No Funeral: The True Story of Richard Petrowski
by Steve Schecter
Aside from influence, Richard left almost nothing behind. He never married, he had no family; his few belongings were abandoned, stolen, or confiscated. I have no photos of Richard, or phone numbers of surviving friends–I don’t even know their last names. Consequently, his story must be told solely from memory. And every word of it is true.
I met Richard Petrowski when I was nineteen, shortly after moving to Austin, Texas, and knew him until I was twenty-six, when he passed. Though I learned a great deal from Richard, what little I know about his life outside of our friendship can be summarized quickly: Richard was born in Abilene, Texas, in 1962. He played drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band during high school and graduated with the class of ’81. He then worked in the West Texas oil fields for nearly a decade before serving a year in prison for a drug charge. During his oil field days and before prison, he owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a Corvette Stingray. After prison, he moved to Austin where he successfully kicked a heroin habit, then methadone, spent nine years on parole living in a one room apartment and eventually kicked that too. Then Richard again owned a Corvette Stingray, and a travel trailer that he lived in while saving for a plot of land in the Texas Hill Country, where he planned to build a house. But in 2003, after living with Hepatitis C for many years, Richard died from cirrhosis of the liver. He was forty-one years old.
That’s Richard Petrowski’s life on paper. He was exactly the type of person who was underestimated, overlooked, and taken advantage of, especially by people of low character. Because most people missed it–who he really was, an image of moral integrity. Richard once said to me, “Steve, you’re young and you may make a million dollars in your life,” he always waxed positive. “But I’m not gonna make a million dollars in my life. The only thing I have is my word. Without my word I ain’t worth shit.” It reminded me of the Bob Dylan lyric “if you live outside the law you must be honest,” but sounded even more poetic somehow; one of many things Richard said to me that still rings true.
In 1996 Austin, Texas, offered the perfect backdrop for unambitious dreams. After arriving with little more than a guitar and a backpack I took to open mics and temp jobs, like a then typical Austinite, and moved into The Deville apartments at 2020 S. Congress Ave, apartment 1313. (No kidding, it’s an address I’ll never forget.) Congress Avenue runs from the State Capital downtown for ten blocks, before crossing the bridge famous for its bat population and becoming South Congress, a main artery that continues dead south all the way out of town. My one room efficiency twenty blocks south of the bridge was four hundred dollars a month including utilities, plus an extra thirty dollars a month from May through September when they turned on the central A/C. The Deville was originally a motel, you could tell by looking at it; a two-story building connected by cast-iron walkways to a three-story building behind it, with a parking lot and swimming pool in the middle. Half the apartments faced inwards, towards the pool, the other half faced out, with narrow hallways running down the middle of each building. My apartment was on the third floor facing in, providing a clear view of the Seven-Eleven across the street and the swimming pool below. I never swam in the pool, I didn’t even own any swim trunks, but that was where I first saw Richard Petrowski. He was often down there lounging.
Richard was over six feet tall with a deep tan, a big belly, and a faded tattoo of a Harley-Davidson eagle across his chest. He had brown hair kept short in the front and long in the back–halfway down his back, the ultimate mullet–with a thin mustache and thick rimmed glasses over silver-gray eyes. Richard always wore shorts and flip-flops, and hardly ever wore a shirt. During the almost eight years I knew him, I only saw him in a shirt a handful of times and long pants even less. There were a lot of interesting characters at The Deville, but Richard stood out. He was a fixture.
The Deville had a stairwell running up the side of the building that briefly dropped you into the hallway of each floor before entering the next flight of stairs, and every time I passed the second floor it reeked of weed–the thick stench of Texas dirt weed emanating from finger-sized doobies. It was obviously coming from the first apartment, the only door you passed before reentering the stairwell, and was so constant that I even contemplated knocking and inviting myself in–a thought only my nineteen-year-old self would entertain. Then one day I walked by just as the longhaired shirtless man from the pool was standing in the doorway seeing someone out. I gave him a quick wave and he returned the gesture, and this went on for a few weeks, a nod in the hallway, the simple acknowledgement between neighbors.
Eventually I mustered up the courage to introduce myself followed by the pertinent inquiry, about weed, imposing on him right in the hallway of The Deville. My appearance back then was as noticeable as Richard’s, though probably more naïve. (I was skinny as a rail with a greasy pompadour and always wore torn jeans, black boots, and white t-shirts with the sleeves rolled up, or white undershirts often referred to as a ‘wife-beaters,’ which I’m campaigning to rebrand as ‘wife-lovers’ since their common name is gross and inaccurate, but I’ll use it here for descriptive clarity.) So I assume Richard didn’t take me for a cop but he was cautious nonetheless, and I later learned his response that day was somewhat uncharacteristic. Only slightly taken aback, he half-smiled and said he might be able to find a joint. He didn’t invite me to his apartment, where I would later spend hours on end, but instead asked which apartment I was in and said he’d drop by shortly. Within a few minutes Richard was knocking at my door with a small baggy and some rolling papers.
My apartment had little furnishings. No television, two folding chairs facing a stereo in the middle of the room, a guitar against the wall, and miscellaneous music equipment strewn about. Next to the stereo was a small stack of records with a recently purchased Buddy Holly at the front, a double LP with a pink gatefold cover called Legend – from the Original Master Tapes. And it was that record that first endeared me to Richard Petrowski.
“You like Buddy Holly?” he asked, surprised and intrigued.
“Yeah man, Buddy Holly’s a genius! If he’d lived there’s no telling, he could have been more influential than the Beatles!” It may sound like bullshit, but it’s a reply I’d still give today, and I could tell by Richard’s expression it was the right answer. That was the first time I saw Richard’s broad, completely unselfconscious smile that engulfed the lower half of his face and showed him to be missing most of his front teeth.
“He’s from Lubbock, you know?” I did. “I’m from Abilene! Up there in the panhandle,” he added with pride. Richard spoke with that lilting West Texas accent. It isn’t a drawl, it’s more eloquent, like a perpetual politeness with a heightened awareness of vowels. “Do you mind if we listen to that?”
Of course not, so we passed a joint while listening to Buddy Holly. When we weren’t talking Richard sang along quietly, not in a disruptive way, more out of pure pleasure as if it was impossible not to. He knew every song, which didn’t seem to fit his appearance, but I was just beginning to understand Texas. And Richard was a Texan through and through.
“Man, I seen you around, but I thought all this was just a look,” he mused, gesturing to my hair. “I didn’t think you were into the music, or that anybody your age listened to Buddy Holly!”
“Yeah, I love rockabilly, ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll,” another reply that I’d still give today, “old country, blues … I grew up more with punk-rock stuff, you know, but then followed it back,” it prattles on and concludes with something like, “I mean, I dig all kinds of music.”
“Rockabilly. That’s what you are, isn’t it?” He said it kind of rhetorically, as if reintroducing himself to a forgotten term. “Yeah, you look like a rockabilly, don’t ya?”
Richard thumbed through my records approvingly, then asked me a little bit about my guitar playing, and if I’d ever heard of Pat Travers. I had not. This was only the first time Richard told me about the inimitable Pat Travers, hands down his favorite musician, stating with no uncertainty I should check him out immediately, especially since I was a guitar player. In later conversations I learned that Pat Travers hailed from Canada, oddly enough, but played in Austin once a year at The Steamboat downtown on 6th Street, and that every year Richard went to see him–the only time Richard ever went down to 6th Street.
After listening to the entire Buddy Holly double album, Richard left me what was left in his small baggie along with some rolling papers and his phone number.
“Give me a call sometime. I can usually find a bag for a friend.” In truth Richard sold pot, it was his sole source of income, but like everything else he played it close to the vest.
