Curtain Call

Denver mourns the loss of its favorite bipolar, one-armed comic/poet/playwright.

Denise Johnson met Don at a yoga class nearly eighteen years ago. A week later, she saw the one-armed man again at a garden party hosted by their instructor.

He was acting strange.

"He started chewing up food and then putting it on his plate," she says. "Then he would spit it out and put it on my plate. At some point he got up and went into the bathroom and started running a bath, and then suddenly he streaked out of the bathroom naked. I was laughing because I thought it was some sort of comedy routine or something. I didn't recognize it then, but I learned later he was going through a psychotic episode. Later that night, he tried to stab his eyes out with a screwdriver."

Portrait of the artist as a high-school graduate (above); a more recent photo of Don Becker.
Portrait of the artist as a high-school graduate (above); a more recent photo of Don Becker.
Don Becker lost his hand in 1986.
Don Becker lost his hand in 1986.

Details

To watch a video of Don Becker on stage, click here.

Such an initial impression might be off-putting to some, but Denise was intrigued. "I was just fascinated by him, really," she says. "How he could harm himself like he did. How he could be so creative. I've always looked to the light, and he seemed to find his creativity in darker places. But I never worried about my safety or anything with Don."

The next time she met Don was in the lockdown ward of Denver General Hospital (now Denver Health), after he'd stopped taking his medication. It was the only time Johnson, who became friends with Don, can recall him doing so. There would be days when he'd forget to take the lithium, and he would call her when he was "feeling a little manic," as he would say, but Denise learned to recognize the warning signs: not bathing, not wearing socks, not shaving. During those times, she would try to help him out of the valleys he was in, to talk him off the ledge, so to speak. "It wasn't easy being Don, but I do think for the most part, he stayed on those meds," she says.

Friends of Don's agree that there were far more peaks than valleys in his life, and it was during those peaks that they all fell in love with his humor, forgave him for any slights or perceived meanness. He was just too clever to stay mad at for long.

Laura Baxendale was walking down Colfax with Don recently to pick up some beer when they encountered a homeless guy in a wheelchair. Don had a fresh haircut and was wearing a trenchcoat. He leaned in and whispered something into the homeless guy's ear — Baxendale didn't hear it — and all of a sudden the man gave Don $10.

"Don said, 'I can't take your money,'" Baxendale recalls. "And he handed it back. Then he said to me, 'I guess my new hipster look is really paying off.'"

Baxendale met Don through some mutual friends who had cast him in an independent film they'd made. Those friends shared a story about how they had taken him to a party on a Sunday, only to find that the host had neglected to buy any beer in advance. Don was so pissed that he raided the fridge and ate an entire pound of cheese. He wasn't even hungry. He was just angry that there was no beer, and the wholesale devouring of cheese seemed the only proper recourse.

But he was decidedly sweet, too. As Don said of himself in the documentary, "I hope I've become more compassionate. I was really an asshole. I mean I was really egotistical. And I still am an egotistical asshole, I want you to know that. But I'm a kinder, gentler egotistical asshole."

Particularly around children. One of Don's ex-girlfriends had a child, and Don fell in love with her, doted on her, made up stories for her.

Brent and Denise talk about how Don would come over to their suburban home for dinner and regale their children with wild, fascinating stories, the children wide-eyed and mesmerized by the one-armed storyteller in their living room. It gave him an outlet to unlock his goofy side, his softer side.

And he was always there to listen. "He was kind of like my therapist," Baxendale says. "I felt like I could open up and tell him anything, he had been through so much. If your best friend is the only person you feel free enough to say certain things to and the one person who is completely nonjudgmental of you, then Don was my best friend. In that case, I think he was the best friend of a lot of people."

Including women.

"He always had an amazing, eclectic group of women around him, usually younger," Swanson says. "In all the years I knew him, he really only had one steady girlfriend. I just don't think he wanted a relationship. He just wanted to be with someone on his own terms, and I respected that about him, because he was very honest about it."

But Don's real best friend — and most likely foe — was his work, his creative output. His mind was constantly working, and there was little rest. Even at laid-back dinner parties, he was always pacing, opening the refrigerator door again and again. For Don, there was always some project to be completed, polished, another on the horizon. He was working on a graphic novel with a friend titled The Hate Fairy. He kept up his occasional column, It's Always Something, which appeared in Life on Capitol Hill. And for the past three years straight, Don had been working furiously on his autobiography — the one he was sure would bring book persons to "the point of ventricular fibrillation."

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