When we first knew Robert well, he was riding high. We called him “The Mayor of the Alley” then, and he ramrodded several Navajo work crews for us to build our yard, garden, loft, and outbuildings. As Libby said wonderingly he was “illiterate” in at least four languages.
We met him at a Torres mattanza back in 85. He was still under the influence of his elder brother, Johnny, not an entirely good things. For one thing, Johnny was a criminal; for another, he was unlucky. As Marshal Larry said “You don’t steal a bag of pinions with a hole in it so it leaves a trail wherever you go.” Johnny died nominally committing a crime that was almost as ludicrous as it was heartbreaking, and Robert was never on the wrong side of the law again.
He fought the insulting nickname “Lurch” all his life, and many people, even good ones, were unaware that he detested it. I got in a real fight with a Taoseno thug whose wife was living here in the Witness Protection program for ratting out the Dixie mafia; unfortunately she always got drunk and told people about it and had to be moved. I have not been moved to fistfights for a long time. But when an out of town criminal told me he could insult my friend any time, I lost it.
Robert could do almost any kind of outdoor work. He did so for free or whatever money was available. He also hired some really peculiar Navajos. One tried to sell me the shoes he was wearing when he was drunk, and Floyd Mansell was inclined to doubt this story until the guy came to him the following week and tried to sell him his pants. And there were two who tried to have Libby cook them their liver (“stone soup?”), and one that broke into our front room and piled all the books he could find on the floor to use as a bed; the dogs who were used to drunk indians, didn’t make a fuss, and when I woke him up in the morning asked me innocently if this were not the Farr Ranch, 60 miles away and 20 miles off the pavement.
Robert could talk to all of them and explain them to us and us to them. He gradually cleaned up the alley with me, putting trash barrels out for beer cans, and barbed wire in the weeds so people could not sleep there. He traveled like Dr. Who, often wearing two coats with lots of pockets. I never saw him extract a kitten but but he did produce beer and pinion nuts from one. Once when we weren’t home, he brought in an insane Cooper’s hawk dying of aspergillosis in one of those pockets. When we didn’t appear at the door he went inside and put it in Lily the dachsund’s sleeping crate and left a beer as a sign that he was here. Needless to say, Lily refused to go in her crate that night. Imagine our surprise when we looked inside and found an irate dragon inside.
His appearance could be unusual — he often wore dreadlocks or cornrows and two large overcoats stuffed with things. Once my rather military, very precise Scottish friend Bodie rushed into the kitchen to hiss urgently “Stephen! There’s a transient sitting in your living room!” I was able to reassure him without even looking. “That’s OK, Bodie. That’s not even a transient — that’s Robert, and he’s family.”
Robert unfortunately lived with Zelma, a Navajo woman turned nasty by misfortune. There are many stories, some of which I will tell. One night she ran him through with a pitchfork and stuck him to the door. He had to be medevaced out by helicopter, which cost $30,000. I explained to the hospital that I was not responsible for him — he just had our phone number. They fortunately understood and said “That’s OK sir — this is New Mexico!”. Nevertheless, Robert generally paid his way.
He “took care of” a large extended dysfunctional* family of mostly Navajos.Such taking cars could include such unusual benefits as participation in the Annual Easter Beer Can Hunt in Roberts cluttered yard. Trouble was, they brought Alamo’s most dysfunctional social habits to town, one that destroyed easily 50 buildings in the first decade I lived here: making fire rings on wooden floors, trusting to a half inch of sand to save the floor and the house. It never did, but they were always so very COLD.
When Zelma died, Robert told me that the survival of his house depended on the mental health of Zelma’s 24 year old son Bruce.If he got sober, all would be well, but if he continued to drink he would burn the house down. It took all of 5 months for Bruce to pick option 3. Robert soon moved to Socorro where he had fewer friend’s to watch out for him, and where he died this week of complications of cirrhosis, one of which i suspect was malnutrition. It wouldn’t have happened up here I think, or not that way…
Robert’s ife was full of almost unbearable tragedy. He and his brother were pt as virtual slaves by their foster family as children. He lost that charming if ridiculous brother to a cold blooded profit murder, his regained teenage son (to suicide), two wives (these still live) , and another girlfriend, who was decapitated in a grisly car accident on the Alamo road. He mourned them deeply, then let them go. What could such a life teach but fatalism?
If the church still makes saints out of simple-minded sinners, I have a candidate for them!
*Dysfunctional? At 8:00 one morning the whole fleet of them showed up at my house, Zelma in he back of a pickup truck, screaming, on a pile of dog beds. One of the Indians told me excitedly that “Zelma just broke BOTH her legs playing poker with her cousin!” She had…
First in pictures: Torres mattanza 85; Robert in pale t-shirt.
Second set: Robert with the late Bill Smiley at Bill’s 60th birthday party “Two gentlemen of leisure at the opposite ends of the social spectrum”. Bill’s Purdey was worth approximately 14 times what Robert’s house was.