Saturday, May 28, 2011

James McCaffry: 1954-2011

A fond farewell, my dear friend

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And, until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

                         – Traditional Gaelic blessing

“James is dead.” That’s what the voice in my head has been repeating periodically since the afternoon of Saturday, May 21st, when I first heard the devastating news—and every time those ethereally-inaudible words eviscerate my consciousness, my heart cries out and my eyes bleed tears, instantly turning my face into a flesh-and-bone Greek tragedy mask. How do you say goodbye to someone you love who’s already gone? In the face of that haunting question/koan, I feel not only heartbroken but utterly soulbroken.

James was my friend for almost five years. We met when we both worked at In Defense of Animals (IDA) (he as a photographer/graphic designer/art director, me as a writer/editor) and we remained friends and creative collaborators even after we’d both left the organization in 2008. In some measure that was because we live(d) in basically the same San Francisco neighborhood, so it was a quick-and-easy 10-minute bike ride to his place. Yet our friendship was based on more than just geographical proximity: it blossomed and flourished because we shared so many common interests, values and passions—and, perhaps most importantly, a mysterious connection that can’t be described or defined (except perhaps by a poet, which is something I am not), but only known and felt.

That emotional and spiritual connection I shared with James resonates like an electrical pulse throughout my very being now even though he, the man, has departed this world. While mere words cannot convey who James really was when he was alive, I can share the memories and impressions of him that remain with me still. I will certainly always remember James for the rest of my days, and hopefully my experiences of him will stay with me just as long. Yet I feel compelled to express them in some form now while my feelings are still so raw and images of James flash like sunbeams through my grief-clouded mind. I will therefore tell here of the different sides of James that I knew best: the friend, the artist, and the animal lover.

James, My Friend

James and I generally hung out together about once every week or two, mostly either in his Lake Street apartment (with a stunning picture-window view of the Golden Gate Bridge), or at one of the local beaches (usually Baker—his “power spot” where we are holding his memorial on Saturday, May 28th at 6:00pm). We often watched the sunset as the waves of the Bay lapped the shoreline, with the verdant Marin Headlands and dazzling span of the Golden Gate Bridge as backdrop. It was a perfect spot for escaping the hyperwired urban grid, appreciating nature’s mystical beauty, and (for James) photography. He’d drink cheap canned beer (Bud or Tecate 24-ouncers) and I’d sip at least equally-cheap red wine from my stainless-steel thermos with the screw-off cup-cap. James was a good drinking-and-cigarette-smoking buddy: an emotional rock and a good listener who was always ready with support, encouragement, wise counsel, or a spontaneous joke to lift my mood.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have set a better, healthier example—it might’ve helped save James’ life. On the other hand, in fairness to my conscience, it probably wouldn’t have made any difference in his lifestyle choices. James was stubborn to the core about doing whatever he pleased. In my defense, I did often bring him hearty homemade vegan vittles prepared in my own kitchen: mason jars filled with lentil soup, minestrone and chili that he raved about. He liked my cooking so much that he said I should start my own vegan food line, and that he would design the labels. More of this food would have improved James health: he was really skinny, and several weeks before his death some of our mutual friends who hadn’t seen him for awhile remarked  that they’d noticed significant weight loss and were worried about him. I suppose I didn’t notice because I saw him on such a regular basis, and the physical changes took place gradually.

Nevertheless, I was still essentially an enabler, especially given the fact that James had been hospitalized in 2007 for heart problems. When I visited him at SF General with our friend Mark, James was haggard and unshaven, wearing one of those flimsy aquamarine medical gowns, bedridden with a clear plastic tube feeding drugs into his arm. He looked so small, so frail, and I remember seeing him then, for at least a moment and for the first time, as a transient entity. But even though his body was depleted, James was mentally energetic and excited to see us, so my awareness that he could actually die quickly faded. Anyway, I would certainly choose to do things differently if given the chance, but I’m not feeling guilty per se: James is gone, and theres nothing I can do now to bring him back. Besides, James was an adult, a free agent as it were, and he had a perfect right to make his own choices about how to live. We had a traditional “guy” relationship: I tried to respect his boundaries and not interfere with his free will as a human being, and he treated me the same. 

Born in 1954, James was also about 15 years older than me, so he was essentially from a different generation, and that might have influenced the interpersonal borderlines we staked out with one another. Yet our age difference didn’t prevent us from forging a close brotherly bond: if anything, it added a profound cultural/historical dimension to our relationship that intensified my interest in his storied past. A native Canadian, James arrived in San Francisco in 1977 at the tender age of 22, so I was enthralled by his animated anecdotes recounting the exhilarating days of early SF punk and other watershed events that I am far too young to have experienced myself. It might sound cliché, but James’ life experience was etched into his face like the crags of a mountain range are worn by millennia of glacial drift and shifting seasonal cycles. 

James was a passionate music lover with wide-ranging, genre-defying tastes and a particular love for jazz, American roots, 60s psychedelic rock, modern-classical, and world music. In fact, he earned a degree in Music from Grant MaCewan University in Edmonton right before moving to the states. We went to many concerts, festivals, street fairs, and other events together to groove on live music. We saw Iggy Pop’s 60th birthday concert at the Warfield with his good friend Louise, Steve Earle at the Palace of Fine Arts, and a host of major stars and legendary performers at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park over the years. “Ears wide open,” he once told me. James turned me on to so much sublime music—Spearhead, John Adams, the Decemberists (and the list goes on). His musical knowledge was so vast that I was delighted when I could blow him away with some great album he hadn’t heard before—like Johnny Cash’s “Unchained,” John Zorn’s “Naked City,” or Lou Reed’s “New York.”

Speaking of which, James was fascinated with New York City. The Big Apple’s a bit too maddeningly frenetic for my fragile constitution, but I think my being originally from New York (well, Long Island, anyway) earned me some street cred with him. Even though James was a Canook, he had a distinct “Noo Yawka” air about him, which might be one of the reasons we got along so well. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy: honest and direct, stoic but secretly thin-skinned, yet also exceedingly kind, generous and empathetic. It’s a rare combination, and perhaps why he was able to make so many friends in diverse social circles. I mainly knew James as an animal advocate, visual-creative force, and nature lover: but he was also immersed in the worlds of avant-garde art, jazz and blues music, Irish-Americanism, and more. Though I know some of James’ friends personally, I only heard tell of the many others he knew (and who knew him) in different contexts: people I am sure are amazing in their own rights, and could illuminate other facets of his unique personality and essence.

James the Artist

James had over three decades worth of experience as a photographer, graphic designer, and art director. In the late 70s and early 80s, he created posters and programs for the San Francisco Ballet, and worked as the art director for a newspaper called City Arts Monthly. He also designed dozens of covers for blues and jazz albums by the likes of John Lee Hooker, Holly Near and Billie Holiday. By sheer chance, he was the last person to take professional photos of Jerry Garcia at the legendary Greatful Dead guitarist’s Marin County home before he died in 1995. Although he was highly respected as a visual artist by those he worked for and with, James never made the kind of money a talent such as his should have brought him. In the last two years of his life especially, after he resigned his position at IDA and the Great Recession hit, he struggled financially to make ends meet.

"Soul Food-For-Thought" promotional brochure
I was privileged to be one of James’ most constant creative collaborators over the past few years. We worked on projects together at IDA, and then later for others such as vegan bodybuilder Kenneth Williams and the International Fund for Africa. The most thrilling aspect of teaming up with James was seeing his powerful images and professional design exponentially enhance the impact of my mere words. We strove to develop an integrated holistic style that blurred the distinction between textual and visual content, and highlighted the substance of what we wanted to express. This was only possible because we were essentially on the same creative wavelength; a state of mutual congruity that has unfortunately been the exception rather than the rule in my professional career. Perhaps this resulted from us both drawing creative inspiration from similar and often shared sources—music, literature, art, film, nature, and life itself. We talked a lot of shop, incessantly expounding on the mechanics and metaphysics of our respective crafts, which is sadly something I rarely get to do with anyone else.

I’m extremely gratified that James often expressed his respect and admiration for my writing, especially since I valued his intelligence and insights so highly. His assessment of my work was all the more meaningful for the fact that he would honestly tell me his opinion. There were times when I’d ask him what he thought of something I’d written, and he’d say something like “It’s OK, but it’s not your best work.” I took his feedback seriously because it helped me grow as a writer, and I prefer people who don’t pull punches to those who say what they think you want to hear. Truthfulness is the mark of a trustworthy friend and true creative peer.

Ark magazine cover
I believe that James’ dream was to be the art director of his own magazine. He therefore produced a beta issue of Ark, an animal rights imprint, but it never gained any traction. After that, we drew up a prospectus and financial plan for another proposed publication called The Vegan Age, with him as art director and me as editor-in-chief, but that too failed to attract investors. We’d also tried somewhat half-assedly to start a small two-man communications business together for more than a year, but it never got off the ground because neither of us had any pragmatic entrepreneurial skills whatsoever. Nevertheless, James came up with the name “Propeller, Ink.” and I had a whole convoluted explanation for why I thought it was cool. Ultimately, we completed numerous projects together, many of them on spec, and I’m rightfully proud of what we accomplished together.

James the Animal Lover

On their website, IDA posted an obituary about James that I wrote focusing on his history with the organization and some of the influential work he did for the animal rights movement. We had many spirited discussions about animal issues, with James expressing righteous outrage over ongoing atrocities like the annual Japanese dolphin slaughter, the barbarity of primate experimentation, and his own Canadian countrymen’s clubbing of baby harp seals for their fur. But James’ affinity for animals was most evident in his love for cats, especially his beloved feline companions Luna and Bobcat.

Luna was truly James’ cat. When I (or anyone else I think) would visit his apartment, Luna would usually hide away, or at best let me pet her head at arm’s length. But she would meow for James’ attention and affection, scratching the fabric of his dilapidated tan armchair and hopping up into his lap. Luna is a tiny cat, 12-years-old, with swirly black-and-silver marble patterns adorning her luscious coat. One day, a co-worker from IDA named Max came over James’ apartment with his mellow old shaggy dog. Luna seemed a bit freaked out, but also curious about the copasetic canine guest. Max was clearly taken with Luna’s delicate beauty and princessesque bearing, dubbing her “The Elizabeth Taylor of Cats”—a moniker that James thereafter took up.  

James also fed a colony of feral cats in his apartment building’s courtyard for several years. Last year, when only one feral remained, James took “Bobcat” into his home. A large, muscular tabby with bright-orange striped fur, Bobcat earned a special place in James’ heart through her sweet and gentle nature. However, even living indoors, she still spent at least half her day outside, and was, sadly, not exactly gentle with the rodents and other small prey she hunted (according to the tales of tiny horror James recounted to me). She was always kind and accommodating towards Luna, though, and freely affectionate with any human visitors. James therefore theorized that, rather than being born feral, Bobcat must have once had human guardians who perhaps abandoned her when they moved away. Yet he couldn’t conceive of how anyone with a functioning heart could ever leave such a loving cat behind.
James expressed his love for his cats creatively every New Year with cards featuring fabulous photos of his feline friends. While Luna was slow to warm to Bobcat, who she perhaps felt had encroached upon her territory and usurped some of her guardian’s affections, the two are now close companions. James’ good friend Colleen is currently seeking a permanent home for both cats so they can continue to be together—which is especially important now that they no longer have James. (Editor’s Note: Soon after this writing, James’ cousin in Oregon adopted Luna and Bobcat.)

Colleen told me that Bobcat went missing after 
James’ death, but unexpectedly returned to the apartment a few days later. As Colleen and members of the McCaffry family stood in the living room, Bobcat elocuted a plaintive, heartrending cry while staring at the chair where James often sat. Shy Luna had hidden from human visitors since James’ death, but came into the living room when she heard her feline friend wailing, and the two kissed noses, comforting one another. Clearly, both Bobcat and Luna miss James just as much as his human family and friends do. He loved them dearly, and they continue to love him, mourning his absence and perhaps even understanding that he is gone.  

