On John Ross 1938–2011

Wes Enzinna

Before John Ross died this January, he asked his family and friends to do the following with his ashes:

Scatter them along the #14 bus route in San Francisco’s Mission District, where Ross lived on and off for much of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Sprinkle them in the ashtrays in front of the Hotel Isabel in downtown Mexico City, Ross’s home base from 1985 to 2010.

Mix them with marijuana and have them rolled into a spliff to be smoked at his funeral.

A certain half-baked logic ran through much of Ross’s life and writing. For a few years during the Carter era, as he recounts in his (mostly true) memoir Murdered by Capitalism, he spent his afternoons drinking Gallo wine and smoking pot and PCP in the Trinidad cemetery in Humboldt County, California. It was there that he met the ghost of Edward B. Schnaubelt. An immigrant, lumberjack, and anarchist who was shot dead by a neighbor in a dispute over land in 1913, Schnaubelt became Ross’s drinking buddy (in the book, he comes to life after Ross spills wine on his grave) and is his perfect foil: for 300 pages, the duo trade booze and blurry memories of Emma Goldman, the Weathermen, and the Zapatistas, sprawled out in the shadow of a tombstone that reads, “e.b. schnaubelt, born 1855 died 1913, murdered by capitalism.” The symbolism of the setting—a graveyard of American radicalism—is as heavy-handed as the truncheon wallops both men boast of receiving. But the epitaph serves as a crafty synecdoche for the failed history of the Old and New Left that Ross and Schnaubelt tell together, and the memoir is a winning account of myriad lost causes.

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