World War II veteran, landscaper, plant collector, family man, flea-market picker, and swing dancer who dazzled the club-goers of State Street into his 90th year, Gilbert Ramirez was many things to many people. To me, he was my neighbor and good friend.
In the four short years we knew each other, he came to serve as a hybrid between grandfather, with bits of wisdom hidden in his many stories, and drinking buddy, whose camaraderie brought bits of sunshine whenever he’d show up. He died while still full of life at age 90 last month after being hit by a car on State Street, on the way to another night of dancing at The James Joyce.
I first met Gil on the Saturday before Mother’s Day in 2014. I’d started seeing his occasional “Cycad Sale” signs when we moved into the Patterson Avenue neighborhood the summer before. Needing a last-minute gift, I stopped by with my son, then just 4 years old.
Within minutes, I could tell this was a special man — an expert in plants, kindhearted to my son, curious about our lives, and quick with generosity. My small purchases grew exponentially into a wagonload by the time we left, and Gil even volunteered to plant them for me. Two days later, his sturdy, suntanned octogenarian frame was hunched in my yard, unloading large sandstone boulders and putting various cacti, succulents, and cycads into the earth. It was quickly clear to me how this older gentleman remained so fit, and I hadn’t even heard about the dancing yet.
I sensed a bartering opportunity and asked Gil if he liked wine; as a wine critic, I have a constant supply of open bottles, with just a few sips missing. He did, and soon he was coming over at a weekly clip with his homemade spicy salsa, avocados, oranges, lemons, limes, persimmons, and other produce he’d gathered that day. He’d settle in for a taste or two of wine, then leave with a handful of bottles.
Over time, the gifts became more personalized: polished stone cuttings, ponytail palms, fossilized oyster shells, and even a dart blowgun from Papua New Guinea for the kids; bizarre succulents, rare cycads, and even a pomegranate tree for me. (He recently planted his own pomegranate, assured that it would lengthen his life — a trait that he also credited to his salsa, which he called “chili.”)
We’d talk about the hot, boring days onboard a military ship during the war; about his many friends around town, from large landowners and inventors to flea-market regulars and dancing partners; and about what Santa Barbara was like as he grew up, including the 60 years of life he shared with his wife, Carmen, who passed away in 2016. Occasionally he arrived on an inconvenient night or perhaps lingered too long, but he was the type of guy who understood other people’s lives and would soon take off. Mostly, he brightened our lives.
We often talked of his nightlife exploits, of starting off at The James Joyce, hitting The Red Piano, and then spinning into the wee hours at the Wildcat Lounge. He danced with women from all over the world, many barely a third his age. I loved relaying his dancing ways to everyone who met Gil, and he’d smile broadly with a twinkle in his eye to confirm as much, proud to be overcoming the supposed effects of age.
A regular at any party we threw, Gil would be soon be awash in conversation with any of our friends, who soon found they had a new friend. So many were stunned and saddened to hear of his death. His influence as a lover of life was large, even to people who’d just met him briefly.
We were devastated by the early Sunday morning phone calls about the death of this man so full of joie de vivre. And though they were the same age, I shed more tears over Gil than I did my own grandfather, who’d grown tired of life. Gil had way more time to go. Indeed, when I saw the news that an “elderly man” had been struck on State Street, I never considered it could be Gil; Gil was not “elderly.” Said one of my friends who knew him, “I guess that might be the only way to go for people like that — otherwise, they’ll just go on forever.”
That wouldn’t have been so bad in Gil’s case. I deeply regret never having made it down to State Street to see him in action, or going to the flea market with him to scour for deals, or watching him roast jalapeños to make his salsa. There seemed much more time left to do those things.
Upon his death, I was very humbled and moved to hear from his son, Armando, who is also my neighbor, and his granddaughter, Anissa, who lived with him in recent years, how much my family meant to Gil, how much he talked of our visits and my kids. He meant a lot to my wife and me in our middle age and to my children in their earliest of years. Gil will not be forgotten.
And he shouldn’t be, because he leaves us with valuable lessons: Stay active under the sun during the day, dance with style and a smile when the moon comes out, and eat hot salsa with abandon. Perhaps best of all: It’s never too late to make new friends.