There was a retro-red diner table in the right corner just before the insubstantial wall segregating the women’s bathroom from the opaque air—as I’m re-etching this scene, I’m distracted by the memory of a melancholic collage sprawling the wall adjacent to my corner table. The image was of a naked woman cloaked in dense shadows, hunched like a question mark, cupping her chin in her hand. I always found it a befitting portrait, no more displaced than the regulars who lit their first cigarette of the morning in this sanctuary for solitude, appropriate murals for an asylum of lonely people.
Pete arrived shortly after I had situated myself in what became my perfect corner refuge and scattered my ritualistic array of 85-cent coffee, composition books and inspirational poetry—Nikki’s Black Feeling Black Talk Black Judgment, Neruda’s… anything. My memory recalls this balding, unshorn white dude lancing over and hovering a bit before asking to share my table, a perch at which he’d performed his own writing rituals countless mornings before. It was then that Peter Eichenberger began to influence my vision of the world through Cup A Joe’s smoke-laden lens.
We talked about North Carolina State University, where I was then a student skipping class to write poems in dingy coffee bars. Our easy dialogue ran the gamut of personal resumes, southern anecdotes, relative weirdocities and the tiny details of wronged worlds. So inspired, I penned a rusty little poem called “The Night We Won the Game” in the midst of my very first conversation with Peter:
The town in the city/ is the running man’s home place/is the sidewalk that sleeps/ with its eyes awake…
Subsequent mornings overlapped late afternoons, and we continued dissecting Hillsborough Street through conversations and lukewarm coffee, snatches of homelessness, pitchers at Sadlack’s, and promenades down back alleys once designated mandatory thoroughfares for Raleigh’s late-night black folk.
Who knew from that first encounter, sitting there, listening eagerly to Pete’s political waxing and hypnotic inquisition into the woman I hoped to be, we would spend the next couple of years navigating the nuances of our Hillsborough Street, beginning each morning with a warm corner cup of joe, my dear friend and I, ending up places I had passed many times on my own reticent strolls, but, would’ve never guessed I belonged.
I was living in those apartments on Peace Street whose flaked white paint reminded me of an insane asylum in daylight and foamy, half-brush teeth at night. Pete came over with some brand of cheap beer, maybe PBR, maybe two deuce deuces of it, and a tightly wound joint. We smoked, drank and began listening to Sketches of Spain when Peter got the notion to listen to the album with the lights out, which I confirmed as an inspired idea. Concierto de Aranjuez and Will O’ the Wisp making Raleigh mysteriously dissipate as Pete and I sat side by side, eyes closed atop an already pitch darkness engulfed by something so near to peaceful, it was more present than any now I’d ever felt.
Although we were both the types whose minds were forever racing, ranting, romanticizing, deconstructing, demolishing, resurrecting, everything except the shrill symphony piercing us, we lay urgently still. Remnants of that evening showed up in a line of a poem I wrote called “Slick Shit”:
Sketches of Miles in Spain shellac/ slapping me into jazz dripping epiphanies/ I know why them jazz cats found the dragon/ the music was in they bones/ they was on fire…
Many are remembering Peter as a thought-and-anger-provoking scribe who wielded his pen like a preacher of everyman sermons stepping down from the pulpit to break bread with his likenesses. There was no middle ground with Pete, which explains the exaggerated degrees of affirmation and ridicule he received as a journalist. As a friend, Pete possessed just as many dimensions, yet his extremities began at the simplest, most sincere point of love’s intent and extended to its greatest expanse.
From Pete, I learned that love is not something to deposit in some future reserve; make it gritty, raw, tender, impassioned, urgent, now. Wear it in your furrowed face, on your tattered sleeve; it should be steeped in every sentence of dissent, applauded in every conspiracy uncovered, every barely measurable triumph. Love, the kind Peter built, should pervade every significant thing that begins in a perfect corner but refuses to remain there.
There will be a memorial for Peter Eichenberger 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 4 at the Murphey School Auditorium, the home of Burning Coal Theatre, located at 224 Polk Street. Read Indy photographer D.L. Anderson's reminiscence here.