I post this today in memory of one of my dearest friends, a man whose spirit and influence were so immense that they tended to obscure the very real demons he struggled with day to day. I met him in 1977, in the gym at Columbia University, where he tore around the 1/8 mile indoor track, in a beige cotton turtleneck and decidedly un-au-courant running shoes, as if fleeing from those demons. Other runners, fast runners, many of them twice Gary’s size, got out of his way. He’d been an undergraduate at the College, a philosophy major. Now he was an actor, and like so many artists in NYC, he worked whatever jobs he had to as he pursued his art. He was immensely talented, but tormented, gifted but burdened, and he came from a background that placed effort over expression, work over play, obligation over imagination. Every moment he took practicing guitar or memorizing Blake (he introduced me, through spontaneous recitation, to “What is the Price of Experience?”) must have been accompanied by self-doubt, by the question: what can I be doing for others right now, what tangible sacrifice should I be making? He got me my first job in NYC, working on moving trucks with other students, writers, actors, painters, musicians, drunks, addicts, scholars, and assorted scroungers of the NYC margins. Pound for pound, Gary was probably the strongest human I’ve ever met. He carried more weight—more book boxes!—on his unbreakable back than animals double his weight. In my mind’s eye, I see him bent at the waist ascending the staircase of some Lower East Side walk-up, with his fists gripping the ends of the burlap strap circling a stack of a half-dozen or more book boxes. In the summer, when we wore shorts to work, you could see the veins swelling in his calves, step by step, as he marched up the flights. And while you were still marveling at the will and the strength of his struggle, he’d be back down the flights with his strap at the truck, setting up another stack and saying he could probably take one, maybe two more boxes. His last couple of decades haven’t been easy, but he found a measure of joy, a measure of lightness, in the two brightest angels of his life, his beautiful and equally gifted wife and daughter, Christine and Clementine. Without them, he’d have had no reason to keep marching up flights. All of us who knew him and were touched by him--and you couldn't know him without being touched--are heartbroken at the news of his passing. I loved him like a brother. For me, he'll never stop being a guiding light.
A while ago, I wrote a story that was based on a story he told me--something that had happened to him in a counseling session with a psychoanalyst he really loved. It appears in my short story collection, the link to its original online publication appears to be down. I post it here in its entirety.
Rest in peace, Gary McCleery. You've left an enormous mark, and an enormous hole that we have to get busy trying to fill, the way you would.
The Motive for Metaphor
What happened that day in his therapist’s office still surprised Maris years later, years after he’d left therapy, years after his therapist had died.
Theo—he was on a first name basis with this therapist—Theo had asked him to bring a poem into a session, a poem he might want to talk about, a poem that, for some reason, it didn’t have to be clear, did something for him, “made him feel exposed” was how Theo put it, “made him feel wide open.” Maris brought two copies of Wallace Stevens’s “The Motive for Metaphor.” He’d expected to deconstruct it, like in a graduate school seminar, parse its lines, uncover its influences, expose its codes. Theo declined his copy, and asked instead for Maris to read the poem aloud.
Maris hesitated. “I’ll feel like I’m at an audition,” he said.
“It’s OK,” Theo told him. “You already have the part.”
This was New York, Theo worked with numerous actors, he knew all about audition anxiety.
Maris took a breath. He set his elbows on his knees.
“You like it under the trees in autumn,” he began, and already he could feel something happening, his throat thickening, his pulse hammering. “Because everything is half dead.” There he came to a stop—he could hardly breathe.
“I can’t,” he told Theo. His hands shook.
“It’s OK,” Theo assured him, “it’s OK. Now continue, please.”
And Maris tried. But something had a hold of him. It quickened, then robbed, his breath. He got through the first verse, he began the second.
“You were happy in spring,” he read, “With the half colors of quarter-things.”
And at “quarter-things” he stopped, at “quarter-things” it was as if he’d been slugged in the gut, in the solar plexus, and he doubled over in sobs that wracked his body, sobs he couldn’t control, that frightened him in their depth, that took his breath the way a sudden and long fall can, and you wonder not when you’ll get it back but if. And when it returns it’s a huge insucking gasp and you explode in sobs even more convulsively, even though you know that the sobs are sucking the water from the shoreline, as it were, the way a tsunami drains a bay.
