I had a hundred nicknames for Kelsey. Some lasted years, some one or two times. Many were the ones my dad had used on me–ciudrule, cafone, testa dura, pazzo, Garibaldi Mangiapane, Joe Materasso, etc. In his later teen years I took to calling him “Kid Blast,” from Dylan’s song about the Gallo family. Kelsey could have been a Gallo, the bohemian gangster family, the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, the small mob crew that did audacious things, the guys who put Umberto’s on the map. “Kid Blast!” What a great name. “Blast.” What a great word. It should be onomatopoetic. Kelsey had a blast. Kelsey blasted through life. Kelsey could get angry and blast me. Kelsey got blasted. In a crazy family, he stood out. My Kid Blast.
A few weeks before our due date I made a tape, an old cassette tape, for Jane to listen to in the delivery room–old stuff that we listened to. Dylan, Neil Young, Joni, Bonnie Raitt, stuff like that. Kelsey started his journey into the world on Christmas Day, 1988. But then he stopped. I think he already knew what lay ahead. He didn’t want to deal with it, the chaos and anarchy that rules too much of our lives. So he stopped. Finally, because nature is not to be trifled with, he made his appearance at 2:48 A.M. EST on December 26th. At that moment Jefferson Airplane’s “We Can Be Together” was playing and he arrived. Not a bad way to enter the world. It was appropriate. We ARE all outlaws in the eyes of America! He knew that already.
Kelsey Niccolò Sandino Buzzanco. Descendant of Vincenzo (James, aka Jim Botts) Buzzanco and Catherine Mollica Buzzanco, Nick and Mary Buzzanco, and Jane Kelso and me. Kelsey’s personality was part of the family tradition. My grandfather bootlegged and ran a speakeasy outside Chicago during Prohibition. My grandmother loved to have a martini every afternoon and they smelled like kerosene. She and our cousin Carmella would go to the bars in the afternoon for cocktails. She stole silverware from nice restaurants, insisting it was a “souvenir.” My dad somehow managed to get on the wrong side of the local Teamsters Prez and got fired from his job driving a beer delivery truck. He then went to work for the city of Niles, Ohio and organized an AFSCME local there and served 16 years as Prez and 6 years as a state Vice-President. Not bad from a kid with a high school education from Calumet City, Illinois (yep, home of Jake and Ellwood). I got my political education from him attending union meetings and labor breakfasts, watching him stand up to the city council chair, who was also the local bank Prez. My mom was a fiery Italian mother, who could wield a wooden spoon or throw a shoe with the best of them. Kelsey’s mom worked for a gun control group and attended the Brady Bill signing ceremony at the White House (yeah, the irony is pretty chilling). And I’m not a wallflower. Kelsey fit into that line pretty well. His friends have told me dozens of stories about his antics. Jim and Nicky Botts would have appreciated him, as I did.
March 11th, 2010. I had an old Motorola flip phone. The ring tone was the theme from The Sopranos. “Kelsey” appeared on the screen and I picked it up and said “what’s up, kid?” It wasn’t him. It was his girlfriend telling me the news I had dreaded and feared and even maybe expected a little. Kelsey was dead. Morto! He’d shot himself with a gun he had under the seat of his car. I got in my car and drove maniacally, luckily not increasing the body count that day. I can’t even describe the emotions I felt . . . it was so different, so very different, than anything I could even imagine. Preternatural. But I never didn’t believe it. I didn’t think it was a dream. I didn’t think it was a mistake. I didn’t think I’d arrive and find him alive. I knew it. Kelsey didn’t do anything half-assed, so I believed it. And I arrived and his Expedition was on the grass off North MacGregor, and there was a crowd of people and yellow police tape. The cops and my friends wouldn’t let me go the car to see him, hug him. I finally walked to the edge of the tape, as close as they’d let me get and saw him slumped over. I guess I had to say one last goodbye to the son that I could not save. I think I owed him that much.
Kelsey was about 3 or 4 and was playing at the little park right outside our townhouse in Greenbelt, MD. He would go back and forth on the monkey bars all day. He had biceps like steel cables. I went outside and asked him if he wanted to eat and he said “No, I have the sun in my mouth.” I figured I had the next García Márquez in my house.
I always had music on in the car when I took Kelsey out. It helped distract him a little. He loved R.E.M. and especially “Stand.” He knew all the lyrics even as a little little toddler and would sing it and twirl around. His feet didn’t stay on the ground and he didn’t listen to reason. But he moved around a lot, sang this song as he swirled at Mach III. I wished he’d have been able to just stand around more.
