San Felipe's Emmett Priest

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

Footnotes of Emmett Priest

Emmett Burnion Priest Jr. was born in Little Rock, Arkansas on May 10, 1926. That much was determined from his birth certificate, which was found in his trailer a few days after his death. But the eighty years leading up to his final, unanswerable heart attack is largely a featureless unfurl of scroll. On occasion he would volunteer a brief autobiographical anecdote which served to spangle the blank ledger of his anonymous curriculum with a particularly arresting flourish. For example, Emmett claimed to have lived with the mystery/suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith. Five years his senior, she had preluded their liaison by following a suggestion from Truman Capote to rewrite her first novel-length manuscript, Strangers on a Train. The book was subsequently published and well-received. But the miserly Alfred Hitchcock’s negotiations for the screen rights put a strain on the young couple’s relationship. Added to Highsmith’s alcoholism and reclusiveness, her strange mixture of conservatism and lesbian tendencies, the affair didn’t last more than a few years.

Emmet at the san felipe bookstore
Emmett reading at the bookstore

Another reminiscence has Emmett entering WWII just as the Japanese were surrendering. Shortly after ‘V-J’ day he found himself in the Pacific Theatre among an audience of servicemen listening to their CO inform them they could each take one and only one souvenir home with them from the hillocks of surrendered enemy uniforms and weapons. Young Emmett coveted a Japanese officer’s field sword near the top of a cross-hatched hill of blades and scrambled over a sliding scree of rapiers to reach it.

“You know those guys kept their swords razor-sharp. By the time I got back on the ground I was bleeding from a dozen cuts,” he laughed, remembering the rush of endorphins that insulated him from his wounds. “I didn’t care,” he added. “I got what I wanted.”

Emmett was a squirrel-nimble Hobbit of a man, full of a small man’s nervous energy. His body was a collection of quick movements under a pair of dark, darting eyes. He had a scalp full of vigorous follicles, each with a long gray hair he corralled behind his head in a short pony tail. And he swung a Barbary beard from his chin that was as tangled and hooked as a Velcro rug.

Emmett had strange eyebrows. Oddly dark, they were the black sheep among the silver and gray woolies of his head. Their fierce independence drew eyes away from the man’s gaze and it often seemed Emmett took special care to make them look like two pheasants leaping from cover after a gunshot.

Because there had been little change in Emmett's appearance during the many years he lived in the San Felipe area, it was easy to conjecture the man’s Dorian Gray habit had persisted for a much longer duration. Presumably at some stage in his life Emmett had simply fallen into a pattern that suited his temperament and had never seen the need to change.

The daubs and fritters of the biographical information he let slip while he hand-plowed the grooves of his daily routines is perhaps enough, after a bit of funneling and shuffling, to suggest a time and place in Emmett’s life when the seeds of his lifestyle and appearance were first planted. He once said he suffered his first heart attack when he was twenty nine years old. This would place the bugle call in the early 50’s, when he said he was on staff at The Vesuvio in San Francisco.
Those were the days of America’s great literary innovations, when Kerouac, Ginsberg, New Directions, City Lights, the North Beach Poets and the Beat Generation crazed the sidewalks of San Francisco in search of meaning, truth and the latest narcotic promise to ignite the wild blue nerve of perception.

The Vesuvio was foremost among a number a popular ‘bohemian’ cafes and bars. Even to this day there is a black and white photograph on its wall presenting Emmett among a dyspeptic collection of employees standing beside the bar.

“Dylan Thomas used to drink there,” he recalled on one occasion. “He’d get so drunk he couldn’t walk. So I’d call his wife and she’d tell me to put him in a cab and send him home. From Vesuvio to Mill Valley where he lived was a long way. It must have cost a fortune for the ride.” Like many who harbor a threadbare unconventional nature, social memories are often annexed by financial ones.

This was likely the environment that first introduced Emmett to marijuana. Given the condition of his heart he probably used the herb to unthrottle his nerves and, as a hopeful sequel to this effect, lower the vertical adventuring of his alpine blood pressure. He developed a regime of daily use and although he might have convinced himself his habit-courting rosary of doobies was strictly for medical purposes, he probably felt it was an agreeable passport into the underground world of counterculture, a landscape that shunned the tight borders of the 50’s sexual and social restrictions.

