A man I admired greatly has passed on. Barry Crimmins was an American saint for all that he did. They say you should never meet your heroes but I did. And I’m thankful for it. I only met him once in person, but Barry’s kindness towards me and his story helped me in ways I have a hard time putting into words other than I’m thankful and grateful he was who he was. If you’re not sure who he was, I recommend Call Me Lucky on Netflix.
I offered to buy Barry a beer. We were both in Brooklyn at a night of comedy for Bernie Sanders hosted by Randy Credico (who I’ve met at least 10 times, and each time he crushes my hand in a death grip, asks me how I’m doing while giving me a look like he knows me but can’t remember how). He declined the beer, his drinks were already on the house, but Barry and I chatted a bit. Then he said he would sign my copy of his book, Never Shake Hands With a War Criminal, instead. It wasn’t my original copy. It was one I re-purchased. The original one, the one I picked up in the dollar bin at a used bookstore in Tennessee, had either been lost, loaned, or packed away, as one does with all the other things from their youth.
I grew up in the South, which meant if you were gay, liberal, or an atheist, you might as well have painted a giant bull’s-eye on your forehead. At the very least, it was a recipe for making sure you felt like you were a loser or some sort of societal fuck-up. Having ticked off two out of the three at a pretty young age, I could at least be thankful I was attracted to women. Going to high school in Crossville, Tennessee, was not “the time of my life” as many of my former classmates have told me. Though, it was a time I’d never forget. After all, who would forget getting picked on by their biology teacher and 25 classmates for being the only person dumb enough to say they believed in evolution after the teacher asked for a show of hands? Lucky for me, it only lasted twenty minutes until the lunch bell rang and, even then, I only got spit on once. I’ll also never forget who spat on me. His name is Bobby Killeen. This was after he said to me, “You don’t see monkeys walking out of the zoo and putting on a shirt and tie to go to work!” Bobby would later grow up and rob old people’s houses, as I heard it, for pills and valuables. I guess he was one of those Do-As-I-Say-Not-As-I-Do types of religious people. There were a lot of those.
After that, I went to college in a town that had a giant painting of Reagan (for those too young to remember, he was an actor turned President and was recently inducted into the US Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor, probably for busting and vilifying unions and ratting on his colleagues for being dirty commies back when you could go to jail for your political beliefs), and it wasn’t much different from high school except now we could stay up as late as we wanted and there was a lot more drugs, alcohol, and politics in our daily lives. Fun fact about the area I grew up in: They love drugs, Jesus, and Reagan. Not necessarily in that order, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Teen pregnancy was also pretty high on the list. But, I’m not sure they loved that. Maybe it was more of an extracurricular activity. Talking about progressive or liberal politics kind of felt like something you had to do behind closed doors because, lord forbid, someone might overhear you saying something that might resemble the Beatitudes. Not feeling like I could openly talk about it, I took to reading about it. I was already in love with Twain and Vonnegut, so when I saw Barry’s book in the dollar bin, I figured why the Hell not.
And that’s where Barry is in my mind, up there with Twain and Vonnegut as Saints of The Written Word and Comedy. I can say, I never shook the hand of a war criminal but I did shake Barry’s hand and told him, “Thank you.” I wonder now, did he take it as me thanking him for signing my book? Maybe he did. And no harm in that. I was thankful for that. But, what I meant, and maybe I should have expressed it better, was that I was thankful for his words and thoughts, which much like Twain’s and Vonnegut’s, made me feel less like a societal fuck-up and helped me realize that it was society, not me, that was fucked up. This thanks included my gratitude for all the work he did for survivors of child abuse and rape. It included a lot of things. He said, “I hope you enjoy the book.” I told him, I did. And we walked back in to watch more stand-up, and I was made fun of by Judah Friedlander. It was a pretty good night for me.
Barry and I shared some messages on Facebook and Twitter after that. And that was really the extent of our relationship. I’ve tried in recent years to return the favor for what I perceive as the help he had given me with coming to terms with some things from my past, but it felt like it never added up. So, here I go again: If you feel generous and want to help someone out, please help Barry’s wife, Helen, who gave him love and happiness while they both were fighting cancer: https://www.gofundme.com/helenlysen
Peace & Love, Barry. Peace & Love.