It wasn’t long before I made the call, and from then on we met in his apartment. The Deville apartments were all exactly alike, though Richard’s was the mirror image of mine being on the opposite side of the hall; a narrow kitchen on one side of the door, living room on the other, leading out to a motel style balcony with a small bedroom nook and bathroom around the corner. Richard’s apartment was cozy and well-furnished compared to mine; he had clearly lived there for some time. The living room was filled with a small couch and coffee table surrounded by bookshelves, houseplants, and neatly stacked rows of books and magazines; the balcony was overrun with potted and hanging plants. Richard usually dwelled in the bedroom nook, reclining on the bed watching a small TV at the foot of it. I would cop a squat on the floor across from him, leaning against the wall next to the bathroom door. Our relationship grew organically from conversations that began on the floor of his apartment and continued for years after we both left The Deville.
Spacecrafts & Chicken-fried Steaks
We talked at length about everything from the serious to the abstract, with no inhibitions or awkward silences–as unselfconscious as Richard’s smile. Our visits lasted indefinitely, sometimes going on so long that we reconvened for breakfast up the street at the Richard Jones Barbeque, where a chicken-fried steak and eggs with coffee was under six bucks.
One of Richard’s favorites topics was UFOs and extraterrestrials. Richard believed aliens had a long history on Earth and was versed in alleged encounters from the famous Roswell incident to passages in the bible, and everything in between. His favorite show was The X-Files. I hadn’t seen The X-Files–no television–but Richard swore that some of the episodes were based on real occurrences and suspected that part of the show’s intent was to familiarize people with events that would one day be made public, in essence softening the blow. I have always been game for speculation, the wilder the better, which may be why Richard enjoyed my company–I never dismissed his opinions or told him he was crazy. Some of his most compelling ideas involved the moon landing, what really did or didn’t happen, and why we hadn’t yet returned–at least not to the public’s knowledge. In Richard’s defense, none of his theories have been disproven in the twenty years since he passed, and some have been supported.
“Rockets?!” Richard would rant. “Shit, you think rockets are any way to travel through space. You think launching an object straight up, fightin’ the Earth’s gravity, with a fossil fuel engine, is any way to reach other planets? Hell no!” He would answer his own questions. “For one, you burn up too much energy just leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. Hell, rockets for space travel, that’s just a farce!”
A quarter century later, in July of 2021, Virgin Galactic launched a craft resembling more of an airplane than a rocket. The spaceplane was launched off the back of a carrier plane, or mothership, after being piggybacked up to 50,000 ft–not straight up fighting the Earth’s gravity–then conducted a sub-orbital space flight before gliding safely back to Earth on its own momentum. Witnessing the event, I couldn’t help being reminded of Richard’s rocket rant. I wish he had been here to see it and wish I could have shared his reaction.
But it wasn’t all spacecrafts and conspiracy theories. After I got to know him, Richard told me about his former addiction to heroin, and how through treatment he had since become hooked on methadone, which was even harder to quit but at least a habit he could afford. “Hell, the only reason I go to the methadone clinic is heroin cost me two or three-hundred bucks a week just to maintain. Believe it, that shit’ll take everything you got.” This all caught me by surprise. Richard was nothing like the junkies I’d known, or the recovering addicts who feel the need to immediately and constantly share their story. His was purely a cautionary tale told by a humble narrator.
Richard never talked about his time in prison, only that it happened and what put him there. He was pulled over somewhere in West Texas holding enough pot to be charged with a felony and sentenced to ten years in prison; his Corvette was impounded. After serving a year in the notorious Huntsville State Penitentiary his sentence was commuted to parole, which he was still serving. Richard was lucky (his words) to have only been in Huntsville a year and said any longer may as well be a life sentence; the effects are too devasting and permanent. But life on parole made everything touch and go. Any violation could mean serving the remainder of his sentence in prison, and anything he owned could be confiscated. Consequently, Richard kept his savings and valuables in a safety deposit box downtown. No bank account, nothing on paper. Doing just enough business to get by with those who he completely trusted. Richard’s line of work hadn’t changed but his operation had adapted.
