Farewell to a Kindred Spirit

Last week a friend of mine left this world, and we’re all poorer for it. If you knew Mary Schweitzer, chances are she impacted your life, and probably for the better. Like most iconoclasts, she left a lasting impression on everybody she met.
I don’t think Mary would want me carrying on and getting mushy and sad about her passing, so instead I’m going to talk about the impact she had on me as an artist and a person. Although she probably didn’t know it (and was probably just being herself), some of the things she said to me directly influenced the kind of weirdo author I am today.

I met Mary in the summer of 1994. I was working my first part-time job as a stock boy in this little gas station a few blocks from my childhood home. Nothing fancy, just one of those little places tucked a block off the main drag with a quartet of gas pumps out front, a couple aisles full of candy and essentials and crap, and enough cigarettes resupply a military battalion. The place all but hid another building – an auto repair place called MCM, from which one hot July afternoon emerged a bespectacled woman with crazy bright red hair, sweating and surly-looking. In she came to the gas station, where she proceeded to fill a giant cup with ice and pop from the fountain, and then leave without paying a cent. In, out, fill, bam, gone.

Naturally I told the boss, and was informed that Mary was the owner of the property the gas station sat upon, so free drinks for her and her husband were part of the gig. At an innocent 16, I was both impressed and a little scared that the boss’s boss’s landlord was regularly in and out of where I worked. It’s a little like having a corporate CEO working down the hall from your cubicle…but only a little.

See, Mary wasn’t the scary power-from-the-heights type. Hell, more often than not she didn’t exert any real stroke with the folks who did the daily grunt work at the store; she and Jimi collected their rent, made sure they could still move cars in and out of their shop, and (from my perspective at the time) that was pretty much it business-wise. Mary and I got to know each other in gradual little bits, here and there on days I worked, and we found we were both a little strange. We looked at the world from abnormal viewpoints, and although it would be years before I realized its significance, finding a kindred spirit was a big deal. I met a lot of weirdos working at that gas station, and I had fun with most of them in the moment, but as time went on, as I grew and moved on with my life, Mary and her son Adam were the only ones I’d continuously count as friends.

Fast forward 4½ years to Christmas season of 1998. I’m back from college – in fact I’m about to switch colleges and move back to my hometown. Mary and Jimi now own and operate both the gas station and auto repair joint behind it. I head over there to say hi to some of the people working there, and the first person I run into is Mary. We pass a couple minutes catching up, since we hadn’t connected in a few months, and the next thing I know she’s offering me a job.

Over the next two and a half years or so, I found myself in a job with the rare quality of fun. Working at MCM fell somewhere between the movie Clerks and a zany variety show like In Living Color or Key and Peele. For me, work also translated to a business opportunity for a creative-minded person like myself. See, at that point I’d been writing stories and novels for about 5 years. One day, I got the idea to perhaps sell one of my new stories to the people who came in for the gas and lottery and milk and smokes. I asked Mary if she minded, and artist that she was, she said yes. I put up a little sign and started talking myself up to anybody who would listen.

The damndest thing happened: I sold out of my first story! I charged a buck a copy, and just like a little spare change after a purchase going in a tip jar or a charity donation basket, more than fifty people bought a copy of a horror story about sex and role play gone over the edge. Without much effort, I had doubled my day’s pay – in cash, no less – while taking a step down the road to professional author-dom.

It felt so good I did it again a couple weeks later, with similar results and profits. By this time people were paying me compliments on my writing, pumping up a young writer’s ego, and with an atypical display of business acumen (for a 21 year-old), I funneled those profits back into the business when I completed work on my next novel the following summer. This allowed me to hire a printer to make actual paperback copies of said novel, which I then sold in Mary’s gas station. I made around $500 dabbling in proto-self-publishing, and that was just in my hometown, within the subset of folks who stopped into MCM for gas.

More importantly, I couldn’t have done it without Mary being who she was – an artist, a dreamer, and I daresay unusual. She was a creative functioning within the confines of the real world of jobs and bills and family and responsibilities; as a married father of two young boys, I often think back to the example Mary presented when my art-time is challenged by the demands of daily life. Not only did she create stuff, she nurtured those tendencies in others. In my case, her support and friendship helped me take a big step down the road of my own artistic dream. That, like Mary’s my-way personality, is something I’ll never forget. In this way I’ll honor her memory rather than mourn her loss. I’ll write, I’ll create, and I’ll make sure her belief in me meant something. One creative to another, that’s the best way I know to say goodbye.

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