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.
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
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
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
“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.
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
Emmett’s eyes brightened. “If you could
“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 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
“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
We drove along Hwy 7 and turned west onto Interstate
“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,”
“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
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.
I finally lowered his hands onto his chest and stepped
away. “He’s gone,” I said with more
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.