So Kelsey was probably 13 or so and we were riding our bikes in The Heights. Out of the blue, I hear him sing “you didn’t have to be so nice, I would have liked you anyway.” I looked and him and we both had broad smiles. So I picked it up, “If you had just looked once or twice,And gone upon your quiet way.” And we more or less finished the song together. I don’t know how he knew the Lovin’ Spoonful and what prompted him to sing it, but it’s always going to be one of the best memories I’ll ever have.
About 10 years before that, in Greenbelt, I’d taken Kelsey out for a walk on his Big Wheel. We didn’t just go around the block. We stopped at all the playgrounds (Greenbelt was an idyllic place to raise a kid) and went down to the lake and headed back. At some point, invariably, he’d get tired out so I’d put him on my shoulders and carry his Big Wheel back. So I have this little blond-haired diavolo on my shoulders and I hear him singing the opening lyrics to “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” It was one of the songs I sang to him. He knew the whole goddamned song, at age 3. I still can’t listen to it without tears pouring out. I’ll see you in the sky above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love.
One idea that Kelsey absolutely got from the Buzzanco DNA was a rejection of authority. When he was tiny I bought him a “Question Authority” t-shirt and he took it to heart. Jim Botts did a year in the can. My dad led two strikes by public employees, illegal in Ohio at the time, the second of which got him arrested. He didn’t like cops and made it clear that they were scabs when they took him in. And I’ve gotten into a scrape or two. Kelsey really didn’t like authority figures, didn’t like being forced to conform. It’s tough to raise a kid and instill that idea in him, however. You have to aware of what you’re up against, what’s important, what authorities need to be confronted, and when to back down. He didn’t know that. It wasn’t a political act of defiance, which I tried to explain to him. He just hated all authority. I tried to tell him how to be smarter with his anger, but I couldn’t sell it. He’d been to too many rallies and demos and heard me make too many speeches. He knew how I felt. I grew up in a family where the phrase “I didn’t see nothing” was instilled in us if we were asked a question by someone in charge. He loved “Goodfellas,” especially when Bobby D. said “You learned the two greatest thing in life, never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” And when he got in trouble, and he did a time or two, or dozens of times, he knew what to do, which was to do nothing. He didn’t squeal, he didn’t talk. It might be the only lesson he took from me. He wasn’t going to work for the clampdown. I wonder what he’d be thinking today, we live in an era of Trump and liberal McCarthyism. The Buzzanco family never worked for the clampdown.
I didn’t think Kelsey was that much like me when he was alive. I was wrong. As the years went by since his death, I realized how much he inherited from me, and my dad, and his dad. He was smart as hell, smarter than I was at a similar age, and stubborn, “testa dura” I said a million times. We both pushed things to the edge and adrenalin could get the best of us, but I knew when to stop and he didn’t. When we rode our bikes, my Moto Guzzi and his R6, he was insane–pushing it to 120-130 and doing wheelies. He went past the line too often, and the last time it killed him. A couple months after 3/11/10 I went to a Neil Young concert downtown. Bert Jansch opened for him. Throughout the show, non-stop, I kept thinking “Kelsey would be here with me tonight.” After he died, I visited London twice, and both times went to Highgate Cemetery to visit Marx’s grave, as I’d vowed to do after seeing Mike Leigh’s High Hopes years earlier. I put a picture and some of Kelsey’s ashes on the stone of the great Marx and thought of his epitaph: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” After I thought of Kelsey, and Marx, for a while, I started walking away. I looked down and saw Bert Jansch’s gravesite. I smiled. Kelsey was with me there that day and Marx had something that wouldn’t get lost.
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must’ve always thought you’d be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Jackson Browne sang about Kelsey’s life. He was full of joy and laughter, and anger and pain. He made people laugh, he often made me irate. Stealing Rodney’s line from “Back to School, I told him countless times that I could put him through school, or put him through a wall. He did what he had to do, “No matter what fate chooses to play (There’s nothing you can do about it anyway).” I don’t have any beliefs in any kind of gods or afterlife. You turn to cosmic dust. You exist, and then you don’t. It’s the Big Sleep. But his energy is around, for sure. Atoms can’t be destroyed. And his memories are even more indestructible. In a mere 21 years he gave me a lifetime of memories. I do hope his cosmic dust has blown into some great adventures. I suspect it has. In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone . . .
