Remembering Clif Garboden

The life and times of an alternative-media true believer
By PHOENIX STAFF  |  March 4, 2011

Photo by Clif Garboden, courtesy of Jeffrey Melvin Hutchins

My long-time friend, Clif Garboden, has died.

When I met him I was a sophomore at Boston University, rooming by choice with a couple of soon-to-be-great photographers, Peter Simon and David Doubilet. Go ahead and Google them so you can be impressed by my ability to name-drop. Peter was working at the Boston University News. That was 1966, and the News was about to launch BU into the anti-war fray, making it the Berkeley of the East (or at least one of the schools to lay claim to that title). Clif was an incoming freshman, living in Myles Standish Hall a couple of floors below Peter and David and me. Myles, if you don't know, was made famous in its previous incarnation as a hotel; Arthur Miller used it as one of the venues for Death of a Salesman. If only it still had maid service and hookers.

At the end of my junior year I got my first apartment, on Arundel Street, just across the Mass Pike from the heart of BU. It was the first summer in my life that I did not return to the home of my parents. It was a momentous event in my life, and Clif was there. He was my first apartment-mate. He stayed only until the end of summer when my friend Richard Rydell moved in for the duration of our senior year. Sadly, immediately after graduation, "Duck" and I went our separate ways and have not communicated since. Was it my breath? Hey, Duck, if you read this, get in touch, huh?

For three months, Clif and I shared a bathroom and a life. I was working nights at the Cinema Kenmore Square nearby. Neither of us had a car at that point, so our range of motion was limited to where we could walk or go on the T.

Clif and his girlfriend (now wife of 41 years) Susannah Price, decided the apartment needed some sort of ritual purification. They decided upon hanging a bagel just inside and above the front door and calling it The Great God Bagel. It hardened completely within a few days, and then, in its petrified form, presided over our living room for the rest of the year. Most evil stayed away.

We hardy pioneers hit upon the brilliant idea of writing The Arundel Street Pact, in which we promised to meet at the front gates of Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, on a specific day many years hence. We produced several copies of this Pact, each with original signatures. My heirs will someday discover my copy.

We never did abide by the terms of the Arundel Street Pact, but it was, nevertheless, a sober and sincere contract. The biggest reason we did not do as the Pact commanded is that we remained in contact with each other as friends, and so did not feel the need to spend large amounts of unavailable money to go to Denmark to see each other.

Susannah, I should mention, was separately and independently in both Clif's life and mine. She attended the same high school as I, the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon. One year after I graduated, Susannah decided to attend BU. One day, Clif came back to Myles Standish Hall and said he had started dating a girl I knew. I was surprised to find out it was Susannah. They were married the same year they graduated from BU, soon after I had started dating my wife, Diane. The four of us became good friends, until fate -- and by "fate" I mean black flies -- intervened.

In Clif's extraordinary Checker car -- the same mammoth vehicle that used to clog the streets of New York City and nearly every other place with taxicabs -- we two couples drove north from Boston on a camping trip to Maine and New Brunswick, Canada. I should mention that I had only been camping once or twice before in my life, and that was in a desert. Diane had no camping experience at all. Above is a photograph Clif took during the trip, proving that not only were we once young and very hip, but also that Clif was as gifted a photographer as he was a writer, and I will be forever grateful that his wedding gift to Diane and me was to take our amazing wedding photos for free. Left to right is Diane, me, and Susannah.

Each night we slept somewhere different, as we slowly made our way up the Rocky Coast of Maine. Most nights, we pitched two tents in some rustic campground. As it grew dark and our campfire played out, we would all retire to our tents, soon to be the giggly recipients of a lights-out ceremonial rant by Clif. It was impossible to sleep until Clif had sanctioned and sanctified our rest. And in the morning, Clif would greet us all with confident instructions about what needed to be done next.

It was also on this trip that Diane and I learned -- and by "learned" I mean got embedded in our brains in ways that defy all efforts to eradicate -- songs that Clif had written, such as "Abolish New Jersey" and "Nuku Hiva."Witness:

We're going down to Nuku Hiva, pretty Nuku Hiva by the sea
Gonna take our dog and opera diva, down to Nuku Hiva you and me
When we get there, we'll never leave her
'Cause everything in Nuku Hiva's free
Oh we'll all jump for joy when they serve the poi-poi
Wrap ourselves in tapa 'neath the breadfruit tree
We're going down to Nuku Hiva, pretty Nuku Hiva by the sea

It might have been the greatest adventure of my life, except it turned out to be the height of black-fly season in Maine and New Brunswick. I am a bugaphobe. I don't care if there's a more accepted term for it, that's what I was. Still am. I hate bugs. I see no reason for them to exist, and please spare me any talk of ecosystems. Black flies, however, are not just bugs. They are superbugs, impervious to pain or any reasonable attempt to exterminate them.

They do not shoo.
They will not die.
They made Clif itch.
They made me cry.

I would not allow Clif to drive the Enterprise, as the Checker was named, until I had at least maimed every black fly that followed us into its cavernous rear compartment. (My only disappointment: that the car did not have the fold-down rear-facing seats of New York cabs.) It became a daily passion play in which I played the part of Jesus being tortured and scourged, and Clif played every other role, particularly the angry villagers taunting Jesus and generally being unhappy with him.

To set the record straight, the fault was entirely mine. Clif was right to sneer at and mock my infantile behavior. Fortunately, Diane had already married me, so at least she was under contract and had to stay with me.

We had many wonderful experiences after that, not the least of which was the Hunyah Softball League that we cofounded with the Bertonis and others, but I can't shake the feeling that Clif never saw me in the same bug-free light again.

When I think of those days, I remember his inspired-if-off-pitch singing, his tent-side chats, his intrepid driving, his lanky contaminated-banks-of-the-Allegheny frame sitting uncomfortably atop a New Brunswick mare named Sunshine or something just as uninspired, and his round-third-base-look-out-Mama-I'm-coming-into-home fortitude.

As the years went by, Clif mastered the great skill he had always possessed: to make crankiness seem inspired by the gods. (Pithiest evidence of Clif's outlook: the sign outside his darkroom that said, "Stupid people should be killed.") He actually became a professional crank, and found he had the gift of leading others to these scorched-green pastures. A lot of writers have been inspired by Clif. A lot of alternative weeklies have benefited from his wisdom. I suspect he also pissed off or turned off a few folks along the way, but the only one I remember vividly was Susannah's mother's friend, a man who insisted the Vietnam War was a Good War, and that those of us who opposed the war hated America and should leave permanently. I've always liked to think that he died a slow, painful death. Susannah, please don't tell me the truth.

In 1980, Diane and I moved from the Boston area to Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. Later, we moved to Pittsburgh, near where Clif grew up. We kept in touch with Clif and Susannah, trying our best to do more than rely on an annual card or letter at Christmas, but finding that geographical distance really is an effective barrier to emotional closeness.

Clif and Susannah came to our daughter's wedding, and we have helped them and their kids celebrate a few milestones, but the years and distance have taken their toll. Still, we always assumed that if we needed them, Clif and Susannah would be there for us. We figure they assume the same of Diane and me.

When Clif got cancer a few years ago, it jolted us awake. We made extra efforts to see them, and only recently began to relax, as Clif seemed to be gaining strength and building a reserve to carry him forward for decades. His death hurts a lot. I was hoping I wouldn't have to live one day on this planet without Clif Garboden on it. Tivoli Gardens just won't be the same.

Garboden and Jeff Hutchins 2010_480
The author (right) with Clif Garboden, April 2010. 

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