Tuesday, November 13, 2012

MZ Ribalow Memorial Celebration Speech

This past Saturday night at The Players Club, there was a memorial for my friend Meir Ribalow, who died in August. I had the honor to be the final speaker of the evening. Here's the speech I gave. 

Hi, I’m Matthew Wells.

In a few minutes, I’m going to read you a sonnet I wrote the morning after Meir died. But before I do, I want to tell you a couple of stories. Well, actually, Meir wanted me to tell you a couple of stories.

The first story starts in the wild and empty desert. To the tune of whistled notes as liquid as a flute, a lone rider appears--a man whose calm and steady self-possession only needs a spark of fire to blaze up into irresistible action--a man whose two companions are a wolf called Black Bart, and a horse named Satan that no other man can tame.

The name of this cowboy is Whistling Dan Barry, and he’s the hero of three Max Brand novels which Meir read as a kid, and returned to when he was an adult.  As he put it, “I wanted to see if they were as good as I remembered them being.”  And because, for him, they were still that good, those books were one of the first things he told me about when we started to get to know each other.  I think he told everybody about them; and if he didn’t tell you, please don’t feel slighted--it just means he didn’t get around to it yet.

Why did Meir love the Dan Barry books?  Because they are literate, adventurous, courtly, earthy, entertaining and instructive.  Y’know--like Meir.  That’s answer number one.  Answer number two is a lot simpler: because they are good westerns.  Meir loved westerns.  We are, after all, celebrating a man who would have fought tooth and nail to wear that Stetson of his to a nudist colony.

A man who loved not just Dan Barry, but Ethan Edwards, Tom Doniphon, Cole Thornton, JP Harrah; Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, Gregory Peck in THE GUNFIGHTER; and Gary Cooper in just about anything. 

Meir told a lot of Gary Cooper stories.  Here’s one you haven’t heard yet. 

On the last Sunday in July, there was an article in the Arts section of the New York Times about LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962, directed by David Miller, starring Kirk Douglas and Walter Matthau).  According to the article, Miller’s only direction to Douglas was, “Try and play this the way Gary Cooper would.”  Which prompted Douglas to write Cooper a letter admitting that he was in essence playing the quintessential Gary Cooper part, and confessing his fear of failure by saying: “I know now that at best I will come remotely close.  But more important--I do know also that just trying to be you will make a better me.”  A statement made even more poignant by the fact that Cooper died nine days after Douglas wrote that letter.

When I visited Meir on that Monday, the day after this article appeared, the first thing he did was swing his computer screen around to display the online version.  “Did you see this?” he said.  And when I told him, “Yes, and I thought of you when I read it,” Meir said: “And I thought of Maria Janis. (Gary Cooper's daughter, with whom Meir was good friends.) I don’t know if she knows this.” And he reached for the phone across his day bed, and he looked at me over his glasses and he said: “She has to know this.  Don’t you agree?”

Now, I knew Meir well enough to know that the phrase “Don’t you agree” was not a question. It was his way of saying, “If you don’t agree, meet me on Main Street at high noon; bring a gun.”  And those first five words?  “She has to know this?”  In various forms, those five words echo through the lives of everyone he ever met.  “You have to read this,” he would say.  “You have to see this.”  “You have to write this.”  “You have to hear this.”  “You have to know this.” Seriously--raise your hand if the only reason you know about a movie or a book is because Meir told you about it. [BEAT] The rest of you have forgotten.

How do you explain someone like that?  By saying that sharing was a reflex with him?  By saying that it was the teacher in him?  Maybe by saying it was the eager and eternal student in him, which is why he was such a great teacher?  Each one is true, in its own way; but in the end, explanations are like labels, and people are more than labels.  Meir did what he did because he was Meir.  Because his friends echoed in him.  And if you were Meir’s friend, and he understood you, then you were all right. 

Which happens to be a quote from another one of Meir’s favorite westerns, a movie called RAMROD.  1947.  Directed by Andre DeToth.  Joel McCrea; Veronica Lake.  RAMROD puts a film noir femme fatale in the middle of a cattle ranch war--a woman who gets away with murder because the men around her all treat her with respect--a woman who can slap the bad guy and know that he won’t hit her back, because that’s just not done; he’ll only smile and say, “You know, Connie--that’s the first time you’ve ever touched me.”

Which is my favorite line from the movie--not Meir’s.  His favorite line gets said later, when Connie, played by Veronica Lake, has endangered Joel McCrea’s life--because that’s what the femme fatale does--and McCrea’s best friend Bill is going to sacrifice himself to buy McCrea time to escape. “And he’ll need that time,” Bill says to Connie.  “Thanks to you.” 

Now a normal human being would probably feel remorse at this point, but Connie is not a normal human being, it’s all about her, which is why she says: “You haven’t much use for me, have you, Bill.” And Bill takes a moment to size her up and then he tells her exactly how small she is by saying:  “You’re like a horse or a dog or a man or any other woman.  Once I understand you, you’re all right.”  And he turns and rides off, to what he knows will be his death. 