Kelsey met his demise on North MacGregor, less than a mile from my house at the time. For several years I could not walk or even drive past that spot. Then, in 2014, on March 11th, Ginsberg and I took a walk (Langston had died the previous April) and I brought some of Kelsey’s ashes along. When we went out, I just let Ginsie lead and I’d go where he wanted. We walked down Fiesta toward University Oaks Blvd. Every time we went there, Ginsberg would turn left, toward Wheeler. But that day, he broke off our route and went right, and walked toward the spot where Kelsey’s car stopped. I threw some ashes in the air and thought of Kelsey and gave Ginsie some hugs and kisses. He knew. Dogs have some real intuitive intelligence and Ginsberg really took care of me.
Kelsey and I had friction from time to time, like nearly every day. And probably nothing made me more upset than his fucking obsession with guns. Like I said, his mom was at the White House when Clinton signed the Brady Bill. No kid heard more about the dangers of guns. And then I got a job in Texas. There is so much to say about Texas and I don’t have that many years left. But the immanent and vast culture and political ideology of gun ownership here has to top the list. There’s a goddamned gun show every weekend, and Kelsey went to a few. The state legislature and guv and lite guv and their myrmidons, the most vicious, deliberately ignorant, and degraded things to ever walk upright, pimp for the gun makers by convincing people they have some inherent right to blast someone who steps on their lawn. They allow guns on campuses. They want to arm teachers. They are the most cowardly people I’ve ever seen. Instead of using ideas, of which they have none, of which they’re afraid, they want to use force. They strap semi-automatics on their back and wait outside the local iHOP while a group of Moms who want to stop gun violence meet instead, simply to intimidate them. That, my friends, is exactly what Terrorism is. The problem of guns in America is the problem of suicide in America. There are 30,000-plus guns deaths in the U.S. every year, and about 2/3, more than 20K, are suicides. Of the 40,000-plus suicides, half or so involve a gun. Guns are deadly and effective. Almost all suicidal action involving guns ends up in death, unlike, say, overdosing or cutting. Making guns available to people who wouldn’t otherwise even think of having them, like university students, will inevitably increase the suicide rate. With mental health issues omnipresent and stress and pressure rising, having access to a firearm is ensuring many more self-inflicted wounds. Fuck the NRA, Fuck Texas gun cowards.
On November 18th, 2006, I took Kelsey so see/hear The Who at the Toyota Center. I only found out about the show a few days before that, and on the way heard on the radio that The Pretenders would be opening. Kelsey knew a little Who music but never heard of The Pretenders. A few hours later, after sitting mesmerized looking at the stage, the show ended, and I said “so what do you think?” and he looked at me and said, with awe, “it was amazing!” For Xmas that year he bought me the DVD of the show.
Kelsey loved comedies. We watched Catch-22, M*A*S*H, Dr. Strangelove, Animal House, Caddyshack, and a ton of others. I think his favorite was Office Space, which he seemed to have on every time I went into his room. He used to sing the Geto Boys song. He had a t-shirt with Milton and his stapler on it. His understanding of comedy and satire were, I think, the best indicators of his wicked intelligence and wit. The kid was a baller.
Kelsey had a bit of a brush with the law, and had to pay a fine and do community service. I think he had 90 days to do it. On day 89, he hadn’t done any. Yet the next day he had an official-looking form with details of all the volunteering he’d done, at the food bank, dog pound, etc., signed by his friend. Damned if he didn’t sell it.
Kelsey was in middle school at T.H. Rogers. The kids there didn’t have much time in between classes so they usually left their lockers open–the lock was on but not clasped shut. Mysteriously, the locks were disappearing. So one day the authorities looked in Kelsey’s locker and found a huge chain of locks. Of course since they were locked together they were worthless. How could I get mad at him about that?
So I’m at Kelsey’s HS graduation. In the program the kids are listed with some basic stuff, including what they wanted to do as a career. Kelsey listed “Astronaut.” I was surprised they let him do that. At any rate, I never said anything about it to him. But in truth, it gave me a good laugh and I was proud of him for it. He had an amazing and wicked sense of humor, and I’m going to take credit for much of that. Kelsey Schmelsey.
Kelsey was in 7th Grade, I think. I got a call from the Commissars at T.H. Rogers. Kelsey had been suspended. He was on a computer at school and ordered tens of thousands of dollars . . . of instruments. He made up a credit card number and used the neighbor’s address. The music company called the school and it was easily traced back to Kelsey. I used to tell him he better not go into crime–he’d have been the guy who leaves his wallet at the bank when robbing it.