When I had my own legal troubles and faced a mere thirty days in the Travis County Jail, Richard provided support and perspective. “Hell, thirty days is nothing. Keep your head down and you’ll be fine.” He knew the game, “you play you pay.” Later, when facing two years of probation, he again offered vital counsel. “They want you to fuck up, so they can have you on paper the rest of your life. So don’t make it easy for ‘em.” ‘On paper’ was Richard’s term for being in the system, on parole or probation.
Having experienced it all, Richard also brought a necessary dismissiveness and humor to legal predicaments. Like when I was subjected to regular drug testing as a clause of probation–the humiliating act of peeing in a cup under the watchful eye of a government employee. “Man, that guy ain’t nothin’ but a peter-gazer!” Richard laughed. “Can you imagine havin’ that job? I tell ya, he’s gotta be one miserable son of a bitch!” But in the end, his advice was always sound, straightforward, and simple, “Play it smart, get it behind you, and keep ‘em out of your life forever. Then get back to playing your music.”
Richard had become a fan of my band, an outfit that gigged regularly in Austin through the late nineties. He first saw us playing just up the street from The Deville, at an early show he could walk to. Labeled Texas Rockabilly, mainly due to our location and appearance, the band was greasy and sleezy, and right up Richard’s alley. He nodded approvingly flashing his wide grin throughout our set. After that, Richard came to see us any time we played in South Austin at a reasonable hour. He wouldn’t go downtown, where most of our gigs were, but would always brag about us when introducing me to his friends.
“This is Steve, he plays in a rockabilly band!” Richard seemed to love saying that forgotten term as much as he loved plugging us. “You gotta go check ‘em out! When are you guys playing next, Steve?”
Richard’s apartment could be a scene, due to a combination of his generosity and the friends he kept. There was often someone coming or going or staying too long. One of the mainstays was a pleasant character named Mikey who Richard had known since his oil field days. (Pronounced ole-field, with Richard’s accent.) Mikey was a small guy with a grey beard and ponytail who always wore a headband and spoke with a thick east-Texas accent–a nasally drawl emphasized by hard stops, almost a barking sound. He had that former meth-head-hippie look about him, but Mikey was alright, and one of Richard’s only friends who stayed around throughout. Besides me. Plus a fellow named Jim who had been Richard and Mikey’s “Oil field daddy,” a term I haven’t heard before or since but gathered it was an endearment for the boss of the rig, their de facto caretaker. Jim was there for Richard when he was released from prison, a standup guy by Richard’s account– which makes it so–and Mikey was too. That’s what it took to maintain Richard’s friendship.
He was never one for a handout, but always one for a helping hand. When Richard’s friend Britt who he’d known in Huntsville was released from prison, he found his way to Austin where he was living on the street and occasionally staying at the nearby Salvation Army. (The Salvy, as Richard and his friends called it, another term I haven’t heard before or since.) After seeing Britt on the street one day, Richard did everything he could to help him get back on his feet and for two months Britt’s bedroll took up a corner of Richard’s efficiency apartment. Britt was a likeable guy who had paid too dearly for a victimless crime, his deep-set brown eyes revealed both a kind soul and a tremendous amount of pain. But Britt’s time in Huntsville was well over a year, and by Richard’s own admission possibly too long to endure. When he wasn’t floundering, he was spiraling. Sadly, Britt eventually wore out his welcome at Richard’s, couldn’t stay sober enough to stay at the Salvy, and ended up back on the street.
“He knows the damn rules! The Salvy won’t let you in if you’re fucked up. He shows up in the evening and they can tell just lookin’ at him,” Richard’s disappointment was palpable during our last conversation about Britt. “He stopped by the other night and had the balls to ask me for money. Gave me those sad eyes and his whole bit about just needin’ twenty-five bucks to rent a room and get cleaned up. So, hell, I gave it to him.” He could tell that part surprised me, and Richard’s venting then shifted to the tone he used when imparting wisdom. “Whenever somebody like that asks me to borrow money, long as it’s a small amount, I just give it to ‘em. I know they won’t pay me back, and that gives me a perfectly good reason to never see ‘em again. Hell, it’s a bargain. Twenty-five bucks to get him out of my life for good.” Even though Richard cared deeply for him, Britt had proven to not be a standup guy.