His certain death.

At the end of THE UNTAMED, the first Dan Barry book, winter is coming, and Whistling Dan sees the wild geese flying south; and because he is a wild child himself, a force of nature in buckskins, he feels the urge to ride off after them.  But following them would mean leaving Kate Cumberland, the woman he loves, the woman who knows him well enough to understand exactly who he is, which is why she tells him that he has to go; he has to follow the wild geese south; he has to leave her.  She says this in the hopeful knowledge that, when the wild geese fly north in the spring, Dan Barry will follow them back to her.

That’s the kind of close that feels right at the end of a good western--a close that remains open.  Our hero riding off into the sunset, and with him rides the possibility of a sunrise when he may someday ride back. 

One of the most famous instances of this is at the end of SHANE.  Meir’s favorite western; his mother’s favorite movie.  1952.  Directed by George Stevens.  Jean Arthur; Alan Ladd; and Brandon deWilde.  If you haven’t seen it, you should. And I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that, in the end, the wounded hero who has just killed the bad guy rides off into the mountains, because he is what he is--he’s a gunfighter--and all good gunfighters are like Moses--they can get you through the desert, but they are not permitted to cross that river into the Promised Land.  Like a good teacher, their job is to get you to where they are not needed anymore.  Because it’s the gunfighter’s job to make sure that there are no more guns in the valley. 

So Shane rides away, wounded.  That ride is open-ended--we’re never told what happens to him--so what we think happens next is not just a window into his story, but ours.  In other words, if you choose to look at the end of this movie as a touchstone--and I know Meir did--then there are only two kinds of people in the world.  The ones who think Shane dies at the end, and the ones who are dead certain that he lives. 

Meir was unapologetically part of that second group.  He had no use for despair, no time for cynicism, and no patience for people who thought that moaning was a form of music.  I keep thinking of the line that gets repeated over and over again in John Ford’s RIO GRANDE: “Get it done.”  “Get it done, Johnny Reb.”  “Get it done.”  That’s what Meir did.  He got it done.  He was a man for whom the work was its own reward.  The care and pride he took in casting the absolutely perfect actor for a play or a story reading was like a jeweler’s pride in matching a diamond with the perfect setting.

No surprise there.  As Meir once said about his father, he loved writers and he loved talent, and he lived for what he loved.  As Meir once said about his father, he did not want to be emulated; he wanted to inspire.  And as Meir once said about his father: now, we must live in a world where his absence is a constantly illuminating presence.  Where what happens next is not just a window into his story, but ours.

Life is a coincidence of travelers.  A bond can be created from a glance.  Chance meetings can turn into lifelong friendships.  Far too often, you go through your day, and in the back of your mind is a voice which asks, “Am I really the only one who thinks this?  Am I really the only one who feels this?  Am I really the only one who likes this?”

And then somebody rides into your life like Meir--a man who gives you permission to be yourself--a man who answers all those inner questions not by saying you aren’t alone anymore, but by saying you never were.   Which is why, for me, meeting Meir Ribalow was the equivalent of Robinson Crusoe finding Friday’s footprint in the sand.  It was the day my desert island became a community.  Of which he was the one and only mayor.   

He was an amazing friend to me.  When my brother died two years ago, Meir called me constantly; and if he didn’t hear from me for more than three days, I’d get out of work and there’d be a message from him on my phone.  “Just calling to see how you’re doing,” he’d say, or, “Give me a call when you get a chance; I want to run something by you.”  And then we’d talk for the next thirty hours.  Quite a gift, when you remember that this is a man who had more than a few issues of his own to deal with on a daily basis. 

That’s the Meir I’ll never forget.  The man who was the western hero of his own life--especially at the close. I hope he thought I was as good a friend.  He was--he was and is--my non-blood brother.  I loved the man this side idolatry.  I still do.  And in that, too, I am not alone.  Because like Shane, Meir didn’t just ride off into the sunset.  He rode off into us.

So all that, and more, is why, on the morning after Meir followed the wild geese south, I sat down with my notebook in the Dunkin’ Donuts at the corner of 20th Street and 3rd Avenue, and I wrote the following sonnet.  I changed a couple of words on the ride over to the burial service, and when the time came to say my farewells, I read it over his grave.

It’s time to say farewell again, so here it is.  It’s called Ride Away.   

Ride Away

I saw his Stetson first, as he rode up.
   He grinned at me as if he’d found the Grail.
When we made camp, he offered me a cup,
   And, for a while, we shared a common trail.
He had a hunger only hard work fed.
   He’d ramrod someone’s ranch, get it to thrive,
Then quit and move on--like he always said,
   “It’s not about the cattle--it’s the drive.”
A river to his people, he would fight
   For others with a passion uncontrolled.
And when he rode west, hunched against the night
   Like Shane before the final credits rolled,
      He called out, as he crossed that river wide:
      “I’ll see you, Pilgrim, on the other side.”

Copyright 2012 Matthew J Wells