Sunday, March 13, 2005


I got word from Waldo last night that Phil had passed away. And it really kinda shook me. Well, shook, but more saddened. I mean...

Phil. Buddha Phil. Phil Gair. There's a whole bunch of us, kids who hung out (and grew up) downtown, for whom Phil was just... He was a constant reassuring presence. Always there, always would be. Those big iron and wood Mall benches were there for him, weren't they? He was an original Mallfellow, there long before any of us even coined the term. His thick glasses and suspenders and snap-down cap and his child-like smile and his turns of phrase that didn't usually make sense, but really didn't need to. Talking with Phil didn't fall under rules that you'd apply to conversations with anyone else.

He said something to me once, I wish I could remember exactly... About how we had our own rainbows and didn't need to worry. From anyone else, it would've been laughable. But from him, there was a sincerity that made it real.

He also had a surprising degree of hidden talent. How many people who came in contact with him knew he was a world-class blues musician, I wonder? He was far too shy to play in public, but I was lucky enough to see him with a guitar in his hands one time... And he played "Sittin' On Top Of The World" like he was born to it. In fact, he didn't perform it so much as inhabit it, make it his own. He said something about having been in a band, way back when, to some degree of success. Opening for the MC5 at a festival somewhere in the late 60s, in front of many thousands of people. I'd love to find out when, and what his band was called...

* * * * *

When I lived Downtown, I'd see him every day. Two or three times, usually. At Chaps, over in front of the Paramount, sitting on a bench by Central Fidelity. Stop and talk, and he'd often be dispensing words of zen. Or sometimes giggling hysterically about something that he couldn't stop long enough to explain.

One time he was having a fit of laughter. High-pitched and falling in on itself... But he managed to pause for a second. Just long enough to lean over and whisper conspiratorially: "Hey Pat. Those kids over there? They got me HIGH." And then he was back into the whirlwind of giggling.

It was the same once I moved, and I'd be back to visit. Walk down the Mall, there's Phil. If it was raining, he'd be in a yellow poncho, but he'd still be there. And I'd stop, say hello. I'd get a quiet response at first. And then once he said my name, he'd begin to warm, and begin getting more comfortable. Even sometimes reaching out to shake my hand, with the world's gentlest handshake. Understand, NOT the 'dead fish' shake that I'm so loath to receive from anyone. Not at all. There was energy when Phil shook your hand, you knew there was someone on the other end. It was just... Gentle. Barely any grip, but a true commitment, I guess. I dunno.

I'd say it was nice to see him. He'd ask if I was gonna come back anytime soon, and I'd say I wasn't sure... But that I was confident in leaving him in charge of the Mall while I was gone. I'd thank him for being there, and he'd say that it was no problem.

It never really changed, even once I was just visiting from time to time. I'd still see Phil, still stop to talk.

Still, he did have his struggles. Some days, I'd walk by and he'd be somber. He'd be wrestling with an existential dilemma, and looking for reassurance: "Hey, Pat... Sometimes I just don't think the world is okay... Is it okay? Do you really think it's good?" And I'd do my best to lighten his spirits. It didn't always work completely... Sometimes he'd just decide that it needed more thought, say he wasn't really sure, go on looking concerned. But other times, it seemed to get through. Then, his eyes would go BIG behind his coke-bottle glasses, and he'd get a little grin. "You think so? You think it's alright?" Well, yeah Phil. I think it's alright. I'm here. I like it. "Oh. Good. 'Cause I think you'd tell me the truth about what you think. You wouldn't lie to me."

No, Phil. I wouldn't lie to you. I'm gonna miss you, though. The world will be a bit less subtle without you around.

Thanks for keeping an eye on The Mall for me. You did a great job. It looks wonderful.



Blogger Scott said...

The Mayor of the Mall is gone. Phil was the happiest and the saddest guy I knew. Sometimes within seconds of each other. When I started work at Chap's I met a lot of loonies and winos, Chap's was a magnet for people down on their luck. I got to know them all. Some I came to like (once I "knew" them) some I just tolerated. Phil was the exception to all that. Phil could make me laugh and he could make me think. Even when I had no idea what he was talking about, I was still paying attention 'cause I knew that this wasn't gibberish. What he was telling me meant something, if not to the world at large then at least to him. I never knew of his musical talent. I'm really sorry I never heard him play. But I'm very glad I knew him, if only for a while.

9:35 PM  
Blogger savitri d said...

phil was always distracting me and I was always glad and sometimes I couldn't believe how he saw through me and other times I couldn't get on rhythm with him but it never seemed to mattter at all because there was always more tender there than anything else. For years he confused me with my sister shanti and then suddenly one day he didn't and I never knew why-but it meant alot to me when he finally started calling me Savi. "your Savi!"
I hope he's having fun wherever he is, or is entertained, as he always was, for better or for worse, on this earth-I'm grateful for his presence in my life and memory. He always made me smile. Phil! I hope you don't need any money wherever you are, and I hope there is lots of tobacco and pretty girls! I'm Savi! not Shanti...she's taller..remember
"and sexy " or something..he would say.
And thanks for telling me Patrick.

11:56 PM  
Anonymous Gate said...

Phil was the Mayor of the Downtown Mall. He was one of the people that you saw everyday, and took for granted that they had always been there and always would be there. Phil was a watcher, observer and philosopher of the sort that Charlottesville seems to be blessed with. He always had a smille, a quip and an existential observation or question. Phil dispensed with "how are you" and "how about the weather" type questions, and went straight to the heart of the matter with "what is the meaning of life"?. Time permitting, we'd scratch the surface of that topic, never quite managing to resolve it satisfactorily, always defering resolution until another day. Often our exchanges became a short hand surreal/zen/nonsense code, finely honed over 15 years. A type of secret society password greeting that only Phil and I knew. Repeating these phrases became a reassuring practiced daily routine. A typical conversation, Phil holding court in front of Chaps, me passing on an errand. Phil shouts: "What's that mean?" (translation: alliterative transposition of "what's happening?") Me, responding: "Did you get your Phil today"? (catchall "how are you today") Phil: "How is it in the suburbs"? (meaning - "you've been traveling outside of charlottesville"?. I had been in Miami for four years...) Me: "Charlottesville is better". Phil: Hahahahahaha!!!!

I'll miss you Phil.

9:04 AM  
Blogger David W. said...

Phil lived on the floor below me above the Jefferson Theater for a few years (until he almost burned the place down) and I saw him everyday for years until I left town. Over that time I can't tell how often I talked to him. Sometimes a timid "Hi David" and sometimes a long talk. He was one of the first fans of the Mall Music Movement in the late 80's and early 90's. And that reminds me of what may be my favorite memory of Buddah Phil. Me and Jamie, Rick, and David G were jammin out in front of the Jefferson on a saturday or sunday afternoon. Back then there were fewer people hangin' around the Mall on the weekends... and it seemed like we knew half the people who walked by. Anyway, we must have played for three or four hours and we had made a few bucks so we were going to go to Millers to have some beer and food. Rick and I took the bass and drums up to my place and I told Rick I'd meet him down there and changed my shirt or something... On my way down the steps I saw Phil's door was open. "Wow, Man!" he said. "You guys were good today!" I said thanks and he went on... "I sat here all day and let your music enter me!"
I looked at him and he was smiling with his eyes as big as could be. he then got close to me and went on in a soft voice, "I was nude. You know man, there was love in that music..."

Wow. We both laughed

In the years after the fire, he would often tell me he was sorry about it. I'd tell him it was cool and that also made him smile.

I am glad I knew him.

4:41 AM  

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