Life After Paper
It never occurred to me that Richard had been biding his time, deliberately stagnant, until I pulled up to The Deville one day and saw a pristine, white Corvette parked in the space just below his balcony.
“Did you see my new ride?” he asked with a grin that simultaneously showed off his new teeth–dentures, as white as the Corvette. “It’s an ’82 Stingray, just like the one I lost. Come on, let’s go for a ride.” As the V-8 rumbled through the neighborhood Richard pointed out all the minor differences between this Vette and his old one, while still managing to wave and flash a smile at everyone we passed. Richard’s spirits were soaring, it was more than just the new car: He was finally off parole. Gone were his fears of losing everything to the whims of bureaucracy, a new chapter was beginning beyond the confines of paper. A cause for celebration commemorated by the Corvette and new teeth, both paid for with cash from his safety deposit box.
Shortly after, Richard bought a travel trailer and left The Deville, his home for the last nine years, renting a nearby spot off Radam Lane where a handful of trailer spaces lined a gravel alley behind a row of duplexes. The trailer was ten-by-twenty-feet, even smaller than his apartment, divided into two parts; through the front door a tiny kitchenette opened into a room with a dining nook against one wall and small couch against the other, the living room, then up two steps a narrow doorway led to the equally sized bedroom and bathroom. Though it seemed barely enough room for a guy Richard’s size to turn around in, it was his castle which he proudly owned. Richard immediately started eyeing land in the hill country outside of Austin where he planned to move his trailer and eventually build a house. A dream that never came to fruition.
With the new neighborhood came new neighbors, which were more of a step over than a step up from The Deville. The only one I remember was a character named Vinnie from the trailer next door, a short-haired, clean cut looking guy who always wore a baseball hat. Richard often referred to him as “that fuckin’ crackhead,” but was neighborly towards him nonetheless, and later, Vinnie would be there for Richard as a good neighbor should be. Like Britt, Vinnie had the eyes of a decent person, buried underneath the trials of addiction.
Furnishing his new digs, Richard bought a desktop computer with a printer that permanently filled the dining nook. Internet access brought Richard’s UFO research to new heights; on numerous visits I was met with unparalleled excitement accompanied by printouts of recent discoveries. The internet also put Richard in touch with his former high school rock ‘n’ roll band and got him invited to his twenty-year class reunion taking place in Abilene the following spring.
One of my favorite memories of Richard comes from stopping by to find him seated behind a newly purchased vintage Pearl drum set taking up the entire front room of his trailer and completely blocking the path to the bedroom. Not only was he planning to attend his class reunion, but his old band had been booked as the entertainment. Determined not to be the rustiest of the group, he was practicing drums for the first time in twenty years. Richard was beaming. The neighbors were complaining. He was especially proud of the twenty-six-inch ride cymbal, explaining to me that a cymbal that large was both hard to come by and integral to his style. Richard had often talked about his days in a rock ‘n’ roll band, he couldn’t have been happier that they were getting back together, to play for his old peers no less.
Just when I thought Richard couldn’t surprise me any further, he introduced me to his live-in girlfriend, and even dabbled with a straight job.
The girlfriend was a petite blonde named Crystal who dressed neatly and always wore her hair in a tight ponytail, appearing to be nothing like the hardcore-white-trash girls that used to gravitate to Richard’s apartment. With Crystal in tow, Richard started frequenting the gambling boats in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Blackjack was one of his favorite pastimes, Richard was as close to a card counter as anyone I’ve ever known, and Crystal liked to ride along and play the slots. They were together for close to a year and during that time Crystal accompanied Richard to his class reunion where his old band was a hit and showing up in his Corvette with Crystal on his arm felt like nothing short of a coup–directly contradicting any small-town gossip about his time in prison with his larger-than-life presence. Then just as quick as she showed up, Crystal was gone.
