Man on Fire

Man on Fire

My best friend called to tell me her husband is the executor for Malachi Ritscher, the Chicago musician who set himself on fire to protest the war in Iraq.

She and Bruno received the keys to Malachi’s home in the mail on the same day he immolated himself beside the Kennedy Expressway during rush hour. Next to him was a small handmade sign that said “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” By the time they got the note, Malachi was already dead.

I’ll see them tomorrow and hear stories about their friend. Adrienne’s the one who talked me into moving to New Orleans in the first place, and they found us a place to stay in Milwaukee for a month last fall. When she called to tell me the story, it felt incongruis. Like you can be geographically separated from tragedy.

I can't know Malachi’s inner turmoil or mental illness enough to have the right to judge, but part of me is angry with him for a) not waiting until after the election in case it made a difference to him, and b) giving up on life when it’s still a daily struggle for so many New Orleaneans.

Last month a jazz legend NOMRF helped get to Long Island for medical treatment called to tell me, “I don’t want to die. I’m only 75 and I got so much more music in me.”

Malachi was a true lover of music. He was known for giving artists tapes of their shows. Many of his recordings were eventually released commercially as a favor to jazz groups who couldn’t afford studio time. Bruno now has the task of archiving tapes from more than two thousand concerts. He owns a jazz label and is generous with his time so Malachi made a good choice.

Aside from the political statements in Malachi’s self-written obituary, this is how he described himself:

“One of his proudest achievements was an ultra-searing hot sauce recipe, which he registered under the name 'Undead Sauce - re-animate yourself!' It was a blend of tropical peppers, which he grew indoors in 5-gallon buckets, and a few secret ingredients that gave it a unique flavor (pomegranate, pistachio, and cinnamon).

He was a collector of several things: books, records, meteorites, butterfly knives, keris, glass eyes, fossil tully monsters, microphones, medium-base lightbulbs, and instruments, especially snare drums.

He could shave with a straight razor. He loved cinnamon rolls.

His favorite joke was to walk into a room, sniff the air, and observe "it smells like snot in here".

The handwritten manuscript of his 'fictional autobiography', titled "Farewell Tour", was under consideration by publishers. It had a general theme of shared universal aloneness, and was controversial for seeming to endorse suicide after the age of fifty.

He was deeply appreciative for everything that had been given to him, but acutely aware that the greater the present, the higher the price.

Reportedly, his last words were "rosebud... oops". “

When you’re compelled to be that funny in your obituary, it seems you deserve to be where they second line to celebrate your life. I wonder if he would have made it in a town that can absorb mania so gently that sometimes you can forget you’re crazy. He was a member of AA and Mensa.

His self-penned suicide note is less slapstick.

“What does God want? No big mystery - simply that we try to help each other. We decide to make God-like decisions, rescuing falling sparrows, or putting the poor things out of their misery. Tolerance, giving, acceptance, forgiveness.

If this sounds a lot like pop psychology, that is my exact goal. Never underestimate the value of a pep-talk and a pat on the ass. That is basically all we give to our brave soldiers heading over to Iraq, and more than they receive when they return. I want to state these ideas in their simplest form, reducing all complexity, because each of us has to find our own answers anyway. Start from here...”

He ends, being an Illinois boy, with this quote:

"Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government... " - Abraham Lincoln

These were his last written words:

“Without fear I go now to God - your future is what you will choose today.”

Rest in peace, Malachi, and please look up the friends we lost in the last 2 years to drowning, illness, suicide and heartbreak. They are all gone too soon.

"What Becomes of the Broken Hearted" (Benefit song by the dB's)

No comments: