Roy Wagner 1938-2018

Hi Linda Porter Gracie

I hope you were able to see what Edy Marie Gonzalez wrote in response to your query on my Facebook page about Roy Wagner. It was lovely and true.

Roy was one of those larger than life characters, but not in the usual way. There was no bombast and neither his brilliance nor his kindness nor his absolute craziness hit you in the face. He loved Coyote medicine, but never cruelty.

The first time I remember talking with him was at some UVA presentation. I’d just arrived, fresh out of Philosophy, and suitably arrogant towards my new, seemingly theory-poor discipline. I questioned the speaker (Roy) on a nuanced point regarding category boundaries, as the other first term grad students looked at me in shock. I expected to be rebuffed by The Great Man and was ready to argue. Instead he seemed interested and asked where he might learn more about the subject. I was awed by the humility of his true intellectualism. He was curious and patient in ways that too few academics are.

When he discovered that I knew about Santeria and had spent two years with a brujo, we became best friends. He helped me transition into anthropology (with the Roy Wagner twist) and was, for a time, my dissertation advisor and remained on my committee, asking the final and most Roy-like question at the end: “And how would you explain all of this in terms of quantum physics?” I’ve no doubt that it made for one of the most unique dissertation defenses of anthropology in UVA history.

He was also Pontius Pilate in the on-going, ever changing production of Jesus Christ Superstar that my friends and I (Joseph Hellweg, Indra Davis, Sarah Boone, Raymond Cruz et. al) practiced at my King St. house for semesters on end. Roy did not have a great singing voice, but he regally embodied the part, displaying his usual good humor and a flare for drama and what can only be categorized as Vogueing.

Roy was among the most talkative people I’ve ever met and there were no trivial conversations. When you entered his office, hung out at Edie Turner’s house, or spoke on the phone, you had to be prepared to devote time to enter what I called Roy World. It was a place of vast imagination, a library’s worth of knowledge, anecdotes galore, recognizably Chicagoan anthropology, a plasticity similar to that that Bob Zimmerman applauded in me back at Sarah Lawrence, but with a more extensive range of knowledge in many areas. It was a place of stimulation and joy and exhaustion, fortified for him by vast quantities of unbelievably strong coffee.

I returned from my first field trip among healers and independent coffee growers in Puerto Rico with a pound of the best coffee on the island for him. Roy was delighted and immediately poured the entire bag into his small (4 cup?) coffee maker, for one intense batch that he delightedly consumed within the hour.

Roy was soft spoken and intense. He loved music, wit, and animals. He was kind but never condescending to children, unfailingly gallant, fun, and could be bitingly sharp, but only with his peers. He was protective of students and underdogs and he talked to everyone as an equal. My husband- an outsider to the academy- has fond memories of schmoozing with Roy, who of course made it his business to casually ensure that Raymond was included and comfortable.

He was a wonderful story teller and mischievous teller of truths. He could render what must have been painful aspects of his life into gently humorous yet still touching stories.

Roy was special. He would send me chapters of a book he was working on but he almost never wanted to discuss the actual typewritten pages, but rather, the concepts and sets of a priori beliefs from which they were constructed. He loved that I’d been a Wittgensteinian philosopher and could follow and add to his journeys into language games and meanings.

He was playful, delightful, and easily delighted, and thus always had an aura of youthfulness. We danced & sang together, watched tv, had meals, and did all the superficially mundane things that friends do (we once went to the mall!) but that’s not where the heart of our bond was centered.

It’s impossible to say who Roy was, and is, to me. He was among the few who made being the first African American and first older student in grad anthro at UVA doable. His book, The Invention of Culture is still read, with good reason. At heart, Roy was the embodiment of intelligence. Ever curious, mind as sharp as a razor, willing to appear foolish in pursuit of ideas. He was Diogenes-like in his quest for the truth of understanding.

I trusted Roy and Roy could be trusted. I can’t say that of many people. He was always himself: always and in all ways. Roy will always have a place in my heart and I’ll be very interested in hearing about his adventures if we again meet up in some form or fashion. I certainly hope so. In the meantime, as I said before, I like to think that Roy and Edie are regaling the other Ancestors with great stories and questions and that there’s an endless supply of good coffee for Roy. Form may change, but The Journey never ends.

I Remember

I want to thank Tomas Rahal for remembering the WTC as a living public space, inspiring me to share a few of my best memories:

Watching them being built and the constant critiques of their design which were mostly seen as ugly boxes that would “mar”the skyline.

My brother Richard, one of the first Black men to integrate the carpenter’s union, provided insights on what was going on as they were going up, making us feel some kinship to the structures and process. I’ve long headed his admonitions never to live above the height of the local hook and ladder truck.

Memories of going to the top with my boyfriend, Eddie, and a small group of high school friends. The mingled feelings of awe and fear as we moved as close to the edge as possible, something that could never happen now.

I ate at Windows on the World only once, but it was a wonderful experience for a teen-aged, very parochial girl. Eddie was a future chef, and thank goodness, he insisted on getting me there, as much for the experience as for the food.

Years later, I accumulated great memories of zipping through the human traffic going from NJ to my job in Brooklyn, feeling swift and powerful, a true city woman who knew how to maneuver through the crowds and streets of this iconic building above the trains I used daily. Of being courted by my husband Raymond, sharing sweet first kisses under and along those towers, knowing, yet disinterested, like two palace guards of our royal city.

On days off or evenings, we would walk from the WTC to Chinatown for lunch, then up to Little Italy for dessert, and coffee in the Village, ending with me getting the Path train on 9th after picking up goodies from Balducci’s.

At her behest, I did “The Forum” in the Tower with a friend in 2000, my last real interaction with them before they fell, driving up from Virginia for the weekend retreat. My next encounter would be one of devastation, shock, and grief, replete with the odors of death and a secret fear of what might be seen.

Yet looking back, I’m grateful for every one of these memories because I was there to have the experiences when they were living constructions, teeming with all the complex thoughts and feelings of humanity, not monuments to death. I’m luckier than many: my loved ones survived and only a cousin in law never met can I name among the fallen. I’m free of the deep personal pain that so many colleagues and acquaintances relive most likely a bit every day, and most poignantly each September. So because they may be unable to think about the towers without pain, we remember for them, as I hope they remember the sweetness of their loved ones’ lives.