Joe Speer (middle) on the roof of the La Posada Hotel in Albuquerque during taping of "The Three Body Problem" in 1991. Also shown is Chuck Reuben and Kira Sipler.
Adios, Joe Speer
Your ashes were buried during a memorial service that took place on Tuesday, July 9, 2013.
But you passed away on January 11, 2011. It takes forever to get anything done in New Mexico and your interment was no exception.
Your spirit became deeply fixed in our hearts by the time the service actually did arrive, so maybe the delay was a good thing. You were, after all, not one to rush things and it gave us more time to ponder your 62-year-life, your poetry and your prose.
Pamela Hirst, your soul mate and life partner, delivered an inspiring funeral oration that would have made you proud:
The memorial service was announced in the local papers and attended by poets, artists, politicians, holy men, friends and family. “Por Siempre Adios” (Goodbye Forever) was sung at your graveside and your friends recited a wealth of poetry.
A reporter from National Public Radio was also there to record this extraordinary event. Carrie Jung, a freelancer from KUNM radio wrote a great story that was broadcast on NPR:
(Please click this sentence if you cannot see the embedded Adobe Flash Player box that should appear directly below these words.)
You were buried in one of the most historic places in Albuquerque, Joe. It might have not been the fanciest place on earth but for those of us with an appreciation for New Mexico’s past it was one of the best.
The Evangelico Cemetery is located on one acre of sandy soil that lies within the old Atrisco Land Grant of 1692, known to the locals as the merced.
The Atrisco Land Grant is part of an enormous piece of ground that was “claimed” by Don Juan de Oñate, the Conquistador, in 1595. When Oñate wasn’t claiming land for Spain, he was busy converting the natives to Roman Catholicism and creating new missions.
The Evangelico Cemetery lies along the historic El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. This “Royal Road of the Interior Land” was once a 1,600 mile-long trade route that ran between Mexico City and San Juan Pueblo in New Mexico. One could compare it to the legendary Silk Road of the Han Dynasty.
I had to get to the cemetery by city bus, my car having nearly blown up the day before after the gas line on my ’84 Volvo burst, leaving me without transportation and my neighborhood reeking of spilt gasoline. I was one spark away from buying the farm, Joe. Firemen doused the underbelly of my car with foam as a passage from your book, Backpack Trekker: A 60’s Flashback, raced through my mind. “Cars kill people every day,” you wrote. “There should be a warning with every bill of sale: ‘Caution, driving this machine may cause severe injury or death.’”
So I climbed on a crowded westbound Central Avenue bus that took me to Coors Blvd and then I jumped onto an empty, southbound #155 bus. I was driven way into the outskirts of town and got off at Blake Rd., only a few blocks east of the cemetery. The streets of the South Valley were covered with freshly plowed sand, this part of town having been pulverized by a summer monsoon the night before.
The Evangelico Cemetery is located deep in Albuquerque’s south valley. A cinderblock wall marks the boundaries of a desolate graveyard built in the late 1800s. The surface of its eastern-facing wall is adorned with a mural depicting a Jewish Star, Santos and other religious symbols.
The other three walls were decorated with a mural whose paint was so fresh I could smell its pungent solvents. I entered beneath a delicate cast iron arch that displayed the cemetery’s name in an elegant, Western typeface.
Juan Arzola painted part of that vast mural and I’m told he did the work for free. Juan is in charge of security for the cemetery. He also works at the downtown mission and paints murals all over town. Juan covered those dull cinderblocks with a vibrant-colored rainbow and flowers.
I approached three high school boys who were making the final touches on a grave that they had been busy digging in the soft sand. Those kids took pride in their work and the sides of the grave were straight and true. You would have liked them because they were kind and gentle spirits. They took pains to be sure that the bottom of the grave was dry after the horrendous storm of the day before.
According to the Atrisco Heritage Foundation’s website there are about 50 people buried in the Evangelico cemetery but that population must have quintupled since, two years ago, its owners, El Campo Santo, agreed to allow the county to bury its indigents here.
Bernalillo County provides a free burial and ceremony for those who cannot afford such an expense. “Bernalillo County respects each individual in the community and will treat all with maximum regard and dignity,” is written in the handsome booklet listing the deceased, handed to us as we took our places beneath the tent beside your grave.
Your ashes arrived in a shiny black hearse along with 89 of your fellow brothers and sisters. The cremains of each person weighed about five pounds and were wrapped in clearly-labeled heavy-duty plastic bags.
I helped Charlie Finnegan, the owner and funeral director of Riverside Funeral Home, transfer those bags of cremains from the back of the hearse into a handsome, silver metal coffer. By the time we were done it was half full of bags and that casket must have weighed over 500 pounds!
