Wednesday, May 1, 2013

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Before I Die...

As a teenager, I ate the wrong thing at a black-tie dinner, went into anaphylactic shock, and nearly died. Probably would have, too, if it weren’t for a medical technician at a nearby table who leapt to action. Fortunate, too, was the setting — Kansas City’s River Club, a swank private club perched on bluffs overlooking the churning Missouri River. Over the years, this or that member has required an emergency dose of oxygen; tanks of the stuff were squirreled away behind the bar for just such times. Thank god for old men in failing health. That night, one of those canisters helped save my life. Although it’s no longer an event that springs to mind often, I’ve kept a relaxed view of my own mortality ever since.

Ein Gartenzwerg aus San Diego
But now and again, memories of that brush with death gurgle to the surface, especially when I pass The Alibi, a San Diego bar known for its cheap drinks and low-key clientele. The Alibi, in other words, is a dive. Along its western side, a long stretch of wall is painted like a chalkboard. Stenciled, column after column, is the phrase “Before I die, I want to ____________.” Chalk is there for anyone who wants to express their hopes, dreams, jokes, and rude comments about mothers. Passersby have noted that they want to learn to surf, own a monkey, move to France, travel to all seven continents, and vote for a candidate they can believe in. It's a reminder that we, too, need to take steps to make us happy. Especially that monkey thing.

The Before I Die project is not indigenous to San Diego. Rather, it is the creation of New Orleans artist Candy Chang who painted a chalkboard wall on an abandoned house in her neighborhood in early 2011. The wall struck a nerve. Similar walls have sprung up around the world — Denmark, Germany, the Philippines, South Africa, Korea, China, Ireland, and across the USA.

As I walked by The Alibi yesterday, an employee washed off the night’s comments. “Every day I wash off the old and make room for the new,” he told me. “On the weekends, sometimes twice a day.” Dougie was dressed as a garden gnome for the job, but his tone was respectful, even reverent. “People write funny stuff, or hopeful, or whatever. Sometimes, it’s heartbreaking. One time, this lady wrote 'Before I die, I want to see my daughter survive cancer.' She told me ‘I know she’s not going to make it, but it makes me feel better to write that.’ I nearly cried.”

Clearing away old dreams, making room new.
He nodded to the first column, now blank from his scrubbing. “Go on. You can be the first.” I declined.

That night in Kansas City when I was certain I was dying gave me clarity I’ve never relinquished. As consciousness faded, I regretted committing various stupid and cruel acts — and not pursuing things I wanted. After reviving, I made amends for my cruelty and started ticking off those missed opportunities. I learned not just how to drink whiskey, but how to make it; learned to shoot guns; published one good book and contributed to a bunch of others; got a fist full of degrees; traveled a lot more; backpacked through Europe (and still return as often as I can); taught myself several languages and software programs (none fluently, but each enough to do what I need); learned how to cure bacon and make sausages; and finally figured out how to fold a contour sheet.

I've achieved other goals both momentous and mundane and will knock out more before I'm gone, but even if I drop dead of a massive heart attack this afternoon, I will die knowing that my friends are genuinely good people, that my finances are in order, and that my family loves me. Everything else is gravy.

Goes well with:

  • More about Candy Chang’s Before I Die project, including photos and directions for starting a wall in your town. 
  • A visit to The Alibi: 1403 University Avenue, San Diego, CA 92103


Dagreb said...

Hear hear!

randall said...


By the way...I got your Moonshine book as a gift recently. I'd classify it as "one great book"

Matthew Rowley said...

Dagreb ~ Right on. I think if I were to write something on the wall, it might be about losing 20 pounds. But then I go and make a batch of hot fudge sauce, tonka bean ice cream, or big ol' tiki drinks and that particular notion fades away like early morning fog.

Randall ~ Your friends or family clearly have good taste. Either that or they know your tastes well, you reprobate. So glad you like it.