A few thoughts on Bill Mandel after his memorial

Joe Bryak


I used to hear him on KPFA, and like so many others I was taken aback at the tawdry end of the USSR. I paid particular attention to Bill's take on things after the collapse, and took in his slow, measured shift from Communist to communist to socialist to democratic socialist to finally social democrat. I had always remarked at how folks would be 100% hard-liners for a cause one day, then the next thing you knew they had gone off 100% the other way, with no pause for breath or mulling things over. But Bill took us along through his evolution, and I was taken with his honesty. This was over and above where you or I would feel about these issues themselves; I admired his intellectual honesty above all. I note you all have said a few things about Bill's ego, but he got past his own ego here, let go of his own decades-long personal investment.


I said this in a long, soul-searching letter to him (including my own doubts and misgivings), and was knocked out that he read this letter on the air, for 9 minutes out of a 30-minute show.


We became friends. I was one out of a long list of people he collected as friends. He admitted to a certain pride in the breadth of his friendships, such as with Larry Pinckney, "former Black Panther who--" and then he'd list some of Larry's accomplishments. When he took me to Frank Moore's place in Berkeley to take part in an internet program, "Five Old Men" (I was a ringer, at age 62), he bragged on Frank's tenacity at running an internet radio show despite having cerebral palsy to such an extent that he could not speak himself. Bill might have got this detail wrong, but he said that those halo-type pointer gadgets you see people use to communicate by pointing to letters and some common short words on a sort of artist's pallet, as it were, was Frank's invention. Bill got a kick out of how Frank was into super-leering sexuality despite his physical condition (which thus made his bluntness into a virtue rather than an objectionable trait).


I forget how he described the other men on the show. Les (who passed recently and was a stalwart on some KPFA listener's group faction) was a longtime companion on trips to the USSR and was involved in some hands-across-the-sea business start-ups (not in any self-interest). Another was a cowboy, as I remember. Either this man or another was a former sheriff (memory dims). I was a writer, had been a shipyard worker in submarines (he'd conflated my stories about the claustro horrors of crawling in ships' double bottoms into working in subs) and "a White man who was a former Black Panther."


I was pleasantly surprised at hearing real-time feedback on that show from a listener who was in New Zealand! This was more than we got on Berkeley Liberation Radio. I was his engineer on a BLR show one night when he finished a narrative and asked for listener response, got none and said, well, that was it, no sense wasting his time (my characterization), and let that go. I remember one night he suddenly put down his earphones and said he had to go home to take care of Tanya, perhaps give her her pills, I forget. I looked at the gadgetry and said, "I can do this," and blundered my way into an absorbing 3 years on that project.


I'll jump ahead here to the accident. I heard about it and saw Bill at Kaiser's. He was of course in bad shape, yet showed some incredible good humor. Dumb me, I said something like, "How do you feel, Bill?" and he said ,"...as good as you'd expect for a guy who's been run over by a 3,000 pound car!"


You had to have been there, as they say. The jauntiness . . . Then he said it turned out that the driver of the car, ironically enough, was a Kaiser doctor! and that this man had come to visit Bill. "Oh migod," I cut in, picking up on his humorous tip, "you must have thought, 'He's come to finish me off!' "


Bill laughed. Then he described how crestfallen and apologetic the doctor had been, horrified at what he'd done to Bill. And wouldn't you know it--Bill ended up comforting "the poor guy." Yes, as wrecked as Bill was, he thought to comfort the man who'd almost killed him. I know you all have spoken of his ego, but I think you could say he'd trans--what's the word?--he'd gotten past his own ego here, at any event!


You 3 kids. He spoke well of all of you, from Dave's musicianship to Bob's activism. Then on one of our drives we happened to be out on the Richmond Parkway and he pointed to the side and talked about how Phyllis had fought to get in some housing there, spoke of her tenacity. I forget now, but there was an ILWU connection. Again, memory dims. And of course he bragged on Laura X's successful campaign in making it illegal nationwide for a husband to get away with raping a woman who was his legal wife.


When you visited his place (and later Alini's, when he lived there--an impressive story in itself) he'd tell you stories about the artists who'd contributed various art works he displayed (I suppose he'd bought some, but others were given by admirers). You've spoken about ego, but I found him at this stage of life to be very generous in his assessment of others. He encouraged me to write my memoirs despite my protestations that I hadn't done enough in life to justify it. One passage I wrote was quite autobiographical and had a lovemaking description in it. "That's either the best description of lovemaking I've ever read--or the worst!" Here I think for once he was kindly pulling his punches and of course leaned toward the latter, I'm sure!


This takes me to another favorite moment with him, though it actually stars Tanya. I think this characterizes both her and Bill very well. We were at a table at one of those Lincoln Brigade dinners, and some young folk had done a skit. Let's just say it was at high school level, nothing to write home about. Tanya turned to me and said, "What do you think of it?"


Now, we all worship the ground the Lincoln Brigade people walk(ed) on, and I was not going to be critical of anything connected with them, by golly. What a dilemma! Finally I came up with a mealy-mouthed, "Uh, uh, well, they sure had a lot of spirit," some crap like that, and Tanya cut in with, "I thought it was lousy." Gulp, she had me with her honesty (there it is again), and Bill laughed (in a good way) at my discomfort. I think he even gave me a little look or pat to ease my chagrin. Yep, tell it like it is, bub.


I'll leave it at that, with the memory of Bill on one of our Spring drives serenely enjoying the fields of apple blossoms he had sought out. Politics, intellectual and cultural pursuits, theatre, art, nature, he lived a full life. What more can one do? And let us pause to think of Alini's story of his end. Lest we linger on thinking how she weighted things toward her own religious orientation, I choose to believe her story of Bill mouthing a line of "The Lord's Prayer" for her, as a token of his appreciation for all she had done in caring for him, a last act of generosity, amen.