He saw Theo twice more after that, they never made any sense of the incident, at least not to Maris’s satisfaction. Then Maris left the country to make a film, his first shoot abroad, in Laos, a low-budget indie feature directed by a woman with a reputation in the margins of the business and a star who’d once actually been a star. He was gone longer than he’d expected—the shoot was a nightmare of mishaps that prolonged everyone’s stay well beyond their visas’ allowance. When finally they wrapped, Maris decided to travel, first into Cambodia, then Thailand. He’d left half his luggage behind in Vientiane, he couldn’t go back for it, it felt like he’d left half his life. It didn’t feel bad to lose half his life. He felt both lighter and nearer to destitute.
Half his travel involved laundromats, or washerwomen beating his clothes. He started drinking again, beer at first, then local rice and palm wines as he sat on crates in a wife-beater, watching women with weathered skin wring out his soiled shirts. The wines aggravated his ulcer. One night in Bangkok, he helped a Swedish student who was getting mugged on a dark avenue alongside Lumpini Park. He traveled with her by train to Chiang Mai. They waited a week for visas to China. Her family was wealthy, she paid for everything, out of gratitude, she said. The Thai people were accustomed to seeing women like the Swedish student. But the Chinese stared at her as if they were seeing a vision, a visitation, a miracle. Some nights in bed, Maris looked at her that way, too—the length of her, the yellow radiance—in disbelief. He’d reached a point in his deterioration—a hardening of the destitution he’d cultivated for two decades—that elicited sympathy from beautiful young women. They found him intriguing, romantic, woebegone. He was a cross between Tom Waits and Gary Cooper. Since leaving America, he’d punched two new holes in his belt, and still his trousers sagged.
He spent his first two weeks back in New York staring at the phone. He’d wanted to call Theo to say, let’s just have coffee or something, he’d wanted to say he was fine, that he was beyond therapy. But he knew he wasn’t, even if he didn’t know why. It wasn’t as if he heard voices, or stared into the void, say, of his refrigerator, which he used as shelving for scripts. It was just this gnawing anxiety, and the burning of his ulcer that kept him always within ninety seconds of a toilet. It was autumn, everything half-dead. He received a card from the Swedish student. She wrote of rhapsodies under the stars that night on the Yellow Mountain, he had to struggle to come up with her name. She’d become a quarter-thing.
When at last he called, he was told of Theo’s passing.
“Of AIDS?” Maris repeated, stunned.
“Complications similar to,” the receptionist said, “but no one knows…”
Maris said, “Theo was gay?”
But he hung up even as the receptionist explained something that he couldn’t hear.
It was immaterial. It was all immaterial.
He took a job as an understudy in an O’Neill play. He could always rely on something drunken or Irish. He renewed his guitar playing, restored the calluses on his fingertips. He thought about how much he’d loved Theo, how Theo had saved his life without writing a single prescription. He wondered what it meant to love a man so much. And was it reciprocated? Theo was actually younger than Maris by about three years—he found that out after Theo’s passing. All along he’d thought Theo was at least ten years older. Choices can age you, Maris thought. Choices and responsibilities, two things Maris had scrupulously avoided.
One day he was playing guitar on a bench in Tompkins Square Park. “Rex’s Blues.” A red-haired woman approached him.
“That’s Townes Van Zandt you’re playing, isn’t it?”
She had an Irish accent.
Six weeks later he moved to Los Angeles where the red-haired woman belonged to a repertory company that welcomed Maris. The New York edge, they told him, that’s what they’d been missing. Maris told them he was from Montana, which was half true, but he didn’t remember which half. You reach an age, he told them, when the lies become the truth and the truth, it never mattered anyway, at least not as much as you thought it did.
Unofficially, he became the company’s artistic director. The young actors wanted to know what he knew, which, they believed, was quite a lot. He told them about “The Motive for Metaphor,” and on the basis of his story, the company scribe wrote up a one-act with the same title. It ran for six weeks to capacity houses and critical acclaim. Maris directed himself. One night, he saw the Swedish student in the audience. On another, he could have sworn he saw Theo. He remained in character until he believed he didn’t have another tear left in him for as long as he’d live.
12/6/2021 03:52:15 pm
Oh Tim, So beautiful the way you captured your friend in your eulogy and the introduced him to us in your story. What a complex guy, driven conflicted, 1/2 here and half there ...1/4 dead while so alive and now, sadly, wholly so. You made that therapist love-able too. " It's ok, you already got the part"... I could see them all and feel them too. love your stories and the way you write them!
