"By putting his own afflictions – from the major to the minor – on display, he made it easier for others to process their own challenges."tweet this
Like everyone, I've got lots of Billy stories. Many of them happen in bars, and most of them involve some sort of awkward laughter. Again, nothing unusual. But one of them is my favorite, and I kept flashing back to it over the past few days, mainly because it involved that weird combination of supportive love and total embarrassment that Billy specialized in.
So, here we are, in the early 2000s. 2002, maybe? The exact year is unclear so far along, but what I do remember is this: It's an Orlando Weekly holiday party, one of the first that I attended as an editor at the paper. It's at some awful, now-defunct dance club downtown (I'm sure the paper got a deal), and my wife Eve and I are huddled into a sticky booth with Billy and Alan, unsure of exactly what to make of the situation happening all around us. I was still figuring out what to make of Billy as a person, as his written persona was so ... overwhelming.
But here we are, making small talk, being a little bitchy, and trying to make sure our conversation didn't get so work-oriented that it excluded our significant others.
In the course of the significant-other-inclusive conversation, Alan said ... something. All these years later, I don't remember what exactly it was, but what I do remember was that it was ludicrous and weird and about raising goats and eating them. And Eve replied, "Really?" because she's a vegetarian and was not cool with goats getting eaten. I laughed. Alan laughed. Eve (who instantly realized he was joking) laughed. Billy did not laugh. He knew it was a joke. But he was mortified. Angry, even.
Now, to be clear, Alan was making a joke. And to be further clear, Eve isn't dumb. But what Billy saw was two guys making fun of someone for not being in on something.
Billy apologized for this incident nearly every single time he saw Eve. I am pretty sure he apologized for it in a column. I am pretty sure he apologized for it as recently as last year. He wasn't apologizing for Alan; he was apologizing – for a decade and a half – that he could have, in some way, been responsible for someone feeling bad through no fault of their own.
Again, this is just one small, dumb story. There are lots of others, but whether they center around sadness, joy, debauchery, celebration, support, agony or any of the other emotions Billy wore on his sleeve, they all seem to come back to the same idea: Everyone is struggling in their own way, and it's our job as humans to make sure we help each other, not make the struggle harder.
If the fictional quote about newspaper journalism's purpose – "comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable" – is true, then Billy was born to be a newspaper journalist. Although a lot of what he wrote (OK, most of what he wrote) (OK, nearly all of what he wrote) was refracted through his own personal prism, his overriding ethos was to comfort the afflicted and afflict, if not the comfortable, then those who were comfortable enough to ignore the afflicted. By putting his own afflictions – from the very very major to the very very minor – on display, he made it easier for others to process their own challenges. By calling out injustice where he saw it and giving it a human face, he made it harder for others to ignore.
I loved him and I'll miss him. May we all be little, yellow, and different in our own way.
Jason Ferguson is a writer, editor, traveler, husband and father who's been writing about music, movies, books and travel since the early '90s. He was Orlando Weekly's music editor from 2002 to 2007, and continues to write for us as well as countless other media outlets.