After a Fashion

Stephen remembers his friend and mentor Joanie Whitebird.

IN MEMORIAM I hadn't spoken to her in a few years, and it had been much longer since I'd seen her, but recently, while searching the Internet, I found out that she died last summer. Joanie Whitebird was pretty well-known around Texas, for poetry and publishing, among other things. I was 15 and she was 22 when my dad introduced me to her in 1973 -- they knew each other through the Houston Poets' Guild, and my dad felt strongly about encouraging my writing, so I started hanging out with them, writing all kinds of lugubrious and tortured poetry to try and ease my teenage angst. The Guild met regularly at Anderson Fair in Houston, and I was pleased to be a part of it. But primarily, I was pleased to know Joanie, this strange, exotic creature, who, for the first time in my life, encouraged me to stretch my vision of myself, and see that I could be whatever I chose to be. It was an amazing revelation for a confused kid with no self-esteem. She divined that I had an interest in fashion, and began to let me select her clothes for important engagements. Joanie was tall, with a long shock of dark hair, dark burning eyes, and a strong persona that belied a certain gracelessness. She lived in blue jeans and work shirts back then (didn't we all?) but had a closet stuffed with great clothes that I insisted she wear. We traveled between medieval looks, Victorian looks, and other assorted vintage eras, raiding thrift stores as well as contemporary clothing stores, and for almost a year, I was in heaven with this woman who allowed me express my visions in clothing and poetry.

We took exotic drugs (opium, peyote, mescaline), and smoked pot like fiends (didn't we all?), marveling at the insights the drugs brought to us. Then, one night, tripping our brains out on mushrooms, it all seemed to fall apart. When I went home early in the morning and went to bed, my sleep was shattered by a phone call telling me my dad had committed suicide. Numb and uncomprehending, Joanie was the first person I called. She was magnificent, selflessly putting aside her own shock and grief and racing to my rescue and taking me into her home. Joanie gathered my dad's grieving friends around me, and we shared in the sadness and confusion that suicide causes. She drove me to the funeral in Port Arthur, and kept watch over me throughout the proceedings. I was devastated by the loss of my father, and barely made it through the rain-drenched affair. As soon as the service was over she rushed over to me, pressing something into my hand. When I looked to see what it was, the pale yellow Valium slipped between my fingers and into the grass and mud. I dove for it, desperately wanting some relief from my emotional agony, and popped the wet, muddy pill into my mouth, causing an unintentionally funny moment that was seen by many people. At the reception afterward, aunts and uncles were asking each other what would happen to me, and without a second thought, Joanie piped up and said, "He's coming to live with me." And so I did. Suddenly she was a 23-year-old woman with a 16-year-old son -- a son who needed a great deal of discipline and guidance. She was a mother to me when my own mother didn't want me, and I immediately became known as "Kid," or "the Child," and was Joanie's constant companion. I met an amazing assortment of people through her: Joseph Lomax, Michael Ventura, Judson Crews, and Vassar Miller, among others. She wrote fiction as well as poetry, she was the former owner of Wings Press, former curator of words for the Contemporary Arts Museum, founder of Southern Seed, and became known as the original Riot Grrrl of Texas poetry. But those were her professional achievements. Most importantly to me, she not only took me to see Diana Ross in Mahogany, but bought me my first sewing machine, sending me off on a tangent that has led me directly to where I am now. Though our lives veered away from each other and we grew distant, the things that Joanie did for me when I was such a mess were astonishingly selfless, and many of the qualities she encouraged have become part and parcel of my character. What an amazing gift -- one of many gifts that she gave to so many people. Rest in peace, dear Joanie.

MOMOKO FASHION SHOW This Saturday, July 28. Call 469-0232.

THIRD FIRST THURSDAY Coming Thursday, Aug. 2. You know the drill. Be there or be Cher.

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Joanie Whitebird, Texas poetry, publishing, Houston Poets' Guild, Joseph Lomax, Michael Ventura, Judson Crews, Vassar Miller, Wings Press, Contemporary Arts Museum, Southern Seed, Riot Grrrl of Texas poetry, Diana Ross, Mahogany, MOMOKO FASHION SHOWFIRST THURSDAY

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