Monday, February 06, 2006

In Memorium - Natalie Downing

Natalie's been on my mind a lot lately because this is approximately the anniversary of her death last year at the age of 40. I don't know the exact date because she died alone on the street of alcohol poisoning, but it was about this time last year that I got the call that she had passed away. Now that some time has passed I can look at these photos of Nat and smile and remember how she was before she began to drink.

Both photos show her with her beloved Chow Chow, Frances, the world's best dog. On top you can see her grinning with delight at the puppy Frannie, who so resembled a baby bear that she attracted crowds of admirers when we took her out to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. I shot the second photo of Nat and Fran at Buzz Coffee in Sunset Five complex on Sunset and Crescent Heights. We used to hang out there for hours on a Sunday afternoon, exchanging deep confidences and laughing till we cried. This is the photo Natalie's sister put in a little memorial of Nat in the spot where she died. She laid out flowers, a candle, and this shot. It's difficult to look into Nat's smiling face here and reconcile it with how she died. Yet both Natalies existed.

There was no more loyal friend than Natalie, and no one you'd want more at your side in time of difficulty, or even in time of physical danger. Once we were sitting in my little Toyota Tercel, parked on Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood, talking, when we noticed a bright red BMW behind us pulled up at the curb. Its license plate read: BH BRAT. Natalie had a bright red hatred for those who used their lives of privilege to move ahead of the pack, and this Beemer was the perfect embodiment of that. Next to the car a man in expensive casual clothes was arguing with two women, their voices rising with each successive sentiment, body postures ready to fight. Natalie and I stopped our own talk to watch.

The man got into his car and started up the engine, then got out of the car, leaving the door open. He walked up to one of the women and punched her in the face. She stumbled into the other woman's arms with a scream. The man ran back into his car and began to pull away.

I sat there dumbfounded, unable to believe I'd seen such an act of both malice and cowardice. But Natalie was out of my car in a heartbeat, a blond whirlwind of righteous fury. "Come back here and try that with me, you son of a bitch!" She shouted. "Come back here!"

"Suck my dick!" yelled the man as he gunned his motor and began to pull away.

"YOU suck MY dick!!" Natalie yelled after him, in tones that cut right through the sound of his engine and the sobbing of the women on the curb. I saw his head turn back to her in astonishment, then he raced off.

We had his license plate, and I suggested we tell the cops, but the women involved begged us not to, so we got back into my Tercel and headed toward the Promenade. After a few minutes deconstructing the event, Natalie never mentioned it again. But it always stuck in my mind that here was someone who not only felt deeply the injustices of this world, but who was willing to risk herself to do something about it.

She was damn funny, too. All those things you think about later and wish you'd said? Natalie said those things right off the bat, with perfect timing and insight. She loved nature and animals and had the greenest thumb. Her apartment might've been small, but it was lovingly and beautifully decorated. She painted and created useful works of art. She was never happier than when putting together a bookcase or tracking down the perfect flear market find. As her friend, I could tell her anything about myself, from the smallest personal detail to the largest, dumbest thing I ever did -- and I knew she would empathize, make me laugh, and make me see the situation in a way that celebrated who I am. Warm, insightful, feminist, funky, passionate, frank, angry, creative, a woman with a GED smarter than a few PhD's I've known -- that was Natalie. I miss her.

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