1/13/2022 08:39:01 pm
Tim-For whatever reason I looked up Gary this week and found your post and the WSJ article. I couldn’t believe it. Your thoughts are amazing and bring back powerful memories- of the moving days—-what an apt description of Gary. I wept at the memory. And I wept with regret that after considering it several times over the years I never reached out to him. Gary and I were very close once in those early 80’s. I admired him much but he wasn’t about being admired. He had a profound impact on me and was hugely generous to me. I never laughed harder than when we cavorted together. Then I pushed him away. It was like my personality was so depleted from life that his powerful presence was too much for me then. I had to find my way and thought I had to do it without him. He was respectful to me even then. I have a hunch he may have talked to you about it. I am so sad that I never called and told him and told him what a rich and beautiful soul he was. I am full of regret and sorrow. I was deeply moved by your writing and hope you don’t mind me connecting. He was a beautiful Irish tiger with more richness and expression than most of us encounter in this life. As you say he fought through his inner torture —-harassing demons that he would never surrender to and we were all the richer for his life.
1/14/2022 10:59:26 am
Mike, wonderful to hear from you, circumstances notwithstanding. Are you on FB? If so, message me (https://www.facebook.com/tim.tomlinson/) w/contact info and let's get in touch. If not on FB, my e-mail is email@example.com. Would love to chat further, fill in the years. Your comment is moving. It reinforces what I suggest about Gary's power, his influence, and the great loss that his passing represents. I don't recall him discussing you with anything other than great fondness, respect, and admiration. We both missed you. My recollection of our last encounter: you showed me how to get a gutter in the knot of my tie. (Can't imagine what I was doing in a tie back then.) Recall your tutelage anytime I knot one now. Hope you're well, and look forward to hearing from you.
1/14/2022 02:33:22 pm
Ha--you were worthy of a tie back then. My Dad ( a great clothing man) taught me the subtle nuances of the Four-In-Hand Knot (with the gutter) which is what I must have taught you. He said it expressed a "relaxed coolness" (think James Bond--every one of which uses the "reverse" version of it), unlike the Windsor knot which my Dad abhorred--"used buy the guys who took themselves way too seriously", he would say. Who knew there was so much to say on the subject :).
5/13/2022 03:30:16 am
This is a terrific short story Tim. Your reference to Gary Cooper and Tom Waits are superb and very perceptive
5/14/2022 03:38:47 am
It's great that you referenced Gary Cooper in your story ... Gary was born in Great Falls MT. less than a 100 miles north of Helena where Cooper was born. And it was Gary who turned me on to Tom Waits ... Along with so many great musicians !!
8/29/2022 01:38:10 pm
Hello Mike, Christine has set a date for the celebration of Gary. Let me know if you can attend and I'll alert Christine. If you cannot, but would like to zoom in, I'll get you a link. Hope you're well, and hope to see you.
1/14/2022 01:03:27 pm
1/15/2022 12:05:46 pm
Martin, thanks for this rich, textured, wonderfully specific recollection. The shoes! Patricia Field's boutique--that's like the missing string on Keith Richards's guitars. No wonder I couldn't copy him, although I tried. I'm surprised to learn that you met Gary through Hard Choices. He had a way of making his friends seem like they shared long histories together. I remember Richard Manuel at the Lone Star, the sheer socks and the skeletal appearance. And I remember Manganero's, although I never did that run. Hilarious to picture Gary with six-footers on each shoulder. We're down in Brooklyn now. Once NYU resumes, I'll be in Manhattan at least twice a week (if I don't play zoom hooky). If you're around, I'd love to grab a coffee, share some stories. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. PS I know the Waylon, perhaps too well. My anthem/my theme song: "I've Been a Long Time Leaving (but I'll Be a Long Time Gone)."
1/15/2022 05:16:29 pm
"I've been a fool / I've been a fooooOOOOOOL/ forgiving you EACH time that you done me wrong/ I been a long time leaving gonna be a long time gone" Yep that too is in my decades long Waylon playlist. Thanks Tim. i feel some relief in being able to express my grief over his passing here on your page. In the frenzy to get info on Gary's passing my wife found this page. I'm glad she did.
5/11/2022 04:54:49 am
5/11/2022 05:04:24 am
Beautiful tribute Martin... Michael in LA... the 🔥 of Boomer's Story.... Gary would haved love your Tribute.