Much to my surprise, the cremains didn’t really look like ashes nor did they look at all gruesome: They looked more like the remarkable, coarse and ground-up, off-white gravel that make up the Sandia Mountains. The casket itself reminded me of a treasure chest or a space ship and it was a singular experience to gaze inside of it. Deacon Pablo Lefebre said it best: “I have buried them from fetuses to 100 plus but I have never done this.”
I had the honor of being a pallbearer and helped carry the coffin from the hearse onto the casket-lowering device which was surrounded by beautiful, fresh funeral wreaths.
The audience arrived about 20 minutes prior to a service that began at 11 a.m. I mingled with 40 well-wishers, poets, artists, politicians and dignitaries. I saw Janice, an old girlfriend I hadn’t seen in decades and I enjoyed talking to her about old times and how she happened to know you.
After the politicians, priests, poets and well-wishers had their say, that metal casket, containing all those bags of ash was slowly lowered into the ground. Many of us then approached the hole and, scooping up a handful of sand, threw it upon its lid and said our last goodbyes. Then the high school boys took up their shovels and filled in that hole.
Anita Lucero, the manager of Evangelico Cemetery told me afterwards, “We are so blessed to have the indigent angels of the community in our cemetery. When Bernalillo called us to have the indigents buried there, we were very happy to welcome them to our little El Campo Santo.”
Anita told me how they go to great pains to brighten up the place during the holidays. “We put up luminarios and we’ll be having our third annual Dia de los Muertos soon!”
“We serve a lot of the low-income community in Bernalillo county,” she continued. “We service families who have car washes to pay for our services, but mainly we serve families who cannot afford to get buried.”
Over your grave is a handsome engraved stone that reads:
“We grow afraid of what we might forget. We will find peace and value through community in knowing that we belong to each other — Dedicated to the Citizens of Bernalillo County, 2012)"
I don’t know why you took a liking to me, Joe, but I’m glad that you did. You took my poetry seriously and you made a point to make my acquaintance after I published my one and only chapbook, Tar Beach and Beyond. That gesture of kindness marked the beginning of a 25-year friendship.
You were an accomplished videographer and I enjoyed working on several projects with you. “My videos are sold on the international black market of dreams,” you once said. I particularly liked our 1991 collaboration on “The Three Body Problem,” a play I wrote and you directed at the old La Posada Hotel starring Kira Sipler, with sound by Don Sherry and video by Reinhard Vogel.
I also enjoyed our work on a documentary about the Old Albuquerque High School. Sure, they were amateur efforts but we had so much fun and you helped to soothe an aching ego which was steadily coming to terms with its mediocrity. After you filmed and edited your work, you made certain your videos aired on Channel 27 and that made me feel like a real celebrity!
But I’m just one of the many people that you motivated and encouraged. You knew so many talented poets, musicians and writers, and your life and your spirit touched and helped to heal us. You were a bundle of energy contained within a slight, wiry frame, topped with wild and unruly hair and piercing eyes.
You were an accomplished publisher and a world traveler. “It was my will to travel,” you wrote in Backpack Trekker. “I wanted to saturate my consciousness with memory . . . I wanted to decamp daily and live outside the jurisdiction of authority. I wanted to breathe beyond the cycle of monthly payments . . .”
Your literary magazine, “Kameleon,” marked a milestone in the nascent “zine” scene and your Beatlicks newsletter made my day when it appeared in my mailbox on a regular basis. And to think Pamela and you published it out of your old Volkswagen van!
You promoted and distributed the works of poets who otherwise would probably not have seen the light of day. You did that with no expectation of any sort of return except for the satisfaction of seeing the glow on their faces when their writing finally reached a larger audience.
Which brings me to your own poetry: You were one of the best performing poets that I have ever met. Not only did you have a beautiful voice but your verse was pure, simple, upbeat and accessible. You had an outstanding command of the spoken word that was tempered with an acerbic, wry sense of humor and a gentle, underlying rhythm. You were a professional whose poems and stories were riveting and took me to places I had never been.
Your collaboration with Renaissance man Reinhard Vogel and the support of Lee Padilla at Sanctuary Sound on April 2010 gave birth to one of the most remarkable recordings ever made (a mere nine months before you succumbed to pancreatic cancer).
I simply cannot figure out why you never made the big time, Joe, but perhaps you were simply content with being under the radar.
You seemed to be content with what little you had. You and Pamela were minimalists who lived from hand to mouth. But you had each other and perhaps that’s all a person needs.
When you died there was no money for your funeral but, in the end, you managed to pull that off in style, too. It was one of the best ceremonies, ever. You had an audience at your burial and, as Pamela once said, you always loved an audience.
And I promise you that you will always have an audience here, in Chucksville.
Por Siempre Adios, Joe.
Your friend, Chuck
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