Thursday, September 12, 2013

Remembering Heather Hughes: A Personal Snapshot

A year ago today, my friend Heather Hughes died. Chances are you all have gotten a glimpse of Heather once or twice, whether you knew it or not. If you ever saw the movie Singles, she's the redhead working with Tim Burton in the scene in the video store. Her work in that little scene made such an impression on Cameron Crowe, he asked her to be in the video for the movie's song (the Singles single, if you will: she's the bartender). 

Those two tiny snippets don't really tell you much about her of course, other than perhaps to show that she was, as our friend Kim said, equally at home being sexy or dorky (though the video clerk is probably more snarky than dorky). She's the first friend I've lost who could be memorialized in part by videos on Youtube, so maybe that's why I share them. The internet is a weird new facet in remembering friends these days. I'm not going to get into that right now. Take a look at the videos, and refresh your memories of the early nineties, if you like. 

In September of 1993, Heather and I were in Vancouver, B.C, performing in the fringe festival in a show called Semantics with a group called Kings' Elephant Theater (yes, the apostrophe is in the correct position: many kings, one elephant). Heather was a company member, I had been jobbed in just for this show as performer and mask-maker. Eight of us had rented two rooms (two queen-sized beds each) in a hotel close to the festival, discovering much to our delight upon arrival that the reason the festival hadn't included it on the list of potential crash pads, despite its close proximity and low rates, was because it was a popular hangout for hookers.

The two rooms naturally divided themselves into "the naked room" and "the smoking room." These designations are self-explanatory, I trust. The morning of September 13th, those of us in the naked room got food so we could surprise Heather (asleep in the smoking room) on her birthday with breakfast in bed. Being served breakfast by a bunch of naked people probably wasn't much of a thrill in Heather's life by that point--nudity was commonplace with this bunch, and in fact Heather was nude in one scene of the show--but she accepted it all with good humor and grace.  

Our show must have been dark that day, since after breakfast we decided to explore the city. At one point we were standing in a group outside the motel; most people went one way,  but I, feeling the need for some green space, turned another direction. Heather, noticing this, asked me what my plans were. When I told her, she said "oh, that sounds nice, do you mind if I come along?" 

I had known Heather for about six years at this point. We had been working on and performing Semantics for most of the last year, first a five week run at Aha! Theater (where KET had a permanent residency), then at the Seattle Fringe Festival, then at the big arts festival Bumbershoot. Heather and I were both involved with Annex Theatre as well, a place that was at the time as much clubhouse as it was producing body, so we had interacted artistically and socially on many occasions. Heather and I knew each other, appreciated one another, were, in fact, friends. Given all this, you may be surprised at the absolute THRILL I felt when she asked (ASKED!) if she could join me (ME!) for the day. It felt like having the most popular girl in high school ask you to the prom. I was positively giddy with delight and excitement. 

That reaction probably would have perplexed and amused Heather. By that point in her life I think she knew she had this effect on people, gay, straight, male, female, all points in between, but she didn't really get it. Better writers than me, and closer friends of Heather's have tried to explain her particular charisma, but I'm going to take a stab anyway. Like Kim said, part of her charm was the ease she felt being both dorky and sexy, clown and bombshell. It breaks my heart that I didn't get to see her play the central figure in Mae West's Sex (I had moved to NYC by that point). That was perfect casting. She was born to play Mae West. Maybe that tells you something. 
Photo courtesy of Martin Lopez

While most of us in the Seattle scene were transplants, Heather was a rarity, a Seattle native. This probably contributed to her ability to tap into many of the local subcultures, while the rest of us had a hard enough time managing just one. She did theatre; she did improv, first with Annex Improv, then with KET; she had connections to  Sub-Pop Records and the burgeoning grunge music scene; she was involved with Fantagraphics, a publishing company for comics and graphic novels; she even worked regularly as a vendor at Seattle's Pike Place Market. If you bought a tie-dyed T-shirt there in the nineties, you probably got it from her. Hell, it's not that surprising she was in Singles; they probably couldn't have made the movie without her. 

And this is just the stuff that occurred in the time when I lived in Seattle (1988-1995). The little glimpses I got of her subsequent life showed me that she had gotten involved with the Neo-Burlesque scene there, gotten her college degree in interior design and started her own business, had a son, and continued to perform as a singer, actor, comedian and improv artist. It was clear she remained well woven into the Seattle arts scene. For the most part she was a live performer, and it's obvious she gained city-wide notice for it. There's something comforting to me, in this day, that live performers can still have that kind of effect on a city. It doesn't surprise me at all that Heather did. 