1/28/2022 11:05:42 pm
1/29/2022 10:12:53 am
Hello Elizabeth Logun, I am that Tim, and I remember that drive. Think we called you "Logun," which I must have assumed was your first name. Not sure if you accompanied us on the return. We stopped in Lowell, MA, Kerouac's hometown, for coffee and pie at a throwback diner on the main drag. I see us at a counter spinning on those great old circular seats, bent over pecan pie, and talking about some or all of the things you mention in your recollection above, which is filled with all things Gary: Stevens, theatre, Townes VZ and Steve Earle. Yes: his voice. His strength. His work ethic. I revere him in the way that you describe. The loss is terribly sad. Thanks for the memory.
1/29/2022 05:13:45 pm
Elizabeth I'm sure we never met but thank you for your remembrance. What I left out of my comment above was seeing Townes with Gary (and a couple of others I believe) at the Bottom Line? don't remember... but yes Gary turned me on to Townes. Also Steve Earle before he went into prison? In any event, any lover of Gary's is a soul mate of mine.
1/29/2022 05:21:40 pm
And one other thing. I have no memory of Gary being a fan of Lyle. But in any event, years later, on a film i did with Lyle, he mentioned the huge influence Townes had on him. And with him mentioning the man I was awakened to having seen him with Gary, with Gary having turned me on to him. I had forgotten.
5/11/2022 05:51:39 am
Thanks for this lovely tribute to Gary ! He would have been extremely moved Elizabeth
8/29/2022 01:37:17 pm
Hello Elizabeth, Christine has set a date for the celebration of Gary. Let me know if you can attend and I'll alert Christine. If you cannot, but would like to zoom in, I'll get you a link. Hope you're well, and hope to see you.
5/14/2022 05:59:45 pm
5/14/2022 07:45:33 pm
Hello Charlie, thanks for reaching out on what, of course, is a very sad occasion. I'm certain our paths crossed at least several times back in NYC with Gary at the intersection. You point out the kindness: absolutely. As if we all had needs, and he, none. And that never seemed put on or belabored. Regarding clothes and appearance: yes, absolutely. I can imagine your mother's shock. But he did cultivate a certain aesthetic, nevertheless. Martin, above, points out the shoes. Nobody else had them, except maybe Gene Vincent and he was already gone. And nobody else would have looked right in them, the way Gary did. And in all the time I knew him--all the time in NY, from 1978 until his move to the West Coast, I never saw him in a pair of jeans. He wouldn't wear them. Now and then, too, he'd turn up in a tie. No idea where he got it. It was straight as a belt, no angles, with a blunt tip, and it panels featured images that looked like they were out of the Book of Kells: horses and shields and lions ... These suited him perfectly. I referred to him as Sir Gawain. Despite the Irish blood, or maybe because of, there was something persuasively Arthurian about him. I loved him, and I can see from your not that you did, too. I don't know who couldn't or wouldn't. I hope you reach out to Christine--she'll be moved by your recollections, and she can tell you when a celebration of Gary's life will take place (some time in June, I believe). All best, Tim
5/15/2022 03:12:18 am
Hello Charles it's Mike Mc. in LA. A great post and good to see U are still here. Gary and I were never closer than on our Journey in Ireland. He loved U like a Brother so take good care of yourself Amigo
8/29/2022 01:36:36 pm
Hi Charlie, Christine has set a date for the celebration of Gary. Let me know if you can attend and I'll alert Christine. If you cannot, but would like to zoom in, I'll get you a link. Hope you're well, and hope to see you.
5/31/2022 02:27:10 pm
Tim, I’m stunned to learn that Gary is gone. I just heard the news and found your wonderful tribute to him. I haven’t seen him (or you) in years, but it is so easy to picture us all working the trucks at Graduate. Gary had such a huge life force in that compact body. His demons abounded, humiliating him, infuriating him, but he would not stay down. I can remember his hands so swollen, so trashed from punching the walls of the moving trucks. And looking so exhausted in the mornings you would have thought he’d gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson. Brilliant mind, kind and generous, passionate about art and literature, and so in love as we all were with the seedy side of life. In the late 70s, he and I lived in the same building on 47th St. in Hell’s Kitchen. Moved furniture together, took acting classes together, listened to music together, talked and laughed. Those were glory days, being with him as his career started to take off.
