Ode to Syd Bradford

Some time back I wrote about Syd, but I left out the most important parts: What I learned from him, and how I failed to be there for him when he could have used it most.

While I was arts editor at the Welcomat in Philly, a fusillade of absurdist letters ran in the Letters to the Editor column, coming from a person who, for whatever reason, called himself “Syd Endeavor.” What’s most unlikely about this moniker is that Dan Rottenberg, the paper’s overall editor, had a usually rigid prohibition against the use of pseudonyms. I don’t know if he knew Syd Endeavor from “real life” – I suspect so – but even so, I don’t understand why he suspended the prohibition in his case.

I also have no clear recollection how I first met Syd – real name Bradford – in the mid ’90s. Was it before or after I followed Dan as top editor at the Welco? Whenever it was, by then I knew who he was. No, let me amend that: I knew his true name, but I’m not sure anyone knew Syd the person.

My growing involvement with him had to do with a weird little print mag he edited that he called Schuylkill Scallywag. What did that rumbling, bumbling name mean to him? I think it signaled that it was off-beat, irreverent, skewering, but, most of all – that it was planned to be like no form of writing previously recorded throughout human history. A mite ambitious, but at least in Syd’s literary case, close to the mark.

When I joined – to put together a quarterly edition at Syd’s Center City home – the “staff” numbered Syd; Richard, a somewhat simpering, vaguely Communist-aligned retired engineer; Ram, the former Indian ambassador to Jamaica; and, a newcomer: Me.

(I don’t know what later became of Ram, a beautiful human being who told us about when, as ambassador, he brought Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to Jamaica during its most intense Rasta era, where the thoroughly puzzled god-king found himself venerated with wild adulation for no reason he could understand.)

I couldn’t say how many issues we put out during our roughly 3 years together. And who did they go to? A select (how selected?) mailing of 20, maybe 30, possibly 40, conceivably 50 people I never met. Syd controlled all that (of course). 

The editorial meetings were a wonderland. We didn’t spend that much time on the content – an editorial “failing” that often pissed Syd off – but it was one of the most open, altogether invigorating, if sometimes antagonistic (on Syd’s part) small assemblages I’ve been involved in. (Syd often harried Dick for his Communist leanings – not from a rightwing stance, but just to poke at Dick, as you’d poke at a sick toad.) I wished then, wished later, wish now that this unlikely quartet could have continued longer.

How did it fall apart? It was precipitated by Syd, because all things Scallywag were precipitated by Syd. He quit. He refused to say “resigned,” insisted on “retired.” Why? If you’d known Syd, you’d know that question would lead nowhere. 

Dick and Ram and I decided to keep the remains of the magazine, renamed Castaways, going on a roughly quarterly basis. Though I don’t think we specifically chose that name as a comment on Syd, his defection had definitely left us adrift. (I have copies of Castaways in a box somewhere, along with issues of Schuylkill Scallywag.*) 

Castaways slowly (perhaps not really that slowly) vanished. For one thing, we didn’t have Syd’s full mailing list, but that’s not the most important determinant. We vanished because, without Syd, we – at that time and in that place – became a side issue.

In those early days of email, Syd and I exchanged late-night notes after his “retirement” from the Scallywag. Syd, imperious Syd, continually insisted on telling us how our remaining trio should organize all aspects of publication. That pissed me mightily, so on our final online night I responded to some aggrieved demand with this snarl: “Bug out and stay bugged out!

That shit response haunts me. Yes, he had yet again insinuated himself into a conversation he should have moved beyond, but I had heaved something reckless and nasty – if not downright evil – into a pointless drunken conversation. (Don’t, if you retain any self-concern, ever respond to a bad-tempered, drunken email with an equally bad-tempered, drunken email.)

But what am I trying to accomplish right here, right now? Ask forgiveness of Syd? No, because there is no way to ask forgiveness of the dead. But I can try to expiate the wrong I did to… I don’t know to whom, because I still can’t say who Syd Bradford really was. None of us could. That’s not offered as an excuse, but to lay out my difficulty in attempting to exorcise that evil.

Syd was unique in ways both infuriating and inspired. I exited that final online night dealing only with the fury. In retrospect, I find that unforgivable. I failed to give support when needed. Would he have accepted it if offered? Frankly, I doubt it. That was part of his infuriating side. But such caveats do not relieve me of my responsibility and continuing guilt.

What I failed to tell Syd is that I genuinely admired him, his personal and literary eccentricities, and his steadfast inability to compromise when he felt that his outlook was both correct and essential. Going through issues of his earlier magazines, I read articles by him – particularly one with such an idiosyncratic take on the meaning and purpose of the U.S. Constitution as to be barely comprehensible – which helped me see that, even when most off the wall, he was pointing with unique insight to how the wall itself was misaligned.

Sorry, Syd. I fucked up. Lean over a cloud and chuck me down some manna… wrapped around a stone.


*Here’s one of those eerie weirdnesses of timing: Shortly after I wrote this paragraph, I started moving items from our ugly Home Depot piece-of-crap shed to the new shed up the hill (repurposed from Linda’s decommissioned wood-burning kiln).

To my horror, mice had entered, nested in and shredded the contents of 10 or 15 cardboard boxes. One turned out to hold my old Scallywag and Castaways issues, along with copies of Syd’s previous magazines, put together with other friends-of-the-time. Some issues I’ve salvaged, after airing to reduce the mouse stink; others are now muck and dust.

Damn! But at least all weren’t forever lost, as I’d feared.

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