Years later, according to another casual anecdote, Emmett experienced a ‘falling out’ with the world. His solution, and it’s not known whether this was influenced by Thoreau or simply an itch for privacy, was to charter a small plane to drop him into the wilds of northern British Columbia. There he lived in a cabin near a lake where he occupied his time with close observations of nature and aromatic smoke-filled inspections of his own inner landscape. He laughingly reported that his supply of marijuana arrived by RCMP, hand-delivered by an affable constable who used a motorboat to distribute the mail to the few inhabitants around the lake.

“He hadn’t a clue what was in the packages,” grinned Emmett. “He was my mule for years.”

When Emmett emerged from his isolation a few years later, he claimed to have gone through a sort of rebirth. Or as he put it, “I felt like a new man.”

No one knew if Emmett had ever been married. He never mentioned a wife or children. Although he seemed perfectly self-contained, he often exhibited the signs of self-neglect only an incessant bachelor entertains, someone long-removed from the reforming influence of a woman. The small white Honda he used to drive, for example, would disgorge a sprawl of debris on the pavement whenever he wrestled open either of its doors. His Woody Guthrie clothes regularly looked like he had just crawled out of a loosely boarded boxcar after a cross-country migration. And he had a way of grooming his moustache and beard with his fingers while he ate that suggested he wasn’t on intimate terms with the pot-luck dinner crowd. Still, despite his private remedial delinquencies, he more often than not presented an acceptable social package, such as it was, and gave no cause for people to flock upwind of him or provoke cats to make scratching motions in his direction. No matter how far beyond the Bohemian border his personal life had strayed, Emmett seemed to keep the ember of social decorum glowing just enough to satisfy the stranger sitting at the next table.

Bob Haney, Ed Meders, Emmet Priest and Randy Kerr
Bob Haney, Ed Meders, Emmett Priest and Randy Kerr

Shortly before he died Emmett was sitting in the corner of Baja Java Café on an unusually limb-slapping cold morning, the forks of his cutlery and eyebrows solemnly breakfasting in silence. He responded to a routine “How’ve you been?” by shaking his head gravely.

“I had another heart attack about a week ago and I can hardly breathe now,” he said in an uncharacteristically frail voice. “I gotta get to the Vet’s hospital in San Diego,” he added. “But don’t know anyone to take me.”

“I’ll take you,” came the reply. “Monday morning.”

Emmett’s eyes brightened. “If you could do that…”.

“Be ready 6 AM Monday morning. We’ll be at your San Diego hospital five hours after that. But we’ve got another passenger. Cat has a doctor’s appointment in El Centro. We’ll drop her off along the way.”

The trip to the border was enjoyable and Emmett seemed to relish pointing out small details of the landscape, confiding how they touched him personally.

“You see the top of that hill over there?” His finger leveled at a lomita in the distance. “Look how dark that is. That’s always amused me. I’ve often wondered why it’s so dark, -what it’s made of to make it look like that.”

Before we reached the border, he wanted to pull over so he could get his paperwork in order. He exhumed an expired passport from a stuffed plastic bag in the trunk, a collection of prescription bottles and a manila envelope filled with lab reports from a clinic in San Felipe. There wasn’t a shred of current identification in the lot. But he was fully prepared to rain appeals for emergency clemency at the guard booth when we arrived. A quick vote crushed that proposal. It was going to be a calm, unpretentious crossing, a routine run for groceries and mail.

By the time we eased up to the booth, the custom guard was well into his Pavlovian patterns. His questions were automatic and crisp but something in Emmett’s darting eyes must have rang a bell because he suddenly asked us to open the trunk.

Normally that wouldn’t have been a problem. But Emmett had packed three bags of clothing and they were sitting next to the empty cooler. The guard might consider three bags of clothing an odd accessory for a quick trip over the border for groceries.

We tried not to look in the mirrors and when the trunk lid clapped shut and the uniform approached the driver’s window we held our breath. A hand made a motion beside the door.

“You’re on your way,” said the guard and waved us forward again as he turned to intercept the next vehicle. Emmett made an audible sound of relief and confided, “That’s a tremendous load off my mind.”

We drove along Hwy 7 and turned west onto Interstate 8.

“I don’t know about you guys, but I could sure use some breakfast,” I said.