6/2/2022 07:49:59 am
Steve, a wonderful, evocative set of recollections. Gary sacrificed so much on a daily, on an hourly basis--so many pleasures that I think he believed could lead to habits or vices. But one perennial indulgence was that maple syrup. Of course, he didn't use it at home, unless he drank it out of the container--he didn't cook, and he probably didn't bring take-out or pre-made meals up to his crib, either. I don't know if he even boiled water. But on many occasions I'd see him with a flask, or some other container, of real maple syrup, which was not cheap, and yes, he'd set those pancakes swimming. That was such a peculiar, and charming, obsession. Punching the walls, too. You'd probably already set off to Santa Fe around the time when one of his punches damaged the center knuckle. It swelled to the size of a ping-pong ball, and then he managed (probably another punch) to slice that open, causing quite a delicate mess that lasted for weeks, because of course he refused to seek medical attention. I wrote a story that grew out of that incident, "Knuckles," and he claimed to admire it but I think somehow it hurt him, which of course hurts me. Anything I write about Gary, anything I say about him, comes out of a deep love and respect, and a deep sadness that he never achieved the kind of happiness, the kind of satisfaction that he deserved, and that we all hoped for him so much. The man was truly loved. What's remarkable about the accounts on this page is their consistency. You remember the maple syrup, Martin the rock 'n' roll shoes, me the veins in his legs, Charlie his bedraggled clothes, Elizabeth his Townes Van Zandt, but we all identify the same qualities, the same quality. He was the embodiment of an archetype. I wish I could have seen past that mythos and been a little more helpful with the struggle, but help was something else Gary eschewed. He gave so much, but he found it hard to receive. There's a celebration of his life planned for July 17, I think, hosted by Christine, his wife. Should be an in-person event in LA, and the Liberation Yoga studio, with zoom access. When I get exact details I'll pass them along. It would be wonderful to see you. The Graduate days, my god... Thanks for writing, Steve!
8/8/2022 01:46:29 pm
Tim, Thanks for your reflections on Gary. It is good to read everyone's experience, and what an impact he had on us all. I didn't know Gary much in NYC, but I admired him from afar and was very close with his good friend Chris Norris. When I was casting a film in Austin in 2008 I reached out to Gary thru Chris and Michael Hurley. Gary read with Bill Sage and Hurley sent me the tape. I then went to Liberation and sat on the floor and read with him. I really couldn't believe that we could be so fortunate to have Gary work with us, and it was an absolute joy.
8/9/2022 09:07:55 am
Dear Mike Dolan, a pleasure to hear from you, although, obviously, wish it could be due to different circumstances. Ah, Gary, yes: "kicks a lot of ass." I don't think he did much at less than 100% commitment. Sometimes he suspected he was under 100% committed, and that triggered the 100% guilt and self-recrimination, which I think always kicked in at 100%. He had a super-ego that just would not quit. In other people, that could be overbearing. With Gary, it was an inspiration. It was an odd experience, I think for many of us, to love him so deeply, and to feel such depth of friendship, at the same time that we revered him as a role model. We wanted (or at least I wanted) to live up to him, to his very high standards. I think you put it aptly: he was a pure artist. I thank you so much for sending the Vimeo link--I plan on watching right away. Gary sent me a link, years ago now, and it didn't work. I'm not sure if I ever told him, because he was sparse on communication and old-school on tech. Glad to see Bill Sage's name in your note. A lot of my time with Gary intersected with Bill, especially the days of hilarity and humiliation on the moving trucks. Many thanks for reaching out, for sharing these memories of Gary (which are magical: river swims at night in TX!), and I hope we remain in contact, and at some point connect. All best, Tim
8/9/2022 10:20:50 am
Example of 100% - Gabe and I had gotten to the riven earlier than Gary one night after shooting. The river was low due to the drought, but before Gabe and I could yell not to dive, Gary threw himself headfirst into the river. Gabe and I looked at each other, both imagining bad things, from the comic strip head stuck in the mud to worse, but after a good stretch he popped up and swam the river to where we were.
Lisa J Persky
11/14/2022 01:29:52 pm
11/15/2022 09:08:35 am
Hello Lisa, I thought about you while all this was unfolding. A shame we didn't reconnect in time for the memorial for Gary that Christine hosted in LA. Please do write whenever. You can reach me at email@example.com. In the meantime, I hope you're well and I look forward to an opportunity for further conversation. Many thanks for reaching out, Tim
11/24/2022 08:48:57 am
Beautiful post Lisa .... We met almost 30 yrs. At Gary's first place in LA..... and then just recently I saw U in a film -- online -- with Diane Gaidry , an X - Girl friend , who sadly is also gone... U're a remarkable Actress... stay healthy Lisa J..... Always love seeing U in the film Great Santini !! Stay healthy -- Michael in Studio City LA
Leave a Reply.