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Frank Bardacke, Farewell to John Ross

All the Right Enemies: Farewell to the Utterly Unique John Ross
Frank Bardacke

John’s gone. John Ross. I doubt that we will ever see anyone remotely
like him again.

The bare bones, as he would say, are remarkable enough. Born to show
business Communists in New York City in 1938, he had minded Billie
Holliday’s dog, sold dope to Dizzy Gillespie, and vigiled at the hour
of the Rosenberg execution, all before he was sixteen years old. An
aspiring beat poet, driven by D.H. Lawrence’s images of Mexico, he
arrived at the Tarascan highlands of Michoacan at the age of twenty,
returning to the U.S. six years later in 1964, there to be thrown in
the Federal Penitentiary at San Pedro, for refusing induction into the
army.

Back on the streets of San Francisco eighteen months later, he joined
the Progressive Labor Movement, then a combination of old ex-CPers
fleeing the debased party and young poets and artists looking for
revolutionary action. For a few years he called the hip, crazy, Latino
24th and Mission his “bio-region,” as he ran from the San Francisco
police and threw dead rats at slumlords during street rallies of the
once powerful Mission Coalition.

When the not so ex-Stalinists drove him and others out of P.L. (“break
the poets’ pencils” was the slogan of the purge) he moved up north to
Arcata where he became an early defender of the forest and the
self-described town clown and poet in residence. From there it was
Tangier and the Maghreb, the Basque country, anti-nuke rallies in
Ireland, and then back to San Francisco, where he finally found his
calling as a journalist. “Investigative poet” was the title he
preferred, and in 1984, he was dispatched by Pacific News Service to
Latin America, where he walked with the Sendero Luminoso, broke bread
with the Tupac Amaru, and hung out with cadres of the M-19.

In 1985, after the earthquake, he moved into the Hotel Isabela in the
Centro Historico of Mexico City, where for the next 25 years he wrote
the very best accounts in English (no one is even a close second) of
the tumultuous adventures of Mexican politics.

During the Mexican years, he managed to write nine books in English, a
couple more in Spanish, and a batch of poetry chapbooks, all the while
he was often on the road, taking a bus to the scene of a peasant
rebellion or visiting San Francisco or becoming a human shield in
Baghdad, or protecting a Palestinian olive harvest from marauding
Israeli settlers.

He died this morning, a victim of liver cancer, at the age of 73, just
where he wanted to, in the village of Tepizo, Michoacan, in the care
of his dear friends, Kevin and Arminda.

That’s the outline of the story. Then there was John. Even in his
seventies, a tall imposing figure with a narrow face, a scruffy goatee
and mustache, a Che T-shirt covered by a Mexican vest, a Palestinian
battle scarf thrown around his neck, bags of misery and compassion
under his eyes, offset by his wonderful toothless smile and the
cackling laugh that punctuated his comical riffs on the miserable
state of the universe.

He was among the last of the beats, master of the poetic rant,
committed to the exemplary public act, always on the side of the poor
and defeated. His tormentors defined him. A sadistic prison dentist
pulled six of his teeth. The San Francisco Tac Squad twice bludgeoned
his head, ruining one eye and damaging the other. The guards of
Mexico’s vain, poet-potentate Octavio Paz beat him to the ground in a
Mexico City airport, and continued to kick him while he was down.
Israeli settlers pummeled him with clubs until he bled, and wrecked
his back forever.

He had his prickly side. He hated pretense, pomposity and unchecked
power wherever he found it. Losing was important to him. Whatever is
the dictionary opposite of an opportunist—that’s what John was. He
never got along with an editor, and made it a matter of principle to
bite the hand that fed him. It got so bad, he left so few bridges
unburnt, that in order to read his wonderful weekly dispatches in the
pre-internet years, I had to subscribe to an obscure newsletter, a
compilation of Latin American news, and then send more money to get
the editors to send along John’s column. [John had a relationship
lasting many years with CounterPunch, publishing hundreds of
dispatches, with only trifling hiccups with the editors. AC/JSC.]

He had his sweet side, too. He was intensely loyal to his friends,
generous with all he had, proud of his children, grateful for
Elizabeth’s support and collaboration, and wonderful, warm company at
an evening meal. When my son, Ted, arrived in Mexico in 1990, John
helped him get a job, find a place to live, introduced him around, and
became his Sunday companion and confidant, as they huddled in front of
John’s 11-inch TV watching the weekly broadcasts of NBA games.

He was a great, true sports fan, especially of basketball. One of the
last times I saw him was at a friend’s house in San Francisco, in
between radiation treatments, watching a Warriors game on a big screen
TV, smoking what he still called the “killer weed.” Joe and I listened
to him recount NY Knicks history, the origin of the jump shot, and
Kareem’s last game, which somehow led to a long complaint about
kidneys for sale in Mexico that had been harvested in China out of the
still warm body of some poor, rural immigrant who had been legally
executed for jaywalking in Beijing.

The very last time I had the pleasure of his company was at breakfast
in Los Angeles when Ted and I saw him off on his last book tour,
promoting El Monstruo, his loving history of Mexico City. He was in
great form. His cancer was in remission—a “cancer resister,” he called
himself—and he entertained us with a preview of his trip: long,
tiresome Greyhound rides, uncomfortable couches, talks to tiny groups
of the marginalized, the last defenders of lost causes without the
money to buy his books. It would be a losing proposition, like so many
of his others, all of which secure his place among the angels.

Frank Bardacke taught at Watsonville Adult School, California’s
Central Coast, for 25 years. His history of the United Farm Workers
and Cesar Chavez, Trampled in the Vintage, is forthcoming from Verso.
He can be reached at bardacke@sbcglobal