Russ Spencer’s apparent decision to take himself out two weeks ago calls to mind the old joke: Why did the chicken cross the road? Given the specifics of Russ’s death, this setup might not be precisely right. That’s because we still don’t know for certain whether Russ tried to walk across Highway 101 at two o’clock in the morning two Saturdays ago or whether he jumped off the Olive Mill overpass.
The secondhand smoke generated by any suicide is always thick for the victim-perpetrator’s friends and loved ones. But Russ, a onetime news reporter turned documentary filmmaker, was an exceptionally public person — shy and private as he undeniably was — and touched the lives of so many. Russ was a gifted writer, novelist, reporter, musician, surfer, yogi, spiritual explorer, and documentary filmmaker. He cared about a lot of things, but mostly it seemed to me he cared about creative souls struggling to find their voice. To that end, he was generous in a million ways large and small, sharing his skills, his contacts, and, most of all, his encouragement.
It’s been two weeks now, and people who cared for Russ are still bumping into walls and asking questions for which no words exist. For me, he is everywhere.
Last week, I called a city councilmember to discuss a recent vote. Russ, it turned out, had been the last person she dated before marrying her husband. That same day, I met a photographer friend for coffee. She, like thousands of others, had found herself stuck in the hours-long traffic jam Russ created as first responders sought to pick up his remains. She and Russ had once planned to drive to Temecula together to bear artistic witness to a trainful of Barnum & Bailey circus elephants as they trundled out en masse to get showered and scrubbed down for their next show. That trip, for whatever reason, never happened. Just moments prior, I’d run into Martha Sadler, another talented former Independent writer who had worked with Russ. She and Russ sang together in the same choir. He had a beautiful, powerful bass voice, she said. But in the past two weeks, she reported, Russ’s voice had disappeared. She asked him where it went. “I’m cold,” he told her. “But Russ,” she told him back, “it’s not cold out.”
That may be as good an explanation as we’re going to get.
Russ and I worked together at the News & Review and the Independent. I recruited him. Before, he’d worked for the Goleta Sun, where I’d forgotten he’d taken a swing — and missed — at that paper’s editor, then famous for his perpetual irascibility. Russ and I would become co-conspirators. To “conspire” means “to breathe together.” I would say Russ and I hyperventilated. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we cared even less. We worked our asses off. We partied. Together we were becoming who we later came to be. Russ had an absolutely wonderful laugh. A Russ Spencer laugh is like a three-act play. First his eyes would register total disbelief. Then they would register astonishment and then more skepticism. It was as if he were resisting. As understanding dawned, his whole face would light up. Then, he’d explode with a guffaw. You’d just told him a story. He’d just told you one back.
Russ was one of the world’s great listeners. When he asked how you were doing, he actually wanted to know. He made you feel like telling him. He’d show up in my life when times were hardest — unbidden — as if out of the blue. We’d have lunch. We’d talk. My life was better. As an interviewer, Russ never played the Grand Inquisitor. His trick was his curiosity, except, of course, it was no trick. On an animal level, people sensed this. One of my favorite Russ Spencer documentaries was of Willie and Gilbert Rodriguez, the father-son team of barbers at Willie’s Barber Shop, where I happen to get my hair cut. There are so many obvious and great ways to tell their story; Russ told the hardest. The film is a meditation on the cold and empty spaces that loom between fathers and sons and how Gilbert managed to navigate his to come to terms with Willie. The film, beautifully shot, shows these two cutting hair. Gilbert, at ease and candid, opens up to a remarkable degree. As a film, it’s delicate and powerful. Its intimacy catches you off guard. Only Russ Spencer could have made that film.
That documentary, like many Russ made, is steeped in a deep melancholy that, in retrospective, is disquieting. Russ always tended to blow hot and cold. One day, he’d be radiant and sweet; the next, fragile and prickly. His troubles, however, would prove more profound. About seven years ago, mold overtook Russ’s life. First it was in the walls of his downtown apartment. Then it took over his video equipment, his car, his clothes. Everything had to go. Russ was burning hot; you could smell the smoke. It got worse. There were conspiracies; people were out to get him. He was trapped in a scary place. Friends conspired to rescue Russ. Somehow, he got help. Somehow, it seemed to work. Russ would regain his footing. His laugh came back, too, though more guardedly.
People who talked to Russ during his last few weeks describe someone desperately afraid he was slipping back down that hole. Friends reached out. He apologized for being a bother. When I heard the news, I got mad. How could such a sensitive soul inflict such cruelty and brutality on himself? How could he make passing motorists unwilling accomplices in his obliteration?
He must have been really cold.
Like the chicken crossing the road, Russ did make it to the other side. When he got there, I hope he finally got warm.
A memorial service for Russ will be held at 10 a.m. on Sunday, April 14, at Hendry’s Beach.
Editor’s Note: The memorial service location has been changed to Hendry’s Beach. It was originally set for Leadbetter.