So one day when Kid Blast was maybe 8 or 9 I come home and walk in and I see this little white boy with headphones on bouncing to the beat and he’s singing, “cause just yesterday them fools tried to blast me/Saw the police and they rolled right past me.” I busted a gut laughing. Kelsey as Ice Cube.
I don’t know that Kelsey liked Sinatra, but I know he heard him. Growing up in an Italian or Sicilian-American family in the 70s, you couldn’t avoid it. And it might be corny to use this song in a tribute. It’s the most-played music at funerals and memorials. But there’s a reason for that. This was our “national anthem,” as FAS said. It’s defiant and honest. As cheesy as it might be, it was a guide, a way to live, a Sicilian tao, for a bunch of working-class kids in a struggling community in northeast Ohio. And Kelsey really did live that way. Christ, I wish he’d have listened to me once in a while; he always said “you don’t understand” when I tried to give him a life lesson, about guns or authority or whatever. I had a pretty good working relationship with my dad–sure we got on each other, but he was a consigliere to me. I knew when to listen to him, and he was the only person I’ve ever truly, unconditionally trusted. He was a man of honor, the real kind, and he always had my back. I had the role with Kelsey but he made it hard. He was much more Santino than Don Corleone (indeed, I floated Santino as a name for him and him mom quickly vetoed it). But if you have to go through your whole life in only 21 years, you better make it count, and he did. His way.
I dragged Kelsey out to far-too-many of my events–demos, protests, teach-ins, talks, interviews, radio show tapings, etc. He actually was pretty good about going to these things, and for a period of time really enjoyed it. As anyone on the Left knows, there’s a group of usual suspects who show up at all your events. For over a year a guy came to everything we did and afterwards always came up to talk to me. He was “unusual” let’s say. He weaved an intricate tale of how the CIA was after him. Had something to do with being a pool shark, the OJ murders, and orgies. And then he’d always explain how the CIA was conducting surveillance on him–they’d put tracking technology on his car, literally wore tinfoil hats, and put satellites in his dentures to follow him around. Kelsey LOVED that guy and would talk about him for days after every time we met him.
I’m able to think of Kelsey and laugh and smile, Some of his antics, like those I’m mentioning here, really did reflect on who he was. But mental health issues can be so goddamned pernicious. When his chemistry was off and the neurons weren’t popping in sync, he could be so dark and anguished. It would be easy to remember him mostly by his last act, but there was so much more than that. He did create magic . . .
Now as I look around, it’s mighty plain to see/This world is such a great and a funny place to be/Oh, the gamblin’ man is rich an’ the workin’ man is poor/And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore
Kelsey was a throwback. He really didn’t belong in 21st Century Texas USA. It’s a cruel and angry place and it accelerated his worst problems. I called him every day, with insane frequency if I couldn’t get hold of him and I was worried. He had so much trouble living on his own, navigating through the perils and venom of life that we all have to accept. When he died, a ton of his stuff was missing and he had a bunch of stuff, clothing, etc. that belonged to others. He coulda been a modern hobo. He really didn’t have a home, but damned if I didn’t try.
Kelsey looked like hell the last time I saw him. He was weary. It was a Sunday. On Thursday he was gone. I talked to him the night before and he seemed to be in a good mood. We talked about going to the casino in Louisiana for spring break, which would start that week. A lot of people have asked me if I’m mad at him and I don’t get that question. I’ve never contemplated being angry. He thought he needed out, that it was never going to get better. I knew him every day for 21 years and change. Kelsey didn’t talk about how he felt and he didn’t understand nuance. It was either good or bad, live or die. And March 11th was apparently a good day to die. It was an act of compulsion, surely nothing he planned. Kelsey far far too frequently just acted, he was “pure id” I’d say, and didn’t think of the outcome the consequences. He just did, he just was. Every day since 3/11/10 I wake up and for a nano-second I’m in a transitory state between emptiness and sentience and he’s still here, but then, every fucking morning, it hits me that he’s gone. And now so are Langston and Ginsberg, the dogs he loved and tormented, and many of the people I’ve loved in the last few years. So many people are gone. Bertolt Brecht’s poem “To Those Born After” always hits me. It’s so potent. So I can’t be mad at Kelsey, and I think of a time when things will be better, though I don’t really see it coming. And when that does happen I’ll think of him with forbearance and hope others do the same for me.