so lowby poverty and disability that he had resigned himself to enduring thelousy, unspeakable conditions in slum hotels, and had resolved to nevertell anyone who he really was, or ask for help. Then Trent stepped in, andeven though he was busy battling his own demons, he found the heart towrite an uplifting story about a world-class comedian struggling to survive.Despite his essential role in rescuing Ferrari, Trent's own rescue nevercame. In one of his last acts on earth, Trent - a bright spirit savagelyeliminated from our midst - may have helped save another spirit from thebrutality of the streets. This is how instant karma repays him?Harpo Marx in the Tenderloin

Trent's pen name was Harpo Corleone, an uneasy alloy of two very differentpeople, Harpo Marx and Don Corleone. Trent was an anarchic spirit, a HarpoMarx stepped down from the movie screens into the hard-edged streets of theTenderloin, there to unleash the Marx Brothers' subversive, surreal attackson the status quo.

Harpo, Trent's hero and namesake, was the most wildly imaginative Marxbrother, a riotous and lawbreaking role model, brazenly stealing everythingthat wasn't nailed down from the pompous stuffed shirts, then outrageouslymocking the police who came to bust him.

Trent was as free-spirited and out of control as his alter ego, Harpo, yethe was simultaneously something tougher: a raw-edged, blunt-spoken fighterfor the rights of the poor. Harpo Marx's musical instrument was the harp;Harpo Corleone's chosen instrument was the harpoon, thrown with greatrelish and piercing accuracy to puncture the bloated egos and moneybags ofthe rich and powerful.

The needle and the damage done

"I know that some of you don't understand

"Milk-blood to keep from running dry."

Trent was facing double jeopardy as a sensitive soul and a destitute streetperson. Blessed and cursed with the hypersensitivity of the artist, Trentwas shoved out of society and onto the streets, there to face everydehumanizing hardship and soul-crushing indignity imaginable.

He turned to alcohol and to an even stronger anesthetic, the "milk-blood"of heroin, to numb out the pain of the streets and to find shelter underthat comforting chemical warmth. It's not just homeless human beings whofall prey to the death-trip of addiction. Countless creative artists,writers, poets and musicians have ended or shortened their lives becausethey turned to alcohol or drugs in stupefying amounts for solace orinspiration or numbness or unconsciousness.

A shield from the pain of life, self-medication with drugs and alcohol isone of the surest ways to be delivered from pain for all time. It's arelatively short journey from numbness to anesthesia to feeling nothing atall ever again.

"I watched the needle take another man,Gone, gone, the damage done." The heavy street drugs are natural born killers. They comfort in the shortterm and destroy in the long run. Once you're addicted and living on thehopeless streets, fighting your way out again is like frantically sloggingout of quicksand. The harder the captive thrashes about trying to escape,the more powerful becomes the deadly pull downward. At the very moment oneseems to be making it to the surface, the quicksand of addiction cansuddenly pull one down into oblivion - all the way to nothing.

Truffaut's film, The 400 Blows, shows how a series of hard knocks finallylands with the cumulative power of a knock-out punch and sends a derelictboy reeling right off the face of the earth - the final frame freezes on ahaunting image of the youth running blindly into the ocean.

So it was with Trent. Enduring the 400 blows of poverty islife-threatening. Many of his friends wondered at the timing of his death,for his life seemed to be on the ascent, his spirits lifting. But thestresses and burdens of poverty, substance abuse and disability aren't laiddown so easily. Just when it seemed an escape hatch from homelessness hadopened up, when Trent's writing career was taking off, one final, fatalblow landed. That's all it took.

That's what we did not see or suspect. Didn't Gandhi warn us that povertyis the worst form of violence? Didn't the 169 homeless men, women andchildren who died on the streets of San Francisco last year teach us thatpoverty is lethal?

Somehow we did not see it coming.

We lower our guard, a friend dies hard. We close our eyes, a poet dies.

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