Winter is dying outside my window as I write this.
Daylight gathers strength and warmth, bit by bit. The pines and oaks along my street plot an reemergence clothed in viridescent hues. Soon, dark flights of ravens will begin to be replaced with splotches of color. Robins. Bluejays. Cardinals shall return. The world renews. The cycle continues. But Erych Hess, onetime patron of Virginia Beach street artists and musicians, will not see any of this. At the age of 45, he is no more.
“De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est.”
Of the dead, we speak naught but good. Unless it serves a greater truth to do so.
. . .
Just shy of twenty years ago — on the day Allen Ginsberg died in 1997 — I found myself caught up in a desire to perform in front of an audience again. I had, a few years previously, witnessed the waning light of the founding scene of Norfolk performance poetry at the West End Cafe over on 21st Street. A scene I had, along with Malcolm Powell and others, worked to create.
Restless and grieving over the loss of the last great bard of the Beats and seized with a hunger to take up words again, I recalled an advertisement in the now long gone Port Folio Weekly for a coffeeshop touting its open mic. I hopped on a bicycle and headed over to that spot. The emcee greeted me as I walked in with sharp, humorous tones. I had showed up late, to his chagrin, just as he was ending the evening. He passed me the mic and told me to get it over with.
Scared. Off balance and unsure of myself. I began to speak. “Stranded on the informercial highway in my 71 Chevelle / pirates coming / creepy crawly coming. / Gonna steal my hubcaps. / gotta find a blackjack. / Dying for a cigarette. / And so I fell towards the golden city. Towards the gaping city. Towards the sewer pit. / Past the billboards proclaiming my innocence / Past the billboards proclaiming my guilt. / And in the corner? Outside of that city? / I see the Grunge Poet without a face. / They are selling pieces of his flesh to passerbys for 19.99. 22.99 with a CD. / And I am raging…”
In that moment, with the response of the room, I cemented a journey towards living a life for art that’s still going on today.
. . .
It was that evening that I met Erych and his at-the-time partner, Jay. They were an odd couple, mismatched by a span of decades with a relationship tenure that was marked with equal parts tenderness and strife. Jay passed on a number of years ago. They had both, for the most part, unentangled their lives at that point. I was told at the time that Erych had attended her funeral. That he looked lost throughout the experience. Emotionally fragile.
That coffeeshop, Casablanca Cafe, had been open for a mere matter of months. It was in every aspect fledgling at the time. None of us could have possibly known that over the next decade it would serve as the de facto gathering space for poets, artists, and musicians of all stripes. Over the years, it hosted the area’s first Poetry Slams, and provided sanctuary for many of us. It became a legend, at its height filling a tiny space with a hundred plus people on any given night who were breathless in anticipation of the words echoing around its walls.
Casablanca lasted as a venue until 2006, closing its doors after a long struggle with the shopping center’s landlords — who were never really very comfortable with the nightly conglomeration upon its property of freaks and geeks, misfits and malcontents, or lovers and losers the place tended to attract.
I’ve heard through the grapevine that to this day, they refuse to rent any of their spaces to any coffeeshop of any sort.
. . .
Erych Hess was found dead of natural causes in his home this past Saturday, February 11th. He is survived by siblings and their progeny.
Back in the day, I came to know Erych well. For the first few years of Casablanca, Erych supplemented their income with a morning paper route. I would oftentimes ride along with him after spending all night writing from the comfort of one of Casablanca’s many worn, picked-up-off-the-side-of-the-road couches. We would talk about the future. About why poetry matters. We’d plan events, share our sorrows, and hope for a better tomorrow.
He was at times both gregarious and prickly. Equally quick with a smile or sarcasm. He could be generous, but oftentimes felt a need to justify his beneficence with some manner of self-serving end. His childhood was difficult, and left him without the social graces most of us learn by that point. He struggled with demons; there were many moments where his partner would call me in a panic, and I would set out into the night to track him down and bring him home. He was epileptic. He very often didn’t take great care of himself. He could be both maddeningly cruel or indifferent and yet at times showed a great capacity for compassion.
I loved him like a brother, but after a decade the weight of his continual indiscretions, poor choices as to the welfare of others, and inability to choose light over dark led to the dissolution of our friendship. He had problematic attitudes towards women that I eventually found immutable. There came a day for me where I decided that the good in him was outweighed by the bad, and we ended our association — moving on towards different paths of life.
A mutual acquaintance relayed a story of running into him a while back at Tidewater Community College, where Hess had completed a degree in nursing to enter a new field. He remarked that the meeting was awkward, that Erych had mentioned that he found himself lonely these days. That he didn’t have any real friends. That he had, despite not really being religious — joined a church choir to meet people that wouldn’t know of his past and accept him as a new person. Upon reflection, I can’t imagine what it must have felt for him to go from a life where he was a focal point of hundreds of people who greeted him with a smile on any given night to a life where he spent his evenings alone.
I find myself both saddened and thoughtful at his passing. I wonder if I did enough for him. I wonder if I made the wrong choice by walking away from him so many years ago. I wonder if the initial spark of goodness I saw in him but later dismissed as an illusion was actually there. If I made a mistake. I wonder if I should have reached out to him. I wonder if he managed to turn his life around before the end.
You may ask yourself why I choose to speak negatively of the man, given that he’s gone. Am I speaking ill of the dead by noting his flaws after he’s passed? If he was not a great person, why speak of him at all? In the end, I’m left with this: His efforts in that tiny, dingy cafe planted seeds that still bear fruit today. The artists who flourished in the safe space he provided went on to found any number of new scenes. They have traveled the country and made great works. And they continue to do so. And because of that, he has left a legacy.
Each and every one of us reading this owe this man a debt of gratitude. And if there were dark shadows in his life, there are also lessons to be learned. Take a moment to reflect on your own life: Are you living it to the greatest of your ability? Are you being the best person you can be? Are there people you should be reaching out to? Is there someone who has strayed but with whom you have the influence to bring back to a path of light? Have you given up on anyone too easily?
Are you your brother’s keeper? And if not? Why is that okay?
. . .
As it was of an age before smart phones or the ready accessibility of digital cameras, there are sadly few photos and almost no (if any at all) videos of Casablanca. It exists today, mostly in our recollections. And yet.. The influence and impact of that ratty little dive continue to reverberate through the corridors of art in the region.
In these heady days of city funding for the Arts and NEON Districts and Beach Festivals, etc. etc. — it’s easy to forget that there was a time when culture in the region was largely left to its own devices a mere twenty years ago.
Back at the dawn of our region’s performance poetry scene in the late eighties through the early aughts, it was only through the dedicated largesse of venue owners — mostly restauranteurs, barkeeps, or coffeehouse slingers — that we had opportunities to grow and thrive as young artists. The particular names of whatever business you’d associate as the hot spot within which to test your mettle through the fire of a live audience would depend on your city — but in Virginia Beach? Casablanca Cafe reigned for near a decade.
Today, we still have brave souls willing to risk blood and treasure for the betterment of our communities. These people, who run venues and provide the playgrounds in which we have the opportunity to thrive, should be cherished and celebrated.
Take a moment to thank the ones you know. Before it’s too late.
And take a moment to raise a glass or a mug to Erych Hess. Who died too soon. Too young.
He may have been a bastard at times, but he was our bastard.
And he will be missed.
Donations are being collected to help defray the costs of cremation for Erych. You can get more info or contribute by clicking here.