“Trust me, I’m better off” Richard concluded, and we never spoke of her again.
Richard’s straight job was in a small office, coincidently right next door to a place that rented music equipment where I worked at the time. Even more coincidently, it was just a few blocks north of The Deville right on South Congress Avenue–that street representing the center of South Austin still playing a central role in both of our lives. I never figured out exactly what Richard did in the office next door, and admittedly the term ‘straight’ may be an overstatement, but for a few months he would poke his head through the backdoor of the rental shop brightening my day with small talk and the novelty of seeing him in a button up shirt and long pants.
Though neither the job nor relationship lasted, both were notable examples of Richard’s dynamic character and broad potential during the brief time when the world was his oyster.
Perhaps the most profound side of Richard Petrowski was that which I witnessed the least; the Richard Petrowski I read about in the newspaper, in an article about a long-running support group for recovering drug addicts. Pictured just below the headline encircled by the other members, Richard was the focus of the article with his characteristic wisdoms and candor quoted throughout. He talked about originally joining the group as a requisite of parole, and why he still attended even though he was no longer required to or involved in treatment. He talked about the importance of being there as a tactile example, and the support he felt fortunate to now be able provide others. He even touched on the role spirituality–what sounded like a loose form of Buddhism–had played in overcoming his addiction to heroin, and the ensuing battle with methadone. The article painted Richard as the natural leader and kind soul that he truly was.
Unfortunately, Richard’s uplift period didn’t last long. He had only been off parole for three years when he fell seriously ill. How long he was living with Hepatitis C, and for how long he knew about it, are among the things I’ll never know about Richard Petrowski. He contracted the virus through needle use, which means he carried it for at least a decade before it noticeably affected him. By the time he said anything it had developed into cirrhosis of the liver, his organs were shutting down. I didn’t know anything about Hepatitis C then, I associated cirrhosis with alcoholism and Richard didn’t even drink. Hep C has since become largely treatable, even affordably so, especially when it’s caught early. But at that time interferon was the only successful treatment, and whether it was too expensive or simply too late is another thing I will never know–my guess is the latter. Richard was given temporary relief through pain medications and the periodic draining of fluids. He needed a liver transplant, but his history of intravenous drug use made him ineligible for the donor list.
Richard went downhill quickly. The consistent sparkle in his grey eyes never returned, replaced by the fog of illness. He started retaining fluids to the point that trips to the doctor’s office or emergency room became weekly occurrences. That’s where Vinnie stepped up. No longer able to get in and out of it, much less sit for long drives, Richard had sold his Corvette putting the money towards his ongoing medical bills.
During his final months it became more and more difficult to visit him, but in his typical style Richard still tried to wax positive even when he was visibly suffering. My most recent band had split up and I had just begun performing and touring as a solo act–a project I’ve stuck with to this day–with jaunts taking me as far as the upper Midwest and eastern seaboard. Richard loved the open road but had never traveled beyond Texas and Louisiana. He always prodded me about my recent tours and mused about joining me. “Man, I’d love to go on the road like that. You gotta take me with you next time… Maybe next time you head over to New Orleans you can drop me off at the gamblin’ boats in Lake Charles and pick me up on your way back.” And I always told him I would. That we would do all of that, next time. Even though we both knew it wasn’t feasible.
Knowing what was ahead, Richard composed a will and confided in me, Mikey, and a few others about a “chunk of change” he was leaving behind to be divvied up between his closest friends. More importantly, Richard insisted on leaving me with his vintage Pearl drum set. I didn’t play drums, and Richard knew this, but he wanted to see they were put to good use and said I was the one he trusted to do so. I was his musician friend. Nothing good ever came of the will, but he did leave me with his drum set, though earlier than originally planned. He called one afternoon sounding defeated, “Steve, you gotta come pick up these drums. I can’t play ‘em anymore. I just keep trippin’ over ‘em.” I should have known he was giving up, usually just looking at his drums was a source of pleasure. “Nah, they’re just in my way now. Besides, I’m leavin’ ‘em to you anyway.” I reluctantly went by that evening, and that was the last time I saw Richard.