“Sounds good to me,” agreed Cat.

“I don’t want anything to eat,” said Emmett. “But I’ll have a cup of coffee.”

“Anybody have a preference where to go?”

“There’s a Denny’s just off the highway,” Emmett suggested.


“Any place with coffee.”

“Denny’s it is then.”

We turned onto Imperial Avenue, took the first right and swung into the Ramada Inn driveway. The restaurant’s front lot was full and we had to park behind Denny’s. When we got out of the car Emmett followed behind us, slowly. Inside the restaurant, he stopped at the cashier’s counter to catch his breath. The room was crowded but a waiter led us to a corner booth near the back door and set three menus on the table.

“Coffee all around,” I said, and he nodded and left us to look at the menus.

“I can’t breathe,” Emmett announced, holding the edge of the table. The walk along the side of the building had winded him.

“Just sit still and relax,” said Cat. “Get your breath back.”

“Don’t talk,” I added.

Emmett obediently sat still and didn’t talk. I turned to look at Cat and we exchanged a few words. Then something pushed against my thigh and I glanced down because I thought a cat had jumped onto my lap. But it was Emmett. He had fallen over and his head was on my leg. His eyes were frightened-horse wide and his mouth described an O that nodded in shallow puffs.

“Are you all right?” I asked and gripped his shoulder.

He didn’t look up. He simply gasped a few times and then the tight, compressed intensity of his struggle suspended itself and I was looking down at an inert statue of Emmett Priest.

“I think he’s gone,” I said softly.

What?” Cat’s voice demanded elaboration, if not more volume.

“Emmett,” I replied. “He just died.”

I lifted him upright and tried to maneuver him enough to step out of the booth. I wanted to put him on the floor and give him CPR. But his body was flaccid as a damp beach towel, completely unmanageable. It was a condition I had experienced many years before when I tried to lift a body out of a swimming pool. A conscious body, and maybe even an unconscious one, can't pretend that kind of wholesale divorce from life.

“Give me a hand,” I said to Cat. But she was already coming around to help. She sat beside him and took his wrist.

“Any pulse?” I asked.

She was silent for a few moments then replied, “He’s starting to get cold already.”

Together we managed to derrick Emmett to the floor and while Cat ran to phone 911, I alternately pumped his chest and raised his arms. I thought for a brief moment the ministrations had taken effect when his mouth sprang open but realized it was only a reflex when I saw that his eyes were still empty.

Cat returned and announced help was on the way. While waiting for the ambulance I straddled Emmett again and pumped his chest more vigorously.

“Come on Emmett,” Cat called over my shoulder. “Come back!”

I finally lowered his hands onto his chest and stepped away. “He’s gone,” I said with more certainty.

We sat and stared at him and then Cat asked if she should put her coat over him. I thought that would probably alarm the breakfast crowd more than just seeing an old man lying on the floor with his eyes open.

After a few minutes a fire engine eclipsed a hedgerow and a waiter unlocked the back door. A group of paramedics quick-stepped inside and I waved them to Emmett. One of the medics bent over and suddenly started barking orders. Three men ran back to the fire engine and returned with a gurney and a rolling cart crammed with equipment. They pushed tables aside and cleared a perimeter around the body. Someone tore his shirt open and attached electrodes. One man placed an oxygen bag over Emmett’s mouth and pumped air into him. Another called for adrenaline. Then a defibrillator was deployed and the paddles hugged Emmett’s chest as a current lifted him off the carpet.

“Again!” cried a medic.

“Clear!” And Emmett’s body jerked like a marionette.

“Get the gurney!”

Emmett was lifted to the level of the ashen faces that remained fixed and staring at the nearby tables. Two men wheeled him out the back door toward an ambulance that had just arrived. I rushed outside to give the ambulance driver Emmett’s paperwork. Then Cat and I followed them to the hospital.

There was nothing they could do for him. Emmett was pronounced dead. It almost seemed as if he held out just long enough to make his butterfly-stomach crossing at the border, the same nervous passage so many others from Mexico, with similar deficits of paperwork, had risked. And when it was done and his tired heart couldn’t support his great relief, he was pleased enough to die in a place where a Bohemian’s grave could at least press the name Emmett Burion Priest Jr. against a fresh swath of green grass.