The Last Time I Saw James…

…was on Thursday, May 12th, just nine days before he so suddenly passed away. He was tasked with walking his friend’s dog, Francis, and called me to ask if I wanted to meet him at the Rose Garden in Golden Gate Park around 4:30 that afternoon. The garden being close to my apartment, I arrived on time, but James wasn’t there. I walked around for about 45 minutes, and just as I was heading back home James showed up with Francis in tow. He apologized for being late: some unexpected delays, as happens with everyone sometimes. James was eccentric in his refusal to own a cell phone, so he couldn’t get in touch with me when he wasnt at home. I said no problem. I recall just being really glad to see him. It was cloudy when I’d first gotten to the garden, but sunny by the time James and Francis arrived.  

James and I sat down on a bench amongst the brilliantly-colored flowers that were already in bloom, as Francis immediately tumbled onto his back and writhed with canine pleasure in the grass. After his roll in the blades, Francis begged for some biscuits by placing his paw on James’ knee, first whimpering while tilting his head, then barking his demands loudly. James gave him some treats and explained to Francis that there weren’t that many, so he should savor them. Yet Francis seemed to swallow the bone-shaped goodies whole without so much as chewing. We then gave him a tennis ball that lay on the ground nearby, and that vice-jawed dog literally tore it with gleeful abandon to fuzzy rubber shreds (which we gathered up so he wouldnt swallow them).

As we sat, James drinking beer and me sipping wine, we talked about a project that we were planning. James had recently done a photo essay as a volunteer for the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association documenting the city’s historic fireboats. He’d ridden on the Phoenix just weeks before, and had tentatively arranged a fireboat ride for both of us so that I could interview the seafaring firemen and he could shoot more photos. We planned to turn the results into an article for one of SF’s lifestyle or travel magazines, or a promotional booklet for the fire department. He was very excited about all this, and promised to set a date for our nautical voyage in the very near future. Fittingly, Francis was the dog of a woman named Kaki who worked at the Maritime Association and had befriended James. Francis even wore a bandana around his neck decorated with little flags from all the nations’ oceangoing vessels.

After a couple of hours, we started home through the Redwood grove that borders the Rose Garden and stretches three city blocks eastward. It just so happens that this is my most customary outdoor spot for reading, writing and relaxing (and where I am right now as I write this on my laptop). As we walked, Francis frequently stopped to sniff the ground and mark selected territory as his. Francis is an older dog, a Golden Lab with hip dysplasia (an ailment that is somewhat endemic to dogs of that breed as they age), so he walks slowly with a bit of a limp. Sensitive to animals’ nature and individual needs as he was, James patiently waited while Francis explored the woods along the footpath, never dragging him away before his canine curiosity was quelled. “Dogs’ sense of smell is so much stronger than ours,” James observed. “They experience the world through scent, and know things about it that we can’t even imagine.”

At the corner of Cabrillo Street and 10th Avenue, James and I said our final goodbye. James always had a flair for goodbyes…or at least farewells. Whenever we’d part ways after hanging out, his voice would turn noticeably warmer, softer, and he would say something like “We’ll talk again real soon,” or “We’ll get together again real soon.” It always made me feel good about myself, that a person of James’ character and caliber wanted to talk to me, spend time with me. He always meant what he said, too—he wasn’t one to fake feelings or exchange false sentiments—so I know that his words were genuine.

James & Smokey at "Jerry Day"
The last time I spoke with James was around noon on Thursday, May 19th—less than two days before he died. I phoned him asking if he wanted to hit the beach later that day, the weather being fairly nice, even if a bit chilly. He said he’d like to, but he was too busy with work, or trying to hustle up some jobs, but would call me if he could get enough done to spare a couple of hours for fun. Otherwise, he said he’d spoken with the fire department, and was close to finalizing a date for our fireboat trip: it would be in the next week or two. There were no discernible traces of sickness or encroaching mortality in his voice: he just sounded like the same old familiar James to me. After making tentative plans to hang out over the weekend, we said goodbye, he with his trademark farewell phrase: “We’ll get together real soon.”
This, James, is my final goodbye to you. As an agnostic, I neither believe nor disbelieve in a God or an afterlife. It therefore doesn’t seem altogether unreasonable to at least hope that someday, some way, my friend, we’ll meet up once again.

