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‘Richard dances with the angels’

Posted: January 8, 2018 3:16 p.m.
Updated: January 9, 2018 1:00 a.m.

It was one of the more cryptic messages I’ve ever received.

An old friend called out of the blue late one evening and left a single, terse phrase on the voice mail: “Jimmy. Richard dances with the angels.”

Huh?

I thought about that one for awhile. Who was Richard and who were the angels? The name, and reference, sounded familiar. This was someone I was supposed to know. I finally couldn’t stand it any longer, so I called my friend and asked him what in the devil he was talking about.

As it turned out, Dancin’ Richard had passed away.

One endearing aspect of the South is its population of true characters. Indeed, we have plenty of them right here, some still with us, others not. 

I spent my misguided, turbulent 20s in Atlanta. As you may guess, a bigger town can produce a wider array of characters, but in the case of that town, you really have to look for them. Sure, there are always the folks who are out to make a statement -- that statement usually being some variation of the phrase, “look at me!” But, usually, those folks aren’t true “characters”, just garden-variety losers with empty heads and large egos. 

No, in order to find characters, you have to be where they are -- and most of those places aren’t terribly trendy. As the bass player in a B-list bar band, I met my share, because the places I played were not places most sane people would spend their leisure hours. 

One of the most enduring of that subterranean pantheon was a guy everyone referred to as “Dancin’ Richard.”

Richard was this derelict of indiscriminate age who lived down in one of the rougher sections of in-town Atlanta. A regular fixture in every watering hole from Cabbage Town to upper Virginia Highlands, Richard was tall, lanky, smelly -- and nearly always hammered. He had to speak through this government issue trachea tube that not only rendered his voice a slurred, virtually unintelligible croak, but more often than not tightly funneled his breath into a powerful, fetid jet stream toward anyone with whom he was attempting to communicate.

Generally, when you saw him, he was usually passed out in the booth of some scrofulous dive with an empty beer pitcher in front of him.

Yet, for a man in those circumstance, Richard could have been a much sadder soul than he actually was. If you bothered to have a conversation with him, in one of those rare moments when he was somewhat coherent, you found him to be a pretty good guy, not so witty, but funny; not educated, but pretty smart. Life may have dealt him some harsh cards, but he seemed to be dealing with it. Maybe he was content; maybe he was just making the best of bad breaks and a lot of self-inflicted troubles. Whatever his deal was, he sought solace in that pitcher in front of him. And sometime between the time he downed that pitcher and the time he passed out, he danced.

For a few minutes, Richard would come alive. Get up and boogie, all 6 feet 4 inches of flailing, wind-milling stick-like arms and mostly toothless bobble head. If a band was playing, so much the better, but a jukebox would do. In fact, often, actual music wasn’t even necessary.  

He may well have been the inspiration for the somewhat insipid meme, “Dance like no one is watching.”

I think maybe, just maybe, in his own aimless way, he found some part of the essence of the great secret of what is we’re supposed to be doing. That is, finding joy in dark circumstances. Celebrating life wholeheartedly, even if most everyone else wonders what you could possibly have to celebrate. And communicating that unbridled joy, if only for a few minutes, to a world that has pretty much grown too cynical to grasp even a glimmer of the concept of joy.

I would guess most people would chalk up his legacy as a wasted life. I suppose a pretty good argument could be made for that, yet I sometimes wonder. I mean, who’s to say Richard wasn’t an angel of sorts? Maybe catching a buzz and dancing for 10 minutes was the only thing he could do.

Let’s face it; it’s weird world and it’s getting weirder all the time. We could all probably stand to have a couple of beers and dance a little more often. 

Dance like no one’s watching, indeed...

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