He didn’t greet me at the door, just hollered to come in and propped himself up on the edge of his bed. He was no longer able to move around easily, and no longer went to the trouble of putting in his teeth. Richard’s smile from my earliest memories was the last one I saw. After I loaded up the drums we talked for a while, but he kept the conversation light, familiar. “Jon Bonham, Keith Moon. They were like the Gene Krupas of my generation.” Our final conversation, like our first, was about music. I promised I would take care of his drums, and even said that I’d bring them back once he was feeling better. I couldn’t accept what was happening. I still needed my friend to live.
Two days later I got the call from Vinnie at my work, Richard must have told him I worked at the music rental place on S. Congress. “Richard died last night,” his voice was breaking up over the phone. “I drove him up to the hospital, but they didn’t do anything for him. They just left him sittin’ there for hours, finally I brought him back. But when I checked on him this morning he was layin’ beside the bed, and I knew…”
I struggled to give Vinnie a reply and barely made it out the backdoor–the same door Richard used to poke his head through–before losing it completely. As I’ve learned since, even when you know what’s coming, death is impossible to be prepared for. That evening I spoke to Vinnie again, one last time. He told me how Richard had been draining his fluids at home by puncturing a hole in his naval with a safety pin, leaving his sheets and bed an awful mess. It still pains me to know that Richard’s final days were spent suffering and alone.
Richard Petrowski’s body was cremated. That responsibility fell to Jim, his oil field daddy. I have no knowledge of what happened to Richard’s remains. There was no funeral. No service of any kind. It was as if according to some unknown standard Richard’s life wasn’t worth formally commemorating. Mikey, Vinnie, and a few others gathered in a nearby park and said a few words the day after Richard died, but no one called me. I only heard about it when Mikey called out of the blue a couple weeks later.
I couldn’t have cared less about Richard’s “chunk of change” at that point, but Mikey, among those Richard promised would be included, wanted to fill me in on the bitter proceedings. Unfortunately, Richard’s will had turned out to be no more than a file on his computer. Nothing printed, nothing signed. Even worse, the file appeared to have been recently edited to include Vinnie’s name at the bottom, which Mikey and others suspected was done by Vinnie himself the morning he discovered Richard’s body. So maybe Richard was right about “that fuckin’ crackhead” after all. Or maybe after so many rides to the hospital Richard changed his tune about Vinnie and added his name hastily at the end. Either scenario is conceivable. By default, Jim was acting as executor of the estate, but by Mikey’s account wasn’t honoring Richard’s wishes. When I told Mikey I didn’t want to be involved, he informed me that I already was.
“Well, I told Jim, Steve already took the drums. So, why can’t I get my share? Ya know, what’s comin’ to me?” Mikey’s accent was more grating than usual with an animosity that blindsided me.
I told Mikey I only took the drums because Richard asked me to, but he was missing the point. To Mikey it was something of monetary value, but to me Richard’s drums were now something much greater–his prize possession left under my care with specific instructions.
I lugged Richard’s drums around with me for the next ten years, through several moves, always stored safely. Eventually they were given to worthy musicians I knew would put them to good use, including the ideal heir for his twenty-six-inch ride cymbal. I did exactly what Richard asked of me, what was promised. I still have his canvas stick bag with two pairs of drumsticks and his sweat-stained wristbands inside. It lives permanently in the corner of my music room. And I incorporated part of his kick pedal into a foot-percussion device that I still use for shows and touring. So in a way, Richard finally got to come with me on the road, to Louisiana, and everywhere else I’ve been.
