You were the ultimate four-leaf clover: one of a kind, unique, original. You started out afraid of that because of your environment. Not everyone understood. But I did.
When you first arrived on the island of misfit toys I embraced you with both arms because you sparkled, quite literally. I remember the night we met nearly two decades ago. My eyes lit up in the fire of your presence and I think you saw your reflection in them the way you deserved to be seen – a rare beauty, an individual – because we became fast friends.
You were crazy, I was crazy, but you never made me feel anything less than normal, our normal, the gorgeous anomaly of four-leaf clovers. Your imagination and creativity were so much fun to be around. You were the best kind of different.
Your wit and humor, curiosity, intelligence — our conversations lasted deep into the night. And even the tears and heartache, the inevitable costs of life, were somehow less painful in your company. When things got difficult we used to go “dance it off,” which often included recreating the famous lift scene in Dirty Dancing. That was always like a big hug to each other.
For a time, you lived in a stretch limo parked in my neighborhood. Life wasn’t always glamorous, or easy, but your persona belied that when you took the stage. I was an amateur photographer and occasionally accompanied you to performances. One night at a dive bar I captured you in a series of three photographs in the moments before you stepped before the crowd.
Standing on a dirty basement stairwell applying the final touchups to your makeup in the glow of an exposed red lightbulb, you braced yourself as the MC announced your alter ego. I called the triptych “Ten Seconds to On,” since in that brief set of exposures you revealed an emotional rawness that didn’t need a caption. And then, just like that, your smile and talent took over and the audience wasn’t the wiser about what lay beneath the layers of your life.
You were always so much better than the dive bars, but you treated the souls that gathered before you as though they were front row patrons at Carnegie Hall. You were a star. You were their star. You gave them a show and entertained. I’ve never taken a performance, of any kind, for granted again. You both awed and humbled me with your resilience and grace, even when people were less than kind.
One night we went to The Duplex in the West Village so you could enter a drag competition and make more than just a few bills tossed at your feet. At the last minute you had a change of heart and showed up clean faced in jeans and a t-shirt.
You declared you were there as yourself, as Austin, and would not be lip-synching, but instead performing acapella without costume. They resisted at first, but you persuaded them to reluctantly include you in the lineup.
They made you go last and the rowdy room was less than enthusiastic with your bland appearance. But all that changed as you held the mic — and their attention — and transformed before their eyes. You had a way of reaching people with lyrics and storytelling. Your voice was soulful and haunting, but also profoundly moving. It was your story, but it was all of ours, because you cared so so so much.
I’ll never forget the song you sang (“What Happens When The Heart Just Stops” by The Frames) and the feeling in every note, pause and refrain. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like that and I still think of you whenever the first few chords begin to play. No one will ever sing it like you did. You brought the entire room to tears and left with the $100 prize. No costume, no makeup, just you. I was so proud.
When we left it was raining, but we skipped like kids all the way back to the East Village. All your life you tried to fit in, and not fit in, but really just figure yourself out. That night you were everything you wanted to be, and accepted for it. You were free.
I know you are at peace now, but I am filled with sorrow at the realization I won’t see you again in this life. I hope you know how loved you were and that you will always occupy a huge place in my heart. Goodbye, Austin, beautiful friend and forever a four-leaf clover.