So, there was all this cool chic stuff there--combat boots with dresses, multiple necklaces and earrings, glamorous make-up and rocker girl hair--that might explain why I was so excited at the thought of spending a whole day (her birthday!) with her. Given this feeling, it's funny that I can't remember more about what we did, or what we talked about. I'm sure we discussed the play, the Seattle scene, acting in general, and of course boys. She had a new boyfriend, another in a string of beautiful long-haired musician types. At one point we were seated on the grass in some park so Heather could smoke (it has to be said; Heather looked damned sexy when she smoked), and a homeless guy came up to bum a cigarette. Upon receipt (I suspect Heather never turned down a request for a cigarette), he sat down to join us for a lengthy chat. Again, no memory of what he said but when he left, Heather thanked me for not trying to drive him away. "My guy friends often get aggressive with people like that." I suspect those guys felt a wee bit possessive, or maybe they thought she needed protecting. I felt entitled to no such possessiveness of course, and had seen Heather interact with homeless guys in Seattle more than once; it was clear that she was on familiar terms with many of them. She didn't need my protection. I suspected this guy was just as smitten with her as I was. Who was I to chase him away? By funny coincidence, later that week Heather and I saw him in a local gay bar. He may have been gay, but if he was, I can assure you I wasn't the one who had caught his attention. 

The rest of that day is fairly hazy now. We had our pictures taken in a photo booth. I gave her the photos, a decision I now regret, but hey, it was her birthday. I took her out to an Italian restaurant, where we split a bottle of wine. I probably tried too hard to make her birthday special, by which I mean it was more about me than about her. But she accepted that with good grace and humor too. 

About two years later I left Seattle, assuming I'd lose touch with most people there. That happened less than I expected, but Facebook also helped reconnect me in recent years, however casually or artificially, with many people, including Heather. Over the last four years we saw each other's photos and updates. We had an occasional email correspondence. The last note she wrote me was a condolence when my brother was killed. Facebook was how I learned of her cancer diagnosis. It informed me of the fundraising party hosted and attended by so many of our friends, to help with her medical bills. It let me make a contribution from the other coast. And it allowed people sitting vigil in her last days at the hospice to keep the rest of us apprised of the situation. 

It also bears mention that Facebook also gave expression to an interesting tension, at least to my eye. Perhaps because she was such a celebrity, because she was such a charismatic performer adored by thousands, many seemed to feel it necessary to prove their friendship bona fides. The challenge seemed to be, were you truly Heather's friend, or were you just a fan

I don't mean to overstate it. No one got bitchy that I saw, or tried to shut anyone else out. Maybe whenever we lose someone we love, we resent those who don't seem to us to have as strong a claim as we do on the deceased. Or maybe we just seek comfort from the people we shared with the deceased, not everyone who felt connected to her. If that is a common reaction, perhaps it was magnified slightly in Heather's case, further testimony to her special magic. As someone who hadn't been central to her life for eighteen years, if ever, I have no qualms putting myself into the fan camp. Thinking about her, looking at those videos, thinking about all our mutual friends, colleagues and acquaintances in Seattle rallying around her, I know I am in part returning to a very heady, often painful time in my life. In the midst all that, I'm trying to articulate all the ways she mattered to me, especially the ones that probably she never knew about. This torrent of words is most definitely more about me than it is about her. She, I have no doubt, would have accepted it all with good humor and grace. 
Fort Tryon Park

On what would prove to be Heather's last day, I felt a need to go to a local park. I assumed this was triggered in part by that lovely birthday in Vancouver, though I tend to need green space regularly, especially for this kind of mulling and meditating. Following an impulse that felt so driving it was almost premonitory, I decided it had to be Fort Tryon Park, in upper Manhattan. It wasn't until I got there, and was wandering about in my favorite spot, that I realized I had sought out the heather garden. So much for psychic impulses. Even so, as I headed to the station to go home, I saw this artwork, left out free for the taking. No, I didn't take it with me. I'd gotten what I needed from it. 

Today is the anniversary of Heather's death. Tomorrow she would have turned 46. Many wonderful things have been written about her. I send you in particular to this article, written by my friend Jose Amador, to give you another glimpse of her, along with some wonderful photos.  


Anonymous said...

Patrick, what a beautiful remembrance. I didn't know Heather nearly as well as you, but everything you wrote is absolutely familiar (I also shared a bond with her over her gorgeous, long-haired rocker boyfriends!) Heather truly treated everyone equally, and made them feel special and at ease in her presence.

Thank you for this. I love you, dear friend.


Patrick said...

Thanks, Honey. I remember you two bonding over hot long-haired rocker types. That was a great time to be in Seattle, huh? I'm glad you recognized our friend in this, and especially honored and humbled that you stopped by. I know blogs aren't really your thing. :)

I love you. See you soon?