The Austin Straus Memorial: “How’s it going, kid?”

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A week ago, in the midst of much personal travail, I drove up to Beyond Baroque to take part in the memorial service for Austin Straus, the late widower of Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman. About 20 people attended, and I shared with them a letter that had been written to me by a friend of Austin’s who now lives in Oregon. I also cited some of the recollections of Austin’s childhood and youth that had been sent to me in a letter by Nathan Greenspan. Not wanting to speak longer than anyone else, I refrained from reading one of Austin’s poems, but did mention that if I had had time, I would have chosen Austin’s “The All Purpose Apology Poem.” It turned out that Laurel Ann Bogen had intended to read that poem, and she delivered a knock-out rendition. Michael C. Ford contributed an amusing account of poetic rivalry between Austin and Michael that played out based on the slight difference in their birth months in 1939. One of the most touching moments occurred when the relatives of Ann Moody got up to speak about Austin. Ann was one of the civil rights protestors who sat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and refused to accept segregation. She was also Austin’s first wife and the mother of his only child, Sasha, who works as an artist.

With the permission of Richard Hammerschlag, I present his fond memories of Austin.

Remembrance of Austin Straus
Richard Hammerschlag
Portland, Oregon
October 19, 2017

“Birthday buddies” was Austin’s sweet term for us. Our friendship began with his knock on my door one evening in the mid-1980s, a Falstaff-like guy fundraising for Santa Monicans for Renters Rights. His request for demographic information to validate my donation led to the happy discovery that Austin and I were both born in 1939 on the very same June day in New York City. The friendship, borne of that chance encounter and longer-odds coincidence of birth, was maintained over thirty years, mainly by phone after I moved to Portland and he to Lancaster.

From a young age, our lives had traveled separate paths, his to the Arts, mine to Science, and we often talked about the economic inequalities resulting from the different manner that societal value is coupled to remuneration for the two professions. And yet, Austin and I were each fascinated by the types of challenges the other faced in living creative lives.

Our friendship was also enriched by a shared love of Borscht-belt humor, with Austin often recommending YouTube sites for me to re-live the hallowed stand-up routines of such stalwarts as Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, Mel Brooks and Lenny Bruce.

Austin and I, from our New York upbringing, also shared an abiding passion for the Dodgers. Never mind, as Austin wouldn’t let me forget, how Walter O’Malley snuck the team out of Brooklyn in the dead of night, and was a silent party to the city of Los Angeles’ removal of much of the populace of Chavez Ravine in a land acquisition to build Dodger Stadium. Somehow, our youthful inoculation of Dodger lore (highlighted by the storied beginnings of Jackie Robinson and Vin Scully) trumped the back room conniving of management.

Up to his passing in mid-July, Austin closely followed the exploits of this year’s amazing Dodger team. At this writing, in mid-October, it appears (I know you are smiling Austin) that this will be one of those ‘Next Years’ that Dodger fans are always waiting ‘til’.

So, here’s to you, Austin… multi-talented artist, and compassionate friend to so many of us. It was a great pleasure to know and hug you and Wanda. I know you’ll call me next June 12 and each June 12 after that.