Richard was fifteen years my senior, which means I am now unfathomably a few years older than he ever lived to be. I’ve since lost more friends than I care to count, perhaps due to running with musicians–a fragile group with a high mortality rate. When I started writing Richard’s story, I was in the process of losing another close friend to illness, who also happened to be a drummer. Again, I knew what was coming and again I found myself completely unprepared, clinging to hope, praying for a miracle. So maybe writing about Richard was a transference of sorts. But I don’t think that’s it. Richard has always stayed with me, he regularly visits my dreams, always smiling, sometimes giving advice. At times I become aware it’s a dream and can enjoy getting to spend a little more time with him. Other times the dreams are mistaken for reality, and I awaken with a renewed sorrow following the realization that he’s gone. Dreams are strange that way–dead friends are strange too.
I sometimes wonder if the reason Richard’s death affected me so profoundly, and his presence stayed with me for so long, is because it was the first time I lost a close friend. But I don’t think that’s it either, at least not all of it. Richard was truly an exceptional person, an unassuming role model who I’m still learning from. Richard led by example, proving honesty is a virtue regardless of circumstance, and that with enough will, any hardship can be overcome. And his death revealed how little we actually control, and how unjust our final outcome might be. Richard endured so much, undeterred, only to face greater suffering and ultimately be struck down by mistakes he seemingly already paid for. And through it all, he somehow stayed positive. Richard could have been bitter; he could have been cynical or remained stagnant. But he never succumbed to those burdens, instead he accepted his mistakes and kept his sights fixed on the future. Richard demonstrated strength and perseverance right up until he no longer could.
I believe it’s for all these reasons that Richard Petrowski has stayed with me, and for all these reasons that I continue to honor his person and his memory. I honor him by remaining unselfconscious and independent-minded through this ever-changing world. I honor him by not wearing a shirt outside, at least from May through September. I honor him by finally watching the X-Files–and wanting to believe. I honor him by ignoring authority wherever possible. I honor him by steering clear of trouble. I honor him by trying like hell to wax positive, something I struggle with. And I honor him by focusing on my music.
Most of all, I honor him by never forgetting the man he was, or the lessons he taught me. I regularly pass by all the old haunts. The Deville has been remodeled as condos and rebranded as ‘The 2020.’ The Richard Jones BBQ is now the site of a Wells Fargo. The trailer spaces in the alley off Radam are gone but the duplexes next door are still there, more dilapidated than ever, triumphantly defying their surroundings as if saying, ‘not everywhere can be gentrified,’ at least not yet. When I cruise through the old neighborhood and see the people living there now, walking dogs, and pushing strollers, I wonder if they have any idea just how different it was not so long ago. How seedy it was, and how easy our lives seemed then. Can they even imagine a typical day at The Deville apartments? Or that a character like Richard Petrowski once ruled the roost?
Though much has changed, anytime I want to revisit those days I can count on Buddy Holly, specifically Legend – From the Original Master Tapes, a double LP I picked up while living at The Deville. The pink gatefold cover takes me right back to that small apartment with the view of the seven-eleven across the street. And the music brings me right back to that first conversation with Richard Petrowski. Within a moment I can hear the lilt of Richard’s voice singing along quietly, then hear the cadence of his laughter, and feel the warmth of his smile. As missing friends has become a part of everyday life, so has enjoying their memory, and savoring their presence whenever I stumble upon it. Along with always wondering why their time was cut short… Yeah man, Buddy Holly’s a genius. He’s from Lubbock you know.
Steve Schecter is a musician, songwriter, and writer, living in Austin, TX. Born in the rural community of Friend, Oregon, Schecter began his musical career as a teenager in the Portland area, before moving to Austin in 1996. Performing under the name Ghostwriter since 2002, he has published over a hundred songs and released ten albums on his own independent label, End of the West Records. Steve Schecter’s first book, “No One at the Circus: The Story of Ghostwriter through Place and Song,” was published in 2022 by Gob Pile Press. For information on writing, releases, and upcoming shows, go to endofthewest.com.