If you too knew James, I encourage you to click on the "comments" link directly below and 
write your memories of and tributes to him. 


  1. Mat,
    What a loving portrait of James. He was a kind, gentle person and will be greatly missed by many.

  2. A beautiful tribute, my friend, and you will see each other again. Remember how James loved
    listening to "Dark Side of the Moon?" (But not
    while watching "Wizard of Oz," oh no.) James
    was often quite funny, with a deadpan style.
    I'll miss his jokes.

  3. jeff roth2:01 PM

    Thank you Mat,

    I too had the great opportunity to have a close working relationship with James. It was thru the mid 70's and eighties.

    Your descriptions of his soft and gentle nature and sincere way of being are very accurate and moving.

    Our creative projects covered a lot of ground - before he was an accomplished photographer in his own right, he used a dance photo of mine for a magazine cover. I used him to design my company logo and ads, and posters for an African worldbeat band I managed at the time (Joni Hastrup and the Africans). He brought the punk band The Offs to my studio and produced some recordings there, and he designed a magnificent album cover (yes, as in vinyl) for a Reggae artist I worked with, Earl Zero (Visions of Love).

    It was the days of flowing cocaine, studio parties and roots reggae shows.

    As you say, he was great to work with, party with and to relax and talk with.

    I was shocked to see his photo on the IDA website. This was a connection I was not aware of. Our paths could have very well crossed in the IDA offices. I have been friends with Dr. Katz and IDA for a couple of years now, mostly dealing with the Wild Horse issue, producing videos that detail the legal cases IDA has brought against the BLM.


    This would have been another subject my friend James and I could have commiserated about.

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful and insightful reflections on the man and his art.

    jeff roth

  4. Dear Jeff:

    I'm so glad you posted your memories of James here because as I was writing this tribute to him, I was very aware that there were many things I DIDN'T know about James, and that only others who knew him would. The Offs was something he did talk about: he's the one who turned me on to them (through their "Live at the Mabuhay Gardens" release). But I didn't realize he actually PRODUCED some Offs recordings!

    Also, I just added a note to the end of my blog post encouraging people who knew James to leave comments. James had an army of friends, and I hope that many of them will write their memories & tributes so that people can get to know James better -- whether or not they knew him while he was still with us.


  5. Anonymous8:33 PM

    Hello Mat Thomas and Everyone,

    I was born in the same year and, as a teenager, grew up knowing James.
    His essential nature remained intact throughout his life and I will always love him as I did back when and will continue as long my memory functions.
    As his friend, I visited him a few times after his arrival in San Francisco in the late 70's.

    This poem is for him/all this soul

    all this soul
    is it actually mine to roam in?
    these shivers applied to tissues
    the heaving of myriad cells of action
    many trails of refraction tangling all views of the sky
    countless notions

    all this soul I feel it
    I name it
    ever so briefly
    the word anchor holds

    all this soul is impossible
    it is a giddy scary deepness
    a fantasy deliciously unreal

    all this soul
    a temptation to make incantations
    to an image deliriously complex

    all this soul
    do I love it?
    or do I just let it love me?

    all this soul
    is a river flooding the streets
    a rampant trespass of logic

    all this soul
    a brave wild flower between snowy rocks
    a starry night as seen in a mirror

    all this soul
    alive between the secretions and the membrane
    benign as a puppy
    it is the sound of the surf in all sweaty dreams

    all this soul
    a devourer of dogma
    a collector of inventions and schemes
    a training manual blowing across a mountain range

    all this soul
    engorged with knowing itself
    larger than life
    how could I ever carry it to it’s final destination?

    Norman MacInnis