Curtain Call

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"He was backstage," Louis Johnson remembers. "And I watched him pull this shit on three different people. He'd go up to someone and go, 'Thanks for doing this.' And then he'd put his arm with the hook up and go, 'Can you twist that hook down for me? It's loose and I can't really reach it.' Then he would scream like he was in serious pain, and whoever it was would jump back. He thought that was hilarious."

Don incorporated his arms into his routine, but it really didn't set him apart.

"The Denver comedy scene at that time included Chris Fonseca (cerebral palsy), Art Carlson (a dwarf) and Roger Rittenhouse (born without one arm)," recalls comedian George McClure. "While emceeing a gig one night that included all of those performers, Rittenhouse cracked, 'You know, folks, you'd usually have to be underneath a big top to see a show like this.'"

The laughter was there, but close friends say Don began to resent having to mention his arms and feared that people only viewed him as the mentally ill, one-armed comedian as opposed to just a comedian. He didn't want his mental or physical problems to define him, and although he continued to perform until 1992, hosting a radio talk show on KNUS from 1989 to 1990, Don eventually hung up his comedy hat.

With a creative fire still burning inside him, though, Don turned his attention to his lifetime hobby of writing poetry. In 1993, Hang Fire Press published a book of his poetry titled Three Sheriffs in Bethlehem; during that era, he became a fixture in Denver's burgeoning slam-poetry scene, performing at Muddy's, the Mercury Cafe and Penny Lane in Boulder, and finding receptive, appreciative audiences wherever he went.

"His shtick was between comedy and poetry," recalls Clarissa Pinkola Estés, also a poet in the scene at the time. "He used everything he had — his injuries, his demons, his great humor, his great writing — to create this crazy, mad poetry. One time we did a benefit together at the Bug. Don got up there, and every word was an F-word; he used it like people use the word 'the.' He definitely grabbed people's attention and held it."

In researchng this story, I read seven or eight of Don's poems. My favorite is titled "Sometimes Love Is a Class 4 Felony."

Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, and I really try

but there are still a few adversaries I would like to sodomize

with a claw hammer, and blind with knitting needles, and castrate them

and force them to eat their own testicles, and put M-80's in their assholes

and have them beg for mercy while I am torturing their loved ones

with a cattle prod.

I would, of course, never do this, and I try not to dwell on these

seemingly antisocial musings

But deep within me lurks a demented brute, so ugly that I can't

believe in a loving God, or personal redemption

Only my ugliness is real.

My damnation is certain.

The feeble urge towards goodness is merely the egotistical fear of my own face.

I learn to pull my own strings,

And smile,

And sympathize,

And comfort,

And console,

Because I'm trying to teach you that God has left us

and all we have is each other,

and maybe love is still possible,

but it would probably be better for both of us

if you don't piss me off.

"There's a membrane in the psyche between the conscious and unconscious," explains Pinkola Estés, who is also a psychoanalyst and author of the bestseller Women Who Run With the Wolves. "And people are sane when they stay on the conscious side of that membrane, but it's on the other side of the membrane, in the unconscious, where creativity comes from. Don spent so much of his time on that side — the dark side, the shadow, where the horrible and scary things come from. But that's also where all the gifts come from, and I think that's where Don lived."

In the documentary on his life, Don talks about the focus and exploration common in a great deal of his works. "A lot of people quit asking the fundamental questions of the day," he says. "Why do I suffer and die? What are my responsibilities to other people? What is truth? What is reality? And most people kind of go through that in their teens, their early twenties. They don't get the answers, so they either just stop asking them or they buy into a ready-made religion."

Don wasn't able to do that, and as he continued to grow as an artist, he continued to search. "He kind of tried different religions throughout the years," says his mother, noting that he was in a Unitarian youth group in high school. "He was in a Quaker group for a while, then he was into divine science. Then I think he went back and started going to a Unitarian church again there on Cap Hill. He may have gone to the Episcopal Church, too. He was always looking."